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Surfing the waves

“To make a problem more beautiful is a noble task for philosophy.” Gonçalo M. Tavares


(Excerpt from a surfer’s diary)

“Due to the waves rumbling far away, I didn’t sleep a wink. The swell had arrived and I was too excited, looking forward to dawn when the wind would be still and the tide low. Early in the morning, I drove to the coast to see the magnificent swell coming. The ocean was striped in spaced blue lines, crossing the water at a constant speed. It was a northwest swell, a beautiful icy swell. Nobody was at the beach, but me. Perhaps because the forecast hadn’t been accurate in the last week, and nowadays surfers are reluctant to leave home without checking it first. But this time the swell arrived earlier, and to witness it approaching the coast was a solemn event. It was like having a holy guest arrive without announcement. For the next few days, the agenda was cancelled, the waves were calling and I had to be ready.”


Before I became a surf instructor, I was a surfer. But, many years of experience as a surfer didn’t help me to explain how to catch a wave. As an instructor, I can give and explain plenty of information, but turning that information into useful know-how is a great challenge. It’s a journey that changes you, and you learn not only to stand up on a board and slide over the waves, but to read the waves, understand them, discover wavescapes, where they come from and where they go. It’s all about rhythms, the rhythm of your body and your mind, the rhythm of the oceans and the skies. It’s a long story!


Fierce winds in Greenland can generate waves that travel a long way to Portugal. But not all the waves start in Greenland. Some swells are created by local winds. But, they look messy and choppy because they are too close to the winds that caused them. They are called short-period waves. Some swells are created by hurricanes that cause wild waves. The winds inside a hurricane move in a circular path, and create waves with frightful shapes. A swell that is generated far away, in a place like Greenland, is called a ground swell. It starts in a storm system a long way away, at least 2000 miles from the coast, then travels from west to east, swinging towards the Equator. Swells are like threads that weave different wavescapes in the loom of the seas.


A swell is made of groups of waves travelling over the seas. If winds blow constantly over a distance of water, called the fetch, it will generate waves that travel until they find the shore of an island or continent. They can travel both short or long distances, creating different wavescapes. Each wavescape has its own unique rhythm. Different frequencies (the number of waves) and periods (the time between two wave crests) create the swell, but the local wind and the bottom of the ocean also shape the waves. Offshore winds lift up the crest, and onshore winds topple the waves over again. When I catch sight of a horizon of waves in parallel lines, all spaced out, it tells me they come from a long way away. They look like a giant serpent snaking beneath the sea, roaming from Greenland. Dreadful storms in Greenland roaring loudly in the crest of the stunning waves in Portugal.


Modern technology and its data have added something new to surfing: forecasts. They are like a crystal ball, telling us the wind speed and direction, and everything about the quantity and quality of the swell and the waves. It’s possible to foresee a wavescape coming weeks ahead, at any time, and at any place on the planet.To read a wave forecast is a bit harder than a weather forecast. You need to combine all the data and interpret it for that one location and its features. Is there a reef or a sand bank? Is the bay of the beach facing west, southwest or south? This data is sent by satellites. But, tuning to satellites isn’t the same as tuning to waves. At the end of the day, even satellites follow the same universal law that rules tides, the moon and waves.


If you want to learn how to surf, you need to learn about wavescapes. To tune to the rhythm of the wave, you might need a board and some surf lessons. Let’s do it. Spend some time on dry land first. Warm up. Study the water. Use a big surfboard. Always use a leash. Don’t be afraid, but don´t be a hero. Take it easy. Start small. Master lying down first. Practice your pop-up on dry land. Enter the water. Lie on the board. Find your balance. Float. Be calm. Wait for a wave. Paddle, paddle, paddle. Learn how to avoid nose-diving. Don’t swallow water. Close your mouth. Get used to falling off. Don’t copy others. Learn how to fall properly. Don’t bend your back. Stay up at a right angle to the water. Listen to your body. Try again and again and again.


You’ve tried again and again. But, something isn’t working and instead of catching the timing of the wave, you end up in a terrible whirlpool. The board flies away, your legs and arms are twisted and stretched like spaghetti. You are under water and don’t know which way is up or down. The beautiful calm waves you saw on the horizon have crashed on your head. “What am I doing wrong?” you think. To tune in to the wave, you need to realise that you’re joining in a motion that started some time ago. The wave is travelling at a certain speed and you need to join it right at the moment that the wave is passing you. It’s like jumping into a moving train. It’s all about the impulse and the timing or – in other words – it’s a matter of feeling.


Paddling is very important in surfing, because it’s what lines you up with the speed of the wave; otherwise, the wave will run over you. When the wave gets closer, you need to start paddling, but paddling is pointless if you don’t have the feeling – an impulse – with the right timing. And still, feeling isn’t enough if you don’t go for it. In this very important moment, the crest of the wave rises and you get lifted up, just before it wipes you out. At this point, you might feel frightened and you pull the board back. And it’s ok to feel frightened, but you won’t catch a wave if you don’t go for it, because catching a wave is not something that just happens by accident. To catch a wave demands strength and paddling, the feeling of the right moment and going for it. Everything happens in a few seconds and in one single action. You are surrounded by so many forces coming at you, starting with your own mind. You will only be ready when you surrender.


It’s a strange idea that there was once a society with codes of conduct based on surfing. Then when Western colonists arrived in Hawaii they banned it. Surfing was not a hobby, but a way of life, which you still hear in the Haiwaiian term he’e nalu – ‘wave sliding’. Boards were used in rituals, free-time activities, training Hawaiian chiefs, and as a way of settling arguments. Surfing meant more than just being personally happy. It was part of the social, political and religious code, known as kapu. Surfing isn’t banned in Hawaii now, but that ancient society no longer exists. But, some treasures are still hidden in the Hawaiian language. They still greet each other with aloha, which has many meanings, such as love, affection, peace, compassion, and mercy. People say this word is related to a force that holds all existence together.


“It’s all about where your minds are at.” Kelly Slater (legendary surfer)

The surfboard has developed since it was created in ancient Hawaii. It was first made from the wood of local trees, such as the koa (but now from foam covered with fiberglass cloth, polyester or epoxy resin). The urfboard reflects the culture it came from. In ancient Hawaii, boards combined nature, handicraft, culture and policy. To tune in to the waves, Hawaiians must also tune in to all these other things. Making a surfboard was a spiritual process. Many surfers imagine ancient Hawaii as a golden age when body and soul, nature and community were one. Nowadays, things are different, but nothing stops you or me embracing surfing. Anything that looks like a narrow board and can float will work: a plank, a boat, a fridge door, a table or a guitar case.


In the town where I live there is an astronomer. I used to find him watching the waves in the same place where I often go surfing. The astronomer told me that waves aren’t water moving, but energy moving through water. He also told me that if he knew the exact weight of the surfer, he could calculate his exact speed in the wave, using the equation he gave me on the piece of paper below. Humans and dolphins have their own special ways of understanding waves. To surf the waves, I need to become more like a dolphin.

(original paper from the Astronomer Manuel Rosa Martins)

Ivo Lima Carmo
Imagens de Barrack Rima
Novembro, 2023

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Nasceu em Lisboa em 1979, estudou Filosofia e vive em Berlim, onde trabalhou como jardineiro, vendedor de revistas e empregado de mesa. Em Portugal foi distinguido em 2008 no Concurso Jovens Criadores e em 2012 venceu o Prémio de Ensaio Revelação da Associação Portuguesa de Escritores com a obra Do Paraíso. Autor do livro O Longe Oeste, Na Senda do Sete-Estrelo pela editora Epubli.


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    Obrigada Ivo por partilhares este texto tão bonito. A dinâmica que descreves, desde a entrega, a ressonãncia, o ritmo, a beleza e a disponibilidade lembram-me o corpo na dança. Escreve mais!