Feeling swell in Portugal

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, a hardy group of locals and an American backpacker turned Ericeira, just north of Lisbon, into Portugal’s number one surf Mecca

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, July 2015. Photography by Greg Funnell)

When Californian surfer Nick Uricchio met Portuguese local Miguel Katzenstein in the late 1970s, they couldn’t stand each other. “He just seemed to think he was so cool, lying on the beach with his shades on,” remembers Uricchio. As for Katzenstein, who started surfing after seeing the iconic Old Spice surf advert in the ’70s, he remembers “this Yankee asshole, who stole my waves and my friend’s girlfriend.”

Uricchio and Katzenstein are now considered two of the godfathers of the surf scene in Ericeira, a pretty town on the Portuguese coast half an hour north of Lisbon. In 1982, they founded the Semente company on the back of Uricchio’s newfound skills shaping boards. It’s become Portugal’s biggest surfboard company, and they’ve steadily sponsored more top surfers and helped build a thriving local surf scene. Ericeira, which boasts 22 breaks in the local vicinity, is now home to the largest Quiksilver store in Europe and Portugal’s first surfing association. In 2009, the area was named the second World Surf Reserve after Malibu, California, making it the surf equivalent of a World Heritage Site (in practice, it means the coast is protected from overdevelopment).

And nowadays, Uricchio and Katzenstein are best friends, even if Uricchio says his partner – who runs the business side of things while he does the shaping – “looks like a frog and has been busting my balls for 33 years”.

Uricchio is originally from the East Coast but grew up in California. When he first came to Ericeira as a backpacker in 1978, he says it was “like California in the early days… there was great surf, great food, beautiful women.” He duly went home, packed his bags, and moved to Portugal, where he learned surfboard shaping with Nuno Jonet, who later became a well-known surf commentator.

We meet him at the Semente surfboard factory, a small warehouse a few kilometres out of town, where a team of eight work  on the involved process of shaping, glassing, filling, sanding and finishing boards, while trance blares from an old ghetto blaster. Every board is handmade one at a time, with four to five boards a day, and Uricchio shaping each one individually. It’s a time-consuming process that requires real expertise, and  Uricchio bemoans that “you don’t get rich making surfboards. But we love the lifestyle – surfing keeps you young.”

In between hilarious stories of meeting Frank Sinatra and scattering his late father’s ashes at the Bellagio in Vegas (Nick Uricchio Sr was a gambler and a prominent restaurateur who knew everyone from Dean Martin to Ronald Reagan), Uricchio tells us how Ericeira has gone from “totally off the surf map to well and truly on it”. As if to prove the point, Marlon Lipke, Germany’s number one surfer wanders in with Gony Zubizarreta, a top surfer from Argentina who’s one of Semente’s roster of 12 world class surfers, all based in Ericeira.
It’s a common story on our few days in Ericeira. We stay at Lapoint, the fast-growing Norwegian surf camp that started in Ericeira in 2007, and now has camps as far afield as Morocco, Bali, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka and Norway.

Over a healthy breakfast on our first morning, we meet 19-year-old Oliver Hartkopp, the top-ranked surfer in Denmark, who learned to surf in the Danish town of Klitmøller and is now sponsored by Lapoint.

Lapoint was originally founded by local surfer Alexandre Grilo, but it’s become a very Scandi operation, and four in five of its guests are Scandinavian (and predominantly blonde). But their policy is to hire local surf instructors, recommend local businesses and generally to give back to the local community.

One product of their system is the brilliant João Durão, an ever-smiling 24-year-old who looks like a Portuguese Patrick Swayze circa Point Break, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of surf  history and pop culture (don’t get him started on surf movies). Durão says competition was never quite for him – “I’m too happy; you need that edge to compete” – but he forms part of a very impressive roster of local instructors.

Another local surf coach employed by Lapoint is Vitor Tavares, better known as Vitinha, who always wears a hat, and sometimes even surfs in one. Now 45, he was part of the first wave of Ericeira surfers almost 40 years ago. “My father and grandfather were fishermen,” he says. “I’d go to the beach with them and body surf from the age of six. At eight, I got my first board, fell in love, and I’ve been surfing ever since.”

Back then, there were only five or six local surfers, who started surfing the reef break at the Ribeira D’Ilhas beach in the 1970s (which is still regarded as one of the best in Europe). Boards and knowledge came from incoming foreigners. “We used to call them ‘beefs’,” says Tavares of the American, Australian and South African surfers that they bought boards and got tips from. “We liked speaking to them, and my family eventually made money from them. In the summer, we’d rent out our house to the beefs that wanted to surf here, and we’d go and camp.”

If that was Ericeira surf tourism in its purest form, things have developed somewhat. Lapoint, which is one of more than 30 surf schools in the area, has three large accommodation villas for up to 50 guests, pools, a beach volleyball court and its own restaurant right on the beach at the popular Foz do Lizandro.

Though many of the visitors to the town are older Portuguese people – it doesn’t feel like a surf town per se – the surfers and locals rub along well. “Surf tourism has been good for this town, and you won’t find anyone who disagrees with that,” says Tavares.

It’s also been good for locals like him and Joaquim Pipio, who worked at the same print factory when it closed down. “Becoming surf instructors was a natural move after that,” says Tavares. “We get to make a living doing what we love.”

That joy comes through in just a few days at Lapoint – and it’s notable that many of the people who come on holidays end up working here. Marina Hurtig, 25, comes from near Sälen in Dalarna, Sweden, and came here on a holiday two-and-a-half years ago. She hasn’t really left, doing winters in Morocco and Sri Lanka in between three summers in Ericeira. Having started off as a social host (and beginner surfer), she’s now a fully qualified instructor, specialising in level one (beginner) surfers.

“I remember going back to the forest and just thinking: I can’t be here,” she says. “I just wanted to surf, and all I could think about was getting back to the beach. This place has become my second home – it’s the surfing, but also the community around it. Everyone’s very welcoming, and the camps are a great place to come if you’re travelling on your own – you’ll always have something in common with people, whatever your level.”

Spending a few days at Lapoint, you can see what she means. We never saw California in the early days, but watching surfers ride the Lilimpicos break as the early summer sun sets in the sky, the dream is alive and well in Ericeira.

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