At the risk of sounding ungrateful, this winter has been frustratingly two-dimensional. Yes, we have had more than our share of Nazare and Pipe, which is of course dangerous and exciting and dramatic—all the things that make for wonderful headlines. But unless you are Garret McNamara or John John Florence, there comes a point where too much of a good thing begins to desensitise and overwhelm, where you wake up in the morning hoping that someone somewhere would do something else—anything else, in fact. It doesn’t even have to be dangerous or exciting or dramatic.
The reality is that most of us have no desire for maximum-capacity Pipe or humongous canyon sets at Praia do Norte—especially when contests are green-lighted and the circus is in town. We need something relatable, something understatedly appealing that inspires us to action rather than awe. We need a reminder that surfing is far more than a spectator sport, and always has been.
Most of us, in fact, are quite happy with a few empty, overhead runners, and maybe the odd barrel here or there—especially if we can sneak away from the hype and the crowds. Fortunately, despite the fact that the headlines suggest otherwise, that sort of experience is readily available—and ironically, it is most available when swells in the upper latitudes get big enough to kickstart the Pipe and Nazare hype machine.
Although they begin huge and headline-worthy, the farther south these XXL swells track, the more organised and less death-defying they become. Grotesque numbers like 11 feet at 16 seconds that produce 50-foot teepees in Portugal eventually decay to a more approachable 5@19, and if you follow them far enough—to another country, another continent even, where the culture, language, and religion are completely different and the geography noticeably foreign—the crowds get progressively smaller as well.
Of course, chasing a swell south isn’t exactly a new concept, and there are many other people with the same idea. If you stick to established roads and well-known point breaks, you’ll still likely end up battling European backpackers and dreadlocked van-lifers for a spot in the lineup, recent COVID-19 restrictions notwithstanding. But when you have 2500 kilometres of coastline to choose from, it’s just a matter of driving a little bit longer and searching a little bit farther. With enough swell and a sturdy 4x4 vehicle, you’ll eventually get lost enough to be alone.
Our rag-tag little crew got more lost than we should have, crawling our way down washed-out roads, eschewing famous headlands with exotic-sounding names because sometimes you’d rather enjoy solitude than a world-class wave. Plus, the whole point of wandering is that you never know what you’ll find around the next bend. While it’s more than likely to be another half-baked dribbler, there’s always the chance that it could be something more.
We spent the days picking our way through the dirt and sand, looking for that something more—stumbling across setups that had surely been surfed before, but that we’d never heard of or seen in magazines. At night, we camped under a sky full of unfamiliar stars, warmed by the fire and plates of couscous and biryani. We washed the desert from our hair and the hype from our minds with every empty, mediocre session we shared, appreciating the experience but always dreaming of finding something proper—something that would make the long, tired journey worth it. And then, one afternoon, we did.
It was near the end of our trip and we were all itching to head back—we had flights to catch and places to be, and we still hadn’t been barrelled, despite what felt like weeks in an arid wasteland. But as we turned the rig around, we noticed something we’d missed the morning before. It was a straight stretch of sand that hadn’t shown much potential—no classic headland or point within sight, no bay for swell to bend into—so it was easy to see why we’d driven past it. But today something was different. Perhaps the swell had changed direction overnight, or maybe we were simply looking at the ocean from a different angle, but what had previously appeared to be a straight closeout was suddenly borderline surfable. The wave was fast to the point of frustration, sure, but it was also very long and very grindy—and if you were lucky enough to get one from the right spot, even makeable.
When we finally made our way into the lineup, we realised exactly how hollow the wave actually was, its shallow bank fed by a soft, rapidly eroding coast that crumbled into the water and left death-trap sinkholes for unsuspecting, exotic-looking creatures. We spent the next two days camped in front of that shallow bank, packing closeouts and hunting elusive corners that slowed down just enough to allow for an exit. Our take-to-make ratio was far from impressive, but the ones that did stay open were fast and freight-trainy, grinding hundreds of yards in a few frantic seconds.
The swell finally died, as they tend to do, and at risk of missing our flights we fled the desert, rambling at speeds that would make the most tolerant of rental companies squeamish. After a week off the grid, we finally hit the pavement, and a few minutes later our phones picked up signal and inboxes started pinging. By the time we neared the airport, I’d made it through my emails and was scrolling through my spam folder when a subject headline screamed at me with the same hype I’d been seeing all winter. More storms! More swell! More Pipe and Nazare!
We turned the truck around and headed back into the desert.