From a cliff high above Praia do Amado, along the windswept coast of Portugal, I can see dozens of surfers far below, bobbing like neoprene-clad seals as they wait for the perfect wave.
I’m no expert, but I’ve come to the Algarve region to test my surfing skills. It’s going to be tough. The waves are crashing like steamrollers — they look bigger than anything I ever encountered during a week of surf camp in Costa Rica this summer.
But heck. You know me and adventure — we’re inseparable.
My husband and I have come to this country to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. We’ve wandered through medieval towns, explored ancient, moss-covered castles, tossed back traditional custard tarts and watched the sun set over a sparkling ocean.
But I like the beaches best. My husband has had a hard time prying me away from the crescent-shaped jewels, crowned with high, crumbling cliffs and signs warning visitors not to unfurl their towels beneath them, as they might shed a few boulders.
I’m here today for surf lessons with Algarve Surf School ($50 euros, about $60 U.S.). Our lesson is taking place just up the coastline from Sagres at a charming beach near Carrapateira, where it appears half a dozen classes are unfolding at once. This area draws huge crowds in the summer, but October offers relatively warm — well, Barton Springs warm — water and a lot more space to spread out.
Our instructor, Antoine Badin, reminds me of the French scuba teacher from the comedy "Along Came Polly." He herds our group of seven English-speaking students to a designated spot on the beach, then puts us through warmup exercises like we’re high school students about to play a volleyball game.
At 54, I’m the oldest, but I manage to get my creaky body moving.
We don wetsuits for warmth. Plus, all that sausage casing will protect us from the intense natural exfoliation that could occur when we get rolled in the surf.
Muscles warm, we arrange our boards in a semicircle in the sand. Antoine, blonde dreadlocks flopping into his eyes, first explains the basics of bodysurfing (catching a ride on a wave without a board), then demonstrates, with zero effort, how to climb onto a surfboard and then spring from belly to crouching position once there.
After a few dry runs, he sends us into the surf. First we just wrangle our boards through giant waves. It’s like trying to walk through an industrial-size washing machine while drinking from a fire hose, and I wind up getting whacked on the head. The pain soon subsides, though, and after a few minutes I manage to flop onto my board, belly first, and steer it to shore as instructed.
We rest a bit (bodysurfing in these conditions is exhausting!), and then we head back out to try to actually stand up. The waves lash out at us, and I spend more time fighting the surge than I do on my board. It’s frothier than conditions I’ve encountered in my limited experience.
Then, success. Let the record show that the two oldest folks in the class are the first to get upright.
We repeat that accomplishment a few more times, but the rides are short. In time, I slog my way back to the beach and flop on the sand like a walrus to catch my breath. My husband staggers in a moment later, the bridge of his nose bleeding following a punch from his board.
We gasp but, determined not to let the 20-somethings outdo us, head back into the fray after a few minutes’ rest. The waves are bigger now and breaking closer to shore. It’s hard to catch a ride when they’re crashing so close in.
By 2 p.m., our bodies are finished. We sprawl out flat on the ground, panting. Antoine congratulates us on our accomplishments, and class breaks up.
It’s a day that can only be topped by the perfect meal — fresh caprese salad and bruschetta, which we find on the square in nearby Carrapateira.
We haven’t exactly tamed the waves, but we’ve walked away without permanent damage. And today, in these conditions, I’ll take it.
And hopefully I'll come back for more.
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