Formosa style

Meandering past sandbanks and oyster farms, the journey is as tranquil as the destination. Enjoy the Algarve joins Ricardo Barradas on a Ria Formosa sailing trip to Ilha da Culatra. This fishermen’s island doesn’t have any sort of actual attractions, which is in fact a big part of the attraction. 

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine May 2017


Ask Ricardo Barradas (35), owner of Algarve Cruising Centre, what he likes most about sailing and you’ll be surprised. “Arriving,” he replies, with a big grin. “You were probably expecting something like feeling the wind in my hair while staring out over sea, weren’t you?” He’s right. Although he doesn’t look like a stereotypical sailor boy (for starters: he doesn’t even wear a captain’s hat or blue and white stripy uniform), I was at least anticipating an answer along the lines of ‘spending as much time as possible on the water’. Having a skipper saying his preferable moment is when he sets foot ashore again is almost a bit of a disappointment.  “I’m no real sea wolf,” Ricardo explains. “I don’t like only being out on the ocean.”

He’s not into racing or regatta’s either. “Too much stress and shouting.” Showing off his boat in luxury harbours then? “Nah, the good thing about sailing is that you can do it on the cheap. I tend to avoid fancy marinas like Vilamoura, although they’re good for having a shower.” For Ricardo, the best bit about sailing is the exploring: “I like the cruising part of it. It’s a way of travelling that allows you to find the nicest places. Take Alcoutim, for example: you arrive by boat on the Guadiana river and a few minutes later you’re in the middle of the countryside.” His preferred spot in the Algarve, though, is Ilha da Culatra, which we’ll be visiting today. Ricardo, again with this big smile that makes you wonder whether he permanently has a good time or is just taking the mickey: “Culatra is the least organised spot in the entire world. They drink a lot of beer there; the Culatra inhabitants and their Sagres is like the British and their tea. It’s definitely my favourite island in the Ria Formosa.”

The barrier islands of the Ria Formosa protect the lagoon from the sea and create an eco-system that works as a nursery, allowing little fish to grow. They also protect the sailors from big waves: “The advantage the Ria Formosa has over other places on the Algarve’s coast, is that here you can do courses all year round, even when it storms,” says Ricardo, who’s sailed everywhere from the Balearic Islands to the British Virgin Islands.

As for what makes the Algarve stand out compared to the rest of the world? “The food,” he replies straight away. “Scenery-wise you can’t compare the Algarve to the Caribbean, but the amazing seafood, plus the excellent price/quality ratio make it outstanding.” Ricardo, who was born in Lisbon but moved to Faro with his family, had some lessons in an Optimist as a kid. However, he really only got into sailing when he was 18 and his father bought a boat. “My dad couldn’t sail, so I had to,” he explains. Just like that? “Yes, the wind awareness is hardest to teach and I had that already through windsurfing.” Nowadays, he’s a fully qualified RYA instructor and organises all kinds of sailing and powerboat courses with his company Algarve Cruising Centre.

Although nowhere near the 6 day mile building trips Ricardo also offers, just sailing from Olhão to Culatra feels a bit like an expedition, at least to us newbies. The actual distance is only a few kilometres, the island clearly visible from the city’s promenade. However, we zigzag through the channel, keeping between the green and red buoys to avoid crashing into the sand banks. On the way, Ricardo talks about the importance of keeping all ropes in the boat and how to UV-proof sails, but also about the traditional fishing that’s being done in the Ria Formosa, pointing out the oyster and clam farms. “I like sharing local knowledge about cultural heritage. When I’m sailing on the Guadiana, for example, I explain about all the smuggling that went on between Alcoutim and Sanlúcar.” Although there’s no-one searching for clams at the moment, there’s enough to see if you get bored with just enjoying the sun and the salty air. Seagulls sit on stretches of sand, the sea is thousand shades of green-blue, Ricardo is busy with his ropes and sails, and Olhão’s iconic red brick market buildings get smaller and smaller in the distance.

Arriving at Culatra, we’re greeted by seagull’s cries and fishing locals. Our skipper seems to know everyone on the small island, from the man who’s mending his nets to the couple who’re sorting out oysters on the beach and from the girl trying to sell us homemade bracelets to the woman who he claims ‘bakes the best cakes  in the entire Algarve’. “Once you spend some time here, you get taken up in the community. I’ve spent quite a lot of time here,” smiles Ricardo, to whom the community’s no-nonsense way of living appeals. “People here don’t care about image, clothes or looks. The lifestyle is different; exchange of goods still exists, so fish is traded for vegetables from the mainland.”

Most of the island’s inhabitants live off fishing and have a house either in the village of Farol (on the western side, where the lighthouse is) or Culatra, on the eastern side. There are no cars on the island; tractors that also pull the fishing boats up to shore are the only motorised vehicles found in the sandy streets. Kids race around on their bikes, but adults don’t see the need to rush and take it easy. Time, it seems, is mainly spent fishing, drinking, talking or contemplating life. Ricardo smiles: “Everything goes slow here; slow food, slow conversation.”

Walking along the mix-match of houses that make up Culatra village in order to find a bar, Ricardo explains his love for the island: “It’s not perfect or super beautiful. The pontoon smells of fish and you’ll find garbage lying in the streets. That last thing is a shame and needs to change. It won’t happen anymore with the older generation; they throw their cigarette buds overboard as they think the ocean cleans everything, but the younger people need to get educated. Anyways, it’s not paradise, but this makes it authentic.”

Making our way back to the boat, the sun setting and seagulls sitting on the pontoon create a dreamlike background. Ricardo puts the general feeling of reluctance when it comes to leaving into words: “I feel much more relaxed here; sometimes I even turn off my phone. The island is very quiet, there’s nothing for tourists actually.” Perhaps that’s what makes it so good. No waterparks, shopping malls, organised activities or other entertainment.  Island style, it seems, is about going with the flow. Sometimes literally, if the tides are too strong and there isn’t enough wind. Ricardo agrees: “You can’t rush Culatra, it’s not good. One only needs time to really enjoy this island.”


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine May 2017

Posted in Features, People, Places.