Whenever friendly waves hit the northern coast of Madeira, Raquel Robalo, 29, is always there. Her petite figure is easy to spot both in the water far out on the break, and on the beach, colored sunscreen on the face, a cigarette in the mouth. But make no mistake: this girl will catch a wave with only a couple of strong paddles and surf it elegantly down until the shore. Raquel has surfed most of the breaks in Madeira and gives us a tour around. So, here is the surfer’s guide to Madeira.
I started surfing 5 years ago. My boyfriend Dan from Sweden tried to convince me but I could not imagine it. A girl from Funchal – never saw the waves, never heard of surfing in Madeira. But he almost meant it as a condition for our relationship. Never said those words but I knew 🙂 So I agreed. And fell in love with surfing from the first try. The fact that I managed to stand up also encouraged. I stayed in the water for five hours!
Those days we didn’t have a car so we would go by bus to the North coast, Porto da Cruz. I wasn’t working for two years so I would go surfing every day. Didn’t matter good weather or a storm – if I didn’t surf at least I practiced paddling. Surfing makes you dependent on the weather, so not having a job was helpful. Now that I work I surf once or twice a week.
When I was a kid I participated in swimming competitions. And then played basketball. So muscle coordination is there.
Madeira is called the Hawaii of Europe. The waves are strong, the beach is not sandy – not the most friendly spot to surf. But the waves are world-class. Some famous surfers come here. I’ve seen Grant “Twiggy” Baker twice, it is amazing even to watch those guys surf. They buy houses in Madeira.
Porto da Cruz. Alagoa beach
Friendly in the sense of paddling. No currents, you have left and right channels along the rocks depending on the day. Sand bottom.
Swell: I like this beach more west-northwest. Can be northeast, too. The one you don’t want is straight north. You get closeouts and a washing machine.
Porto da Cruz. Maiata beach
Maiata is an open beach: no rocks to protect, you are more exposed to wind. Paddling is more difficult, you have more currents. Wind can break waves. Offshore it is nice but here in the north, it is not very common.
Advantage: The wave is longer. More peaks breaking. More waves to surf even if more people are there. Also, you have a lot of sand on the beach, you can just walk out.
To keep in mind: we call it Quebra Côco – a coconut breaker. Small but very powerful waves breaking on the shore, can smash you down when you don’t expect it.
Works better with the east-northeast. The swell needs to show at least 0.5 m, with some energy, minimum 50. For me, 1 m swell is best. 1.5 m can be a bit too much. The forecast often tells one thing but when the wave hits the bay it gets a bit bigger. I have a love-hate relationship with Machico.
The wave here is more hollow, like a tube. So you have a lot of bodyboarders. I prefer going when water is filling up. No channels in Machico, so you need to go through waves that are pushing you in. Also, most of the time you have off-shore wind. Quite nice, but when too strong, it makes you struggle to catch the wave
In stormy weather in winter, waves come to Praia Formosa. You can surf along the big rock standing out in the sea, but beware: waves hit towards the rock.
Also, you get Quebra Côco, too. One surfer was already going out of the water and a wave took him down. His shoulder popped.
The beach is nice because it is sandy and the bottom doesn’t change. The wave comes along the pier where it is easier to catch. For Seixal to work, the sea has to be stormy.
North-north: just right.
Northeast: if the swell is too big, for Seixal it can be too big as well.
Northwest: can work but has to be big, so that waves could come round the pier.
Waves in Seixal can be small but they are powerful. For me, this beach is like Machico or even worse. Waves break quickly and close to the shore. I don’t like feeling the lip of the wave throwing my board. I prepare to go nosedive, head first and the board hitting me. So I only go when I am confident.
Fajã da Areia, São Vicente
A classic surf spot. Awesome summer waves. The water is clear. One of the most perfect waves you can catch. Because the bottom is rocky, the wave is always the same. Long one – wave after wave after wave. You swim through the channel where the waves never break.
To drop a wave in Fajã, you need confidence. If you have a second thought, you will fail. Here you don’t have time for doubt. Porto da Cruz is more forgiving.
Note: don’t go with low tide unless you are a good surfer, it gets too dry. For me, going mid-high works best.
Swell: People prefer the north-west. The wave is right-handed then. You can go left, but you don’t have a channel to go out. If a set comes, it pushes you down and to the beach.
Be Aware of Sea Urchins
First three times I went surfing in Fajã, I got spikes. I was so angry: the water was low so I could not surf, and I had 20 more meters to walk. Then at home, I thought my body would throw the spikes away, so I was not doing anything. One week later I could not put my feet on the floor. I had to open it and take them out with a needle.
Lesson learned: don’t get out where it is shallow. When the tide is lower, you need to go on the deeper side by board.
If you wear rubber shoes in Fajã, nobody would think you are a pussy. In Porto da Cruz or Machico – maybe. But sea urchins are like a coral reef – you don’t want to step on them.
West coast: Jardim do Mar, Paul do Mar, Lugar de Baixo, Ponta Pequena
I did try Paul do Mar, twice. It is the place where you understand how small you are. And I was on the shorter shoulder of the wave. On the bigger side, 3 m was breaking, like a thunder. I managed to catch one wave. The drop was quite easy – I thought it would be harder. I was scared to look down though: you have rocks in the sea, big ones. Through the wave, you see them moving like through the glass. You don’t get the perception of how deep it is.
Here you get respect for the ocean. I will not get myself into something that I can’t manage.
Swell: these breaks work more in winter during north-west. They are on the corner, so the swell should make an arm and stretch behind the corner.
Achada da Cruz
I tried it once, wasn’t my best experience. You change on the top, go down with a cable car, walk 20 min to the beach. And then you see the waves which seemed only lines from the top of the mountain – how big they are in fact.
I had a panic attack inside which had never happened before. Later I figured out we went on the wrong tide – the swell was going up.
I broke a rib once. Didn’t realize it was broken, maybe when the board hit me it cracked. I insisted surfing the next day, so then I really felt something, could not breathe. But the danger-safety thing is relative. For example, my boyfriend Dan has never hurt himself seriously.
My mom has always told me to be careful. But she was the one who taught me to swim and was with me when I started swimming competitions. So she trusts me.
My colleagues say: wow you must really love it if you make so much effort for surfing. I say: it is like a gym. If you like it, you go. Surfing just takes more time, resources, discipline.
It has quite a bit of flotation. Sometimes I prefer to have less, works 0.5 to 1.5 m. If it is bigger, you can still surf but the board starts to be shaky because it goes too fast. You need to know how to put your feet, change positions. It was made by a local shaper, Billy. The shortest I’ve ever surfed. I have a step up 5’11 at home. In case I go to Paul do Mar again. It is my gun.
Not many girls in Madeira surf, it is true. Sometimes I can get annoyed with the attitude of guys. We are all friends – inside the water or outside. But sometimes in the water, they seem not to be my friends anymore. Don’t go on every single wave, please. Maybe they think they can do it because we don’t surf for so long as them, or that we are not so strong, or that we will doubt. Men are more careless. But for example, I don’t want to ruin their boards. I can surf, too. I drop your wave, you can scream at me after but at least I had the wave.
Surfing Etiquette in Madeira
We like fair play, good attitude in the water towards other people. Don’t be selfish, no one likes it here. Especially if you are a tourist. I heard stories from the past: locals used to grab rocks from the bottom and break other surfers’ boards – you dropping in, you don’t surf here anymore! Now it is more peace and love. But still don’t drop on others’ wavers. Even if you are a pro surfer. You come in the water – say hello, and locals will be ok.
If you want to start surfing
Just go. At least try it once. With a surf school, you will learn faster. But if you have a friend who can teach, it is still going to be fun. Maybe you will not have pictures, or the board will be not best for you. But with a bit of struggle, you will do it. Surf is not easy: a lot of sitting, paddling – you need patience. But you can be a holiday surfer, it is still fun. Not to compete, just going and enjoying yourself with other people.