For the next ten days we floated up and down the coast. We were based for a while in Ribamar, a sprawling little village strung along the coastal highway as it loops up through the hilltops. It was a good place from which to explore a long run of scalloped bays with exotic longwinded names: Ribeira D’Ilhas with it’s stone shelf and excellent left point; Praia do Banco do Cavalinho (Pony Bank Beach?) where the rockpools are perfectly round like manholes in the flat rock; Praia de São Lourenço, with smuggler caves high up in the cliffs and a suddenly shelving beach which generates a booming shore break, no good for surfing but awesome scary-fun for children to mess around in. Our favourite bay though was the closest and also the most notorious: Coxos, another of the famous big wave spots of Portugal. It comes with this ominous warning in Surf Europe:
“Coxos is a right-hand point break. Long, fast and furious, the wave is no kindergarten: heavy sections can turn the barrel of your life into a nasty beating. Lots of water running along the rocks make getting in/out of the water a game of patience and know-how…”Surf Europe Magazine
It’s a world class wave and the swell is pumping, so what do the Nicholls do? Well, they paddle out of course! Not on a surfboard though, because they still value life, but just with their little naked feet, in the shallows. It seemed like harmless fun, but when there are giant Atlantic rollers battering the beach, even venturing knee-deep into the water means taking your life in your hands. We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again. That is to say within minutes we nearly lost Arthur, who got totally smashed by a giant wave, properly rolled around in the shingle and then sucked back out to sea underwater. I grabbed a handful of his shorts and yanked him up again just as the lifeguards came running for us and the beach turned silent.
Arthur thought it was hilarious but not the lifeguard. We got an earnest lesson on how to paddle without getting drowned. We felt chastened and we went to sit quietly up on the cliffs to watch some people who knew what they are doing instead.
Watching waves is mesmerising, particularly when they are breaking like this. We spent some hours up there on the cliffs, sitting in the sun, tuning into the ocean. It’s very hypnotic: the rhythm of the swell, the power and force of the break, the subsonic roar, the moment when a huge wall surges up and seems to hang there in the sunlight, the lines and swirls of the waveform clearly illuminated for a moment before it all crashes down in clouds of foam.
There was a whole crowd up there on the cliffs, standing, chatting, photographing, sitting on rocks and camper chairs, maybe sipping beers. We were all watching the surfers (only two!) who had braved it out that day, offering them encouragement, criticism, armchair wisdom. Our kids loved being part of this scene and sat quietly for ages up on the rocks, murmuring appreciatively about a particular face, tutting and pointing out where the surfer should have taken off to get deeper into the barrel, or, best of all, moaning with horror, little hands over their eyes, when our hero got caught inside and took a hammering.
The next day I surf at Praia Azul where it is not nearly as big as Coxos but still worryingly huge and messy. I imagine the audience up on the cliffs, and spend the session with their eyes mentally upon me, gravely critiquing my performance as I get smashed around. I see Matilda peeking through her fingers as I am caught out of position, (“Daddy’s getting a beating, she will be saying!). I hear phantom cheers as I finally catch one after many minutes of drift. I paddle back in after an hour or so and get turned over by the shore break, rolled twice, sucked back out and then dumped upside down on the sand. The comedy finish! Oh, they’ll love that!
The beach is empty, the kids are building a sandcastle and no-one has seen a thing. Menna gives me a casual wave like, oh, there you are!
I take a bow to the imaginary clifftop audience and invite them back to my next session.
We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again:The Tempest. William Shakespeare
And, by that destiny, to perform an act,
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge