Beach breaks and reef breaks and what I have learned from surfing the sandy bottoms after months of hiatus.
When I started surfing, the thought of surfing reef breaks terrified me. The first time I went to a reef break it was exactly like when I go skating – all I could see was the million ways I could wipe out and smash my head against the rocks. Suffice to say, this was rather distracting, and my surfing was not optimal.
And then I started regularly surfing in Ericeira, where basically all the breaks were reef and suddenly the rocks didn’t bother me. The consistency of the reef break allowed me to map where the waves were going to break on particular tides, which allowed an unparalleled progress. I grew to love the steady reliability of the rock waves, which would break more often than not in long peeling sections. I forgot that anything else existed.
Reef breaks, as their name suggests, have a shore bed made of reef, while beach breaks have sandy shore beds. The reef is unchanging, formed into its shape by thousands of years of elemental forces and destined to stay as such for thousands of years to come. Beach breaks on the other hand, with their sandy bottoms, are always shifting as the ocean collects and deposits sand, creating and destroying sandbanks as it sees fit. The shifting of the sandbanks leads to shifting peaks, as the waves hit the banks and break. They are consequentially less predictable to surf.
And yet, beach breaks are not without their merit. For starters, beach breaks are considerably less intimidating to paddle out into. There is less chance of cuts and nicks, less chances of seriously painful open wounds. The paddle out is, in my own humble experience, less long than reef breaks because the waves are breaking on the beach rather than some buried rocky outcrop off the shore. Because of the shifting sandbanks, there is a fairly good chance that there will be several peaks at one beach, meaning less crowd.
Ericeira does not have many beach breaks, most of the surfing is done at rocky bottomed spots that create exceptional waves to surf. Foz do Lizandro is a notable exception. Although not part of the World Surf Reserve, it is undoubtedly an Ericeira surf spot. The furthest beach south of the town, this is where the oldest surf school in the area is located. Surfing this spot, a beach break, after months of reef breaks was like getting back on a bicycle after years of absence. I wasn’t sure I could do it, wasn’t sure if I remembered how to. I was surprisingly nervous, watching the steep waves break powerfully against the sand. As the take offs at this spot were very steep and fast, we used the beach for a very particular training. It is easy to become spoiled in Ericeira, expecting every wave to be long, and relatively manageable. At Foz the potential of the wave was limited, so we practiced taking off fast, handling the steep drop, and angling the take off immediately. We trained rail grabbing and keeping stable when the wave closes out. The sessions were unexpectedly frustrating. It felt odd to take such short waves, and more scary than I expected to take waves so steep in such shallow water.
To make these waves work, we had to take them almost at the last moment. This is because they roll in as fat bumps in the water, before suddenly hitting the bank, peaking and breaking. It became apparent that while we had been optimising some parts of our surfing over the last months, there were other parts that we still had to work on.
When I was in the Azores it was a similar beach break situation to Foz do Lizandro that I had to contend with. The waves closed out almost as soon as they hit the bank, but there were some waves that if you got the angle right and if you handled the drop well enough, you could ride until your board’s nose was buried in the sand (a pleasant change from the fear of dragging yourself across unforgiving reef if it gets too shallow). The similarities between the two waves really drove home to me the importance of surfing various locations so you can be prepared for anything. Were it not for those Foz moments, I think I would probably have been very overwhelmed by how late the take offs needed to be to make the wave in Azores.
We are now surfing in the West of Ireland, on yet more beach breaks. And while we have at times looked out at messy breaks and thought longingly of the perfect reef formed waves of Portugal, generally we are coming around to these beach breaks. The waves here break further out from the beach than Portugal, giving shockingly long rides for such small waves. Again however these waves need to be taken at the last possible moment before they break. This means finding a balance between bravery, determination and ability. This is partly why the sandy bottom is so reassuring. You need total commitment to surf the wave. And that commitment is certainly not hurt by knowing there is a sandy landing if you fail.
It is precisely this soft landing that has allowed me to rediscover a tremendous fun in ‘just going for it’. The waves have been smaller here and my brain has been less aggrieved by the requests I make of it. The waves may not be consistent or perfect, but when you make one it feels all the sweeter for that. These waves are a lesson in patience and wave reading. And as you wait for the next set to roll in, staring through clear water at the sand below, you are reminded of all the things the sand was before, the stones and shells that have broken down into fine grains over the ages. This is the timelessness of the ocean. This is what you get to be a part of.
A huge thank you to saltyspirit_photography who took the photos of me surfing!