JUST PASSING THROUGH // PORTUGUESE REFLECTIONS
REEF AMBASSADOR MIKE LAY GIVES A FULL ACCOUNT OF HIS FIRST JUST PASSING THROUGH JOURNEY WITH THE REEF TEAM
Just Passing Through // Portuguese Reflections
I pushed open the conference room door and walked in to lunch, the athletes, production crew and creative team were sprawled across the room, on chairs and on the floor eating cheeseburgers with their hands. It was an eclectic group and a scene of equality, shortboarders and longboarders, competitors and freesurfers, creatives and athletes. Such a diverse collection of people can sometimes cause conflict, especially in the increasingly impassioned arena of surfing with its myriad interpretations and variations of practice. But that first shared lunch acted as an indicator of how the trip progressed. Nobody was above anybody else, nobody was better, the floor was as good a dining table as any.
After acclimatizing to the different cultures within our own group there was the Portuguese culture to content with, this was done in a close, candle-lit bar nestled inconspicuously down a cobbled street in the ancient town of Ericiera. Whilst this was primarily a trip of business, the lines between pleasure were definitely blurred. As the athletes and ambassadors sat and discussed waves and destinations in southern Europe, the creative team lingered in the shadows, capturing smiles and laughs. Sagres flowed on either side of the camera, insecurities were forgotten and stories shared. Whilst not always necessary, a few drinks are a wonderful way of strengthening relationships and so on the first night, bonds were formed.
In the morning the whitewashed cottages of Ericiera gleamed. We walked the uneven road from our hotel to the cove below and sat with the locals. There is a particular peacefulness in simply sitting and being while life goes on around you, and the old folk of Portugal are enthusiastic experts. They sit on harbour walls or beside country roads, like permanent parts of the scenery, skin as brown as bark, weathered as stone. We sat and watched two women swim in a lagoon, listened to their laughs, we watched a man read a newspaper, studying each page, we watched a cyclist jolt across the cobbles.
On a normal surf trip such moments of peace aren't always possible. There is such a narrow focus on being in the right spot at the right time, scoring good waves, that sometimes the surrounding isn't fully appreciated. The necessity of finding and shooting at beautiful and evocative locations meant that we spent more time and effort exploring rather than surfing, we saw some amazing things but any time in the ocean was a bonus especially if the waves were good.
That said we had planned one surfing day at a beach with a variety of options, a barrelling left, a right slab and a more shredable right hand point. Having purchased the filming permit and hired a 1960's Morris van for the shoot we were set for a carefully curated day of surfing and relaxing. Alas it was not to be. On our chosen day there was a body boarding competition spanning the entire beach, we stood and watched as boogers pulled into head high offshore pits and hit lips with spins and wild rotations. Deflated, we tackled the negativity with playful sarcasm and enjoyed the show. We brewed coffee in the back of the van and talked for a while of nothing in particular, watching the spongers flying prone onto dry reef, flippers sticking up, ridiculously, behind their heads. We recovered from the loss of our wave and rallied to surf Coxos, it was a decent size but the wrong tide, we enjoyed ourselves none the less. Mitch surfing close to the rocks, fast and radical, Tia drawing lines with precision and grace.
After surfing we decamped for Peniche, leaving the picturesque for the industrial. I was tasked with driving Morris the vintage van, I was chosen for my British heritage (Morris was a British car manufacturer, now defunct) and my ability to drive a manual car. My co-pilot, who goes by the name of Rugged-Woodsman, and I took the scenic route to Peniche, it more suited to Morris' aesthetic than the highway. We passed tiled farmhouses and drew waves from old boys sat outside bars. Morris roared along charmingly but not at pace. He stalled at every roundabout and none of his gauges worked, no speedo, no oil, no engine temperature and, importantly as it turned out, no fuel level... so it was that we stopped for good on a roundabout a few miles out from Peniche. Fortunately we were right outside a fuel station and out of the way of traffic so the delay was only brief but it was not to be the last of Morris' mishaps and no where near the most dramatic...
Whilst Ericiera's quaint prettiness can sometimes come across as a little too chocolate box, Peniche bustles with year round industry, it is rough around the edges and smells slightly of fish. We spent a day cycling around the old town of Baleal, exploring Peniche and surfing. The waves were small but offshore, perfect longboarding peelers, the line up crowded with wide eyed beginners staring in astonishment as Paige and Victoria flew by, locked high in trim, toes on the nose. In the evening we drank beers and played pool on a rigged table, the corner pockets slightly too small.
The next morning we woke to early alarms, we had an appointment with the boy from Peniche and his charter boat. The boy was born in Peniche to a family of bakers for whom he worked when he was young, but he always dreamt of the sea. He saved money from his job in the bakery and a paper-round until he had enough to buy a small boat to take tourists on pleasure trips. He slowly built his fleet, his local knowledge, hard work ethic and loveable smile proving a winning combination. He is now in charge of a bustling charter service, and this was how he came to take us to the island of Berlengas that morning.
After 45 minutes motoring over a jostling sea we arrived at the rocky, ancient looking island, yellow and orange with a splash of green. We spent the morning at the restaurant and only real building on the island, we drank double espressos and watched fishing boats come and go. After the clouds disintegrated we swam in the harbour with the local boys, they did backflips and showed us where to jump. The boy from Peniche then picked us up and took us to a higher jumping spot. Berlengas sticks straight out of the sea and is surrounded by deep water, perfect for thrill seekers looking to hurl themselves into the ocean. Our spot was close to 50ft and the very limit of our moderate comfort zones, we scrambled up the cliff and, before our brains had the chance to interject, hucked ourselves off into the velvet blue water. The boy from Peniche then delivered us home, smiling the entire trip, and we parted ways. We had one more night in Peniche before heading back south to Lisbon and the chaos of the city.
Having developed a bond with Morris, through our trials and tribulations, I once again volunteered to drive him. But this time was a slightly more ambitious undertaking, the journey would take two hours at Morris' geriatric pace but we were confident he could pull through... we were just three miles from Lisbon when he started to struggle. On the way into the capital there is a long meandering hill, after two miles of ascent and as we were entering a tunnel that cut through the side of a hill, Morris was really struggling. He began to choke and splutter, each yard made meant another inch closer to the end, he fought all the way. With the exit of the tunnel in sight, a golden ring of light, Morris finally gave up, he could go no further. The symbolism of such a resting place was, at that time, lost upon myself and digital manager Tyler. We were stranded, the vehicle we were following gone on ahead in the rushing stream of traffic, cars were screaming around us, slamming there breaks on and swerving out of our way. We were barely visible in the dark tunnel, the catastrophic failure had disabled all our electrics, we had no hazard lights. The smell of burnt rubber and the tunnel's amplified sounds of angry terror stunned us into inaction. For a minute or two we sat and stared, I uselessly tugged on the ignition key, twisting it with futile desperation, until a car came, faster than the rest around the corner and hit his breaks late, his rear tyres weaved as he came towards us, only just catching grip at the last moment and swerving to avoid us by inches. We decided then to leave Morris to his fate and seek safety at the side of the tunnel in some dark alcove. Like this we cowered for another few minutes until flashing salvation came slowly round the corner. A highway worker had come to close the lane that we had blocked, with stoic precision he set out his cones and diverted the traffic from our path. After a brief, unsuccessful, attempt at conversation with us he left to make calls on his mobile phone and we waited another 10 minutes until the final jigsaw piece in the puzzle of our escape arrived. The red crew van rounded the corner and Bruno and Johnny jumped out, a taxi was called for us and we were soon borne away from that hellish tunnel, carried into the gorgeous light. Our version of heaven was less fluffy clouds and blue skies, more strong coffee and cutting edge interior design as we were dropped off at our stylish central Lisbon hotel. We recounted our story to the rest of the group, the first of many recitations of this worthy anecdote.
The final afternoon and evening of our trip was spent wandering Lisbon's beguiling maze of tiled streets. Tight, winding sets of stairs weaved between laundry adorned buildings, we were serenaded by arabic singers and offered class A drugs by shady street dealers. Lisbon ticks with a mix of History and real life, many of the tiled buildings gratified with oversize characters and slogans, not so much a desecration as a blend of cultures. We danced through the night in the city's old red light district, now a melting pot of trendy bars, the occasional strip club paying homage to the area's past. Portugal's set back schedule had finally won us over and bed's were collapsed into in the not so early hours of the morning.
With bleary eyes and stiff bodies the team woke from short sleeps to catch their various flights home. For many travelling is a way of life, not always as exciting as it is for the occasional adventurer, but a trip like this reaffirmed, for me at least, the friendship, community and exploration that travel can yield. All the more impressive given the nature of the trip and proof that, with the right team, business can occasionally be mixed with pleasure.
Words by Mike Lay