Portugal – the watersport nation

Portugal’s biggest asset: the sea. So to all those who want to do something more active than just stay on the beach: get in the water. Enjoy the Algarve gives you an overview of the different water sports that are worth a try in the south of Portugal.

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


The quintessential activity in the water is, of course, surfing. You don’t need more than a board, possibly a wetsuit, and some waves to be happy. Or, as UniSURFity’s founder Jez Browning puts it: “In the water, I can get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life; the ocean is my little sanctuary. The waves here in the Algarve can be exceptional, especially in winter time.” Thousands of surfers agree with him as they come to the southwest Algarve every year, or just live here permanently in their vans (like Charlotte van Berkum) for exactly the same reason: awesome swell.

It’s hard to find a list of ‘best surfing anything’ in the world that doesn’t include some part of Portugal. Whether it’s best surfing region (usually the Algarve), best surfing party town (Lagos, according to National Geographic), best surfing spot (Supertubos in Peniche is included in Men’s Journal’s list of 65 best surf spots in the world), or just best surfing country (Portugal is in Ranker’s top three. In CNN’s world’s best 50 surf spots list, Portugal is mentioned twice. Long story short: it’s the place to be, whether you’re a complete newbie (head to Praia Amado, where several surf schools are located on the beach during season, and get a foamie) or a professional big wave rider like Garrett McNamara looking for the biggest wave of all time (how does a 23.8m monster wave in Nazaré sound?).

Mankind got the idea to ride waves and stand on a board over 3,000 years ago, in western Polynesia. Back then, surfing was seen as a quick and easy way for fishermen to bring their catch back to shore. The original surf boards were made out of big wooden planks, and although nowadays most boards are made of polyurethane or polystyrene foam as it’s lighter and cheaper, near Peniche the Portuguese surfer José Antunes still makes boards out of trees (pictured below). In Hawaii, one of the earliest surf nations, the making of the surf boards out of trees that grew on the island was surrounded by sacred rituals. The Hawaiians are best known for developing the sport of surfing and in the 1960s, the surf culture also spread to other countries in the world.

In Portugal, bodyboarding actually came along earlier than surfing. Probably the oldest surf-type footage in Europe (see Youtube video) was shot in 1927, on Leça da Palmeira beach near Porto. The documentary shows a group of bellyboarders riding white water waves with an alaia, a primitive type of surfboard. Almost two decades later, in 1946, the first bodyboard club was created in the country, in Carcavelos e Parede (Cascais). People would continue to lie on their boards until Pedro Martins de Lima, the pioneer of Portuguese surfing, was the first to stand up while riding the waves, allegedly in 1959. The Portuguese Surf Federation was founded in 1988 and in the 1990s surfing really took off in the southwest Algarve. Now, especially in high season, if there are waves, there’ll be surfers.

And if there are no waves, then you’ve probably gone too far east and are on the wrong beach. At least ‘wrong’ for surfers. Water-skiers or wakeboarders usually prefer a flat ocean. Just as with skiing and snowboarding, first there was the ski variant, (water skiing was invented in 1922 in the USA), followed some decades later by the board. With these sports, you’re being towed behind a motor boat or pulled by a cable and ride on the water surface on your skis or board. Apart from Wake Salinas, the wakeboarding cable park near Lagos (see page 15), wakeboarding and water-skiing is mainly possible at water sport centres on the more touristic beaches that can be found on the Algarve’s south coast, such as Albufeira’s Praia da Oura. That’s also the place for one of the latest crazes: flyboarding. Invented in 2012 by the French water-craft rider Franky Zapata, with flyboarding you’re standing on a so-called flyboard, your feet secured by bindings, and are propelled from water jets below the device. Someone on a jetski controls the power and thus ensures enough water gets pushed through the tubes that connect to your flyboard. The goal? To hover over the ocean.

For other popular water-based activities such as sailing and windsurfing (which, indeed, combines elements of sailing and surfing), there’s no need for propulsion power other than the wind. There is lots of that in the Algarve; in the Sagres area it seems to be blowing permanently. The western coast offers strong afternoon winds (speeds between 13 and 30 knots aren’t uncommon) and calmer mornings. The best months for windsurfing? June to September. It isn’t the most popular water sport in Portugal, but windsurfing centres can be found at Meia Praia (Lagos) and Praia do Martinhal (Sagres). As for sailing; beginners can join lessons and organised trips on several places along the coast (there are marinas in Lagos, Portimão, Albufeira, Vilamoura, Faro, Olhão and Vila Real do Santo Antonio), whereas pros can sail the entire Atlantic Ocean or follow the course of the 15th century Portuguese explorers.

Kitesurfing takes things up a notch and combines wakeboarding and sailing elements, since you’re riding a board while flying a kite. (To be precise, it combines aspects of wakeboarding, snowboarding, windsurfing, surfing, paragliding, skateboarding and gymnastics into one extreme sport. Yes, a serious case of multitasking). Although in the 1800s kites were already used to propel ships on the water, kitesurfing only became mainstream in 1991 and reached Portugal’s shores a bit later, in the first decade of the 21st century. Now, it’s getting more and more popular, seen as a fun activity for when there’s a lot of wind and the waves are tough. The world record for the longest distance travelled uninterruptedly while kitesurfing was set by a Portuguese, Francisco Lufinha, who started in Lisbon and kitesurfed for 874km in the direction of Madeira in July 2015. Almost a year later, in April 2016, the Portuguese Nuno ‘Stru’ Figueiredo was the first kitesurfer to ride the giant Nazaré waves. Near Lisbon, the best beaches for kitesurfing are Caparica, Cacavelos and Guincho (Cascais), whereas popular Algarvian spots can be found near Lagos and Faro. If you’re not that experienced yet, you might want to try in the Alvor lagoon or the Ria Formosa, where the barrier islands prevent you from being swept onto the Atlantic Ocean.

The Ria Formosa is also worth a visit with a canoe, kayak or stand up paddleboard. Whereas canoeing and kayaking have already been around for centuries, SUP was first documented in 2013 and is thus officially the Algarve’s newest board sport. It’s an offshoot of surfing and can perhaps be best described as standing on a board and using a paddle to move through the water. Seeing as it’s easy to learn, it has become really popular in a short time; in the American Outdoor Foundation’s 2013 Outdoor Participation Report, stand up paddleboarding was listed as the most popular outdoor activity among first-time participants.

In the Algarve, SUP meeting points are based in Fuseta, Faro, and Lagos. There’s also the Guadiana Challenge, an annual SUP festival with a 32km paddle from Mértola in the Alentejo to Alcoutim in the Algarve. No fan of anything that involves getting on a board? Go coasteering. And if throwing yourself off 12m high rocks isn’t your thing either, maybe try rockpooling, dolphin watching, swimming, diving, or one of the other dozen activities that are possible in and around the ocean. Whatever you do, remember that wet people usually have more fun. What are you waiting for? Jump in!


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

Posted in Features.