As mentioned in my previous post, surfing was the predominant reason we arrived in Ericeira. It very quickly transpired however, that surfing in Ericeira was not going to be like surfing in Biarritz. In fact, for the best part of my first week, I was not sure I was going to be able to surf in Ericeira at all.
November on the Atlantic can be pretty rough. Ericeira is arranged in a series of beaches, none of them terribly big and all of them west facing. There are almost no sandy beach breaks, which means most of the surf spots have reef underfoot. Couple these rocky bottoms with enormous crashing waves and you end up with a pretty unfriendly looking surf spot.
This is a World Surf Reserve, for world class surfers. You only need to look at the names of the surf spots here to know they mean business – Cave, Reef, Crazy Left…the message should have been pretty clear.
Because all the beaches in Ericeira face west, conditions are really important in making the waves surfable. Strong north winds – a common feature of winter in Portugal – will make the waves almost impossible to surf.
Eventually however, we acknowledged that if we were going to be in Ericeira for an extended amount of time we were going to need to surf in Ericeira, and if we were going to do that, we would need help.
Thus followed one of the best decisions we made. We decided to take a class.
We both knew that despite the increase in our confidence from the previous month’s surfing in Biarritz, we were going to need help to progress to the next level. Being confronted with conditions we simply did not know what to do with, our hand was eventually forced and we signed up to Ericeira Surf Center for a class.
The beginner beach in Ericeira is called Matadouro. It could not look less like a beginner beach if it tried. Surrounded by steep cliffs and covered in rocks and reef, the waves are steep and huge as they arrive in from the Atlantic. The spot is also graced with a particularly nasty long bit of reef that sticks out of the water nicknamed ‘O crocodilo’, you’re not so friendly local crocodile. Like most crocodiles, you do not particularly want to run into this one.
As a beginner, you surf the inside of Matadouro at low tide on the right hand side (when looking out to sea). Almost all beginner classes in Ericeira take place at this beach. Because of the steep cliffs, the beach is actually extremely protected – a small lagoon – and the reef, while ominous looking, is flat and smooth. The waves get funneled between ‘o crocodilo’ and the cliffs where they hit the reef and reform into perfect small unbroken lefts.
Matadouro – Surfing the Inside
This means that unlike almost all beginner classes I have taken before, you are not riding white water but already starting to make small drops and riding along the face of the wave when you catch them.
This created a massive change in the way I surfed. Suddenly, I was connecting the rail of my board with the green of the wave, increasing my speed dramatically. As my surfing stance is regular, this spot allowed me to work on my backside, also an entirely new notion to me (to be completely honest, actually steering the board in any which way direction was new for me).
Depending on your level, there are a few take off points. As a complete beginner, you can walk across the reef to a gently peeling left that is probably not much more than knee/thigh height, but still gives you a bit of wall to ride. If you are more confident and have a strong enough paddle, you can go a little further out into the middle of the lagoon. This take off zone usually also yields lefts, but from time to time a perfect right opens up to take you right into the beach. As these waves are reforming waves, it is possible to catch them as they are still white water (meaning you need a less strong paddle) and then drop into them when they reform.
For paddling, there is a channel that runs along the cliff side of the lagoon. This is particularly handy if you ride the lefts the whole way into the shore (you eventually need to jump off the board when you take these waves or you will end up in the rocks) as the paddle back out is pretty effortless. If you ride the rights, it is worth paddling all the way into the cliff in order to make the paddle back out easier, rather than fighting to get through the white water.
To bear in mind
I am given to understand that in summertime, the conditions are nothing like some the wild beltings we endured over the winter, and Matadouro is a calm relaxed spot that surfers of all ages can ride. There are also other beaches that I believe in summertime can be used for beginner lessons, including much more famous Ribeira d’Ilhas or Foz de Lizandro.
It is nonetheless true that most of the beginner classes take place at Matadouro, which means that the spot can get a little crowded. This also means that on a busy day (and the busy days for me were not even a fraction of what they can be in summer) there can be a lot of wayward boards flying around. The atmosphere in the water on days like this is usually fantastic, with everyone cheering others on, but you do spend a lot of time being extremely grateful that people are given softboards when they start.
The other thing to bear in mind is the reef. Because you are surfing the spot at low – mid tide, the water can sometimes seem unnervingly shallow. I am not terribly tall, so I never found it quite as disturbing as some of the taller men did. You cannot surf this spot at low tide without some sort of bootie. When children go out to this spot, they usually wear some sort of protective headgear.
The other thing about this spot is the backwash. On the bigger days, when the lagoon fills up, the waves hit the rocks at the end of the lagoon and ricochet back. This can cause some really powerful waves going away from the shore. It only happens on really big days, but it sure can knock you off your board if you run into it.
The first three weeks at Matadouro, I learned more than I had ever learned surfing anywhere. The conditions were absolutely not ideal, with huge swells making even the serene Matadouro toss and spit angrily, and there was even a day where the class had to be cancelled because conditions were so poor.
But I was suddenly making the progress I so desperately needed to make. It was my first leap forward since being able to actually stand on a board. I attended classes as much as I could, and every night collapsed into bed beyond exhausted, my body almost feverish, only to dream of waves and surfing them.
I cannot say what this spot would be like in summertime, when there may be 15 classes in the water at the same time, but for me, this place allowed me to understand for the first time the meaning of ‘making a drop’ or what is was to ‘trim’. The waves and the instruction allowed me to develop control over my board, as I turned it left and right, trying to make my rides as long as possible and making sure I stayed close to the source of the waves power.
These are skills that I am sure any good surf instructor will coach you on, and the coaches I had were amazing. But, while the instructor told me what to do, it was the waves that let me do it. As far as training wheels go, Matadouro offers just the right balance of comfort and ‘oh hell’ moments to stretch your skill and prepare you for the next step.
If you are more experienced, you can also surf Matadouro on the Outside, which I eventually did. In perfect conditions it can be a fantastic wave, not without their own complications however. But more on that later…
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