Fuerteventura: Surf's up!
Garry Toal heads to the warm waters of the Canary Islands for an action-packed surfing adventure... and packs his Go-Pro.
I woke early the first morning and watched the sun climb into the sky.
Waves lapped onto the beach a couple of hundred metres from my window. A tingle of excitement ran through me. I had four days of surfing ahead, and I was stoked.
On subsequent mornings, of course, I would pay little attention to the beautiful Atlantic sunrise. My only concern became the waves - how big was the swell? How far apart were the sets? How well formed was the water?
I'd surfed before. But that was in Bundoran during an October squall, when the temperature of the sea was a lot more hospitable than that of the surrounding air.
I loved it.
Fuerteventura is another story, however. A surfer's paradise often described as the Hawaii of Europe, surfing here is a world away from the gales and frigid temperatures I experienced in Donegal. My surf shack for the trip was a beautiful Spanish villa belonging to Waverider surf school.
The owner, our instructor Nathan, told me how he had scoured the area for the perfect property to realise his dream of a ‘surf villa’, complete with sea views, where residents could wake to the sound of waves breaking on the shore - "an essential component of any surf holiday worth its salt," he gushed.
Nathan spoke with pride about the long hours he spent renovating the property, all the time being tortured by the nearby waves pounding the reef, calling him to down tools, grab his surf board and have some fun.
The sacrifice paid off, though. Looking around the villa, you're left in no doubt about the purpose of your stay. Large canvas photographs of Fuerteventura's surf scene adorn the walls, with ‘retired’ surf boards placed tastefully here and there.
Even the bedroom mirrors were shaped like surf boards.
We were greeted early on the first morning by Nathan and his fellow instructor Tahila, also a veteran of the Fuerteventura surf scene.
I hopped into Nathan’s Land Rover, surfboards strapped to the roof and wetsuits stuffed into the back, and we roared off to scout the nearby beaches and reefs to suss out the best conditions.
Nathan is your textbook surfer dude; sun-bleached hair just above shoulder length, an ever-present smile with an easy-going attitude, always there to offer advice and quick to hand out praise for a wave well-surfed.
Tahila is a petite blonde whose South African accent is unmistakable - a bubbly character with a wicked sense of humour. She was an inspiration to the women in the group and proof that any notion of surfing as a macho, male orientated sport is wide of the mark.
As we travelled through Fuerteventura’s Martian landscape, forged by the ancient volcanoes still visible across the island, the roads around popular surfing locations were heaving with battered cars and pick-up trucks carrying surfboards.
The volcanism that sculpted the island may well have ceased, but you'll be in little doubt that this is a surfing hotspot.
We decided to head for Punta Blanca, a reef off the island’s north shore.
I was later informed the area is known locally as Shark Bay... a nugget of information I was thankful to receive after the fact, although Nathan assured me the closest I would get to a shark would be playing pool in the local bars.
After squirming into our wetsuits we planked our surfboards onto the hot sand and paid attention as Tahila put us through our paces with some yoga-like stretches.
With the warm-up exercises out of the way she took us through the basics of surfing.
Then the fun began.
To get to the best surfing conditions, you must fight through the tide, out of the shallow water, to the 'line-up' where the waves first hit the reef around 100 metres out.
You must avoid being washed up like a piece of driftwood as you are blasted in the face by the shallow breaking waves.
You must avoid being dumped unceremoniously into the foaming water when a big wave catches you off guard.
When you reach the line-up, it’s time to sit up on the board and wait for the perfect wave.
When the right wave comes, it’s back down flat on the board, facing the beach and paddling like crazy. As the surge grabs your board, a final four quick strokes and up you pounce like a cat...
Of course it’s not that simple.
Getting the 'pop-up' right is tricky and your position on the board is key; too far forward and the nose points into the water catapulting you head-first into the foam; too far back and the wave swamps your board, passing you by and putting all that effort paddling to waste.
Vine: A perfect example of when I was too far forward on the board, and flung headfirst into the sea
Eventually, perseverance is rewarded and the adrenaline rush you get from riding the white water back to shore has you eagerly beating a path back out to do it all over again.
As the day wore on, the muscles ached and paddling out to the breaks became more difficult. To my embarrassment, I even needed a tow into the waves from Nathan and Tahila on several occasions.
The sight of me flopped on the board, exhausted, getting pulled along by my instructor is in stark contrast to the clips you see on YouTube of the daring pro-surfers being towed out by jet skis to catch monster waves.
But hey, everyone has to start somewhere.
Video: Pro surfers get pulled into waves by jet skis in Tahiti. Watch closely at 1:44min, the surfer is almost decapitated as the jet ski gets taken by the monster wave
After three hours Nathan called time, we trudged back to the Land Rover, guzzled some water, peeled off the wetsuits and hit the road.
On the way back we stopped for refreshments in a small town called Lajares at a fantastic French bakery, a Mecca for weary surfers returning from their day on the waves.
Back at the Waverider villa, sun loungers were dotted around the garden, and a pool provided welcome relief from the afternoon heat. Have-a-go surfers from across Europe came and went, providing great company.
On the second day, We surfed at Playa Blanca, on the outskirts of Corralejo.
With waves breaking much closer to shore there was less paddling involved, providing some much needed respite after the previous day’s efforts.
The final two days were spent surfing ‘Rocky Point,’ a reef break located just in front of the surf villa, with big waves and very little time between sets. The action was non-stop and it was here that all the lessons learned from the previous days came together.
Standing up on the board seemed much easier. My now battle-hardened body was coping better with everything that was being thrown at it and I didn’t need to be towed onto waves by the instructors, a tremendous boost for my self-confidence.
When I hung up my wetsuit on the final day, all the paddling, being thrown around in the sea like in a giant washing machine (not to mention a few late nights with my amigos from the surf villa) had taken their toll.
I was ready for a rest.
I had given it everything and had an amazing time with some wonderful people - but as they say, all good things come to an end. I said my goodbyes and caught a late flight home.
I certainly intend to return... but until then there's only one thing for it.
Yep you guessed it, Bundoran in October.
I stayed in the Waverider Surf Villa with Surfholidays.com. Price for 1 week B&B with 5 days surf lessons, equipment & airport transfers is €415.
The Villa is located in the surf town of Corralejo in northern Fuerteventura and overlooks the surf spot Rocky Point. It sleeps 14 people in a mix of shared, private & double rooms.
A number of airlines fly to Fuerteventura out of Ireland, to get the best prices see www.skyscanner.ie.
Cowabunga! Know your surfing lingo...
Bail: To jump off the board before an imminent wipeout
Barrel: A barrel is where the wave forms a hollow tube as it breaks
Beach break: A wave that breaks over a sandy seabed
Caught inside: When a surfer is pinned back by the shallow breaking waves and can’t make it out to the line-up
Chop: Where the surface of the ocean is rough and bumpy, bad conditions for surfing
Cowabunga: Slang from 1960's surf culture, cried out enthusiastically when surfing a wave
Drop in: Where a surfer cuts across someone already surfing the wave, a heinous crime in the surf world
Line-up: Area just outside the breaking waves where surfers wait for their waves
Men in grey suits: SHARKS!
Pop-up: The move from lying prone on the board into a standing position to ride the wave
Reef break: A wave that breaks over a coral reef or rock seabed
Swell: Solid surfable waves rolling in
Tow-in: Catching big waves with the aid of a Jet ski, or in my case an instructor
Wax: Smeared on the board to give your feet more grip
Wipeout: Falling off your board