Nicolau Von Rupp, world vice-champion in the ISA World Surfing Games and one of Portugal’s most experienced surfers, took us to Peniche where a year ago he competed alongside some of the world’s best surfers at Moche Rip Curl Pro Portugal. During two days of great waves, Nic showed us around one of the best surf destinations in the world.
On 5th October 2014, the Supertubos beach was at its best, as it often is, and gifted Nicolau Von Rupp the perfect opportunity. There were a few minutes left until the end of the trials guaranteeing one surfer a place on the Moche Rip Curl Pro Portugal, the penultimate leg of the world surf circuit. Nicolau was competing against the French surfer Charly Martin, and needed a score of 8.95 points out of a maximum of 10 to get the place. Along came a set and Nicolau, the surfer from Praia Grande, caught a tube. His score came as the final whistle blew: 9 points. Nicolau was ecstatic, hardly believing that a few days later he’d be surfing against the likes of Kelly Slater and others.
This is just one of the high points in the career of this twenty-five year old surfer, who rose to second place this year on the podium at the world surfing championships – the ISA World Surfing Games – taking with him the Portuguese team who became world vice-champions of surf, ahead of Australia, the United States, Brazil and other countries where surfing is almost a national sport.
There’s no mistaking Nicolau, with his shoulder-length blond hair, tan line around his neck and the relaxed manner of someone who lives on the beach. We meet up at Cabo Carvoeiro opposite the Nau dos Corvos, a rock that with a bit of imagination looks like a ship. Cormorants rest their wings on it and it gives its name to the restaurant perched on the cliff top, right in front of the Berlengas arquipelago, the World Biosphere Reserve.
Holding up his mobile, Nic photographs the landscape, taking care to frame the islands in the shot. “Can you believe I’ve never been to the Berlengas?” he asks as he uploads the photo to his 46 thousand followers on Facebook. With the promise that one day he’ll find time to hop over, we walk into the restaurant, where starters of clams steamed in white wine and figs stuffed with cheese already await us at our table.
Competitions are top priority in Nic’s routine and mean he spends much of the year jumping across continents. But he’s not always been focused on competitions. A few years ago, Nicolau preferred to go to Hawaii later and not compete in one of the season’s events in order to face “an incredible slab” in Ireland. “Mullaghmore Head may well be the next spot for big waves in Europe” assured the expert leading the best session ever held there, alongside other heavyweights of major European surf such as Andrew Cotton, Tom Lowe and Tom Buttler. When riding epic waves went viral, it was another big step for Nicolau to start getting recognised in the world of big waves. This also got him the Portuguese award for the Biggest Wave, a “small” monster about 12 metres high. Nic paddled out towards it, was late dropping back, reached the foot and was swallowed up by froth. A few minutes in the so-called washing machine didn’t deter him: he rose back up to the top, then did it again and again. Isn’t he afraid of throwing himself at these giants? “Yes, of course, we’re born afraid, which is a good thing.” Nicolau paddles out to these giants, earning him even more respect. Nothing against the tow-in, where surfers are pulled out to big waves by jet-ski; it’s just that he’s not practised the style enough and so doesn’t feel at ease with it. We pause in conversation to concentrate on the epic dish in front of us: a gigantic bowl of seafood of all shapes and sizes. Rock barnacles, prawns, mussels, spider crab, lobster … what a plateful! Then we pick up the conversation again where we left off: the surf trail in Portugal.
The numbers don’t lie: “research into the economic impact of Moche Rip Curl Pro Portugal reveals a total income of 13.6 million Euros, just for the period of the event in the Peniche area”. What’s more, revenue from media coverage of the sport is 46 million. Portugal is on the world surf map and, in addition to the many tourists coming here to surf, it hosts at least four international events every year. Moreover, a very promising batch of new talent in the competition world – including Nicolau – has taken the qualifying circuit by storm. “A large part of this surfing boom in recent years is down to the work of Tiago “Saca” Pires [Portugal’s best ever surfer who competed among the elite for seven years] who made us believe it was possible to go even further.” Saca is one of his idols.
A disloyal friend is said to be “a Peniche friend” or a fair-weather friend, but the expression is misleading. It wasn’t the people of Peniche who were disloyal, but rather the English. The story goes that in 1589, during Spanish rule in Portugal, an English contingent disembarked at Consolação, on the outskirts of Peniche. Their objective was to head for Lisbon to help the Portuguese to regain their sovereignty. However, these allies who disembarked became known as “Peniche friends” when a month after their arrival, the English, unable to confront the mighty Spanish and with their pockets full of plunder, returned to England. The expression remained associated to betrayal, to the detriment of the people of Peniche.
Nicolau had heard the popular saying but like many was unaware of its origins. He learnt about it while visiting the Fort of Peniche, one of the key elements in the above episode from the sixteenth century, and later a political prison during the dictatorial regime of Salazar. It’s introduced by António José Correia, mayor of Peniche’s City Hall, who must also be mentioned in these lines. Among the surf buddies, he’s known as the “coolest mayor on tour”, a name which fits him like a glove. Fun-loving, he takes us to Peniche’s fish auctions to show us behind the scenes of one the country’s most important fishing ports. The idea was Nicolau’s, who’s stunned at the mechanics of the market. The fish is dropped off by the boats and taken to be weighed. From there, it goes on a conveyor belt with a basic bidding price, which is adjusted as the auction gets underway. Colossal stone bass, horse mackerel, sardines, spider crabs, soles, rays and even dogfish (related to sharks) take their place on the conveyor belt. The surfer is recognised by people at the auction, especially younger ones who follow the surfing news, and many ask for photos – almost as many as those asking his manager, Miguel Moura, who, for some unbeknown reason, is confused with Garrett McNamara.
We now drift with all the calmness in the world towards Baleal Island, which has nothing of an island about it. It used to be separated from the continent, but today it’s connected to terra firme by a small stretch of sand. The cliffs over the sea look like “a library of rocks” as written by Ventura, a popular poet here in the west. We envy the sunbathers getting in their last few hours of the day on the Baleal sands, and hurry on to the Surfers Lodge, our lodgings for these few days. On the hotel terrace, designed by John Malmqvist, a Swedish surf champion who fell in love with Portugal, there’s a pool and jacuzzi to soak in and watch the sunset of your dreams.
Dinner is booked at Tribeca, another of the region’s icons. It’s on the outskirts of Peniche in the Serra d’El Rey hills, is named after a district of New York and has decor reminiscent in some ways of French brasseries. There are vegetable tempura, delicate pastries, garlic prawns, black pudding with apple chutney and other delicacies for starters, after which we attack the famous house steaks. “Let’s toast to more moments like this” jokes Nicolau, his glass raised high.
Half towards the sea, half towards the land
There are fantastic waves throughout continental Portugal and its islands, but Supertubos is the most consistent according to Nicolau. “If we came to Peniche for a month to surf at Super, there’s sure to be one magical week” and when there’s no surf at Super, there’ll be other spots on the peninsula, either at Almagreira, Belgas, Lagido, Baía or even the heavier Papua. Today is one of the good days. The wind is blowing from the land towards the sea (offshore in the lingo) and the north-easterly waves, more than two metres high, are enough to guarantee waves of one to one and a half metres on the beach. Despite a slight mishap yesterday – before joining the Up team for this perfect weekend, Nic cut his arm and had to have stitches – the champion is itching to get into the water.
We get to the beach at ten o’clock and some surfers are already out. With one eye always on the sea, Nic gets his board ready, puts on his wetsuit and stretches out to get into the water. He rides two or three waves but has to get out as “the stitches seem to be almost breaking open”. Unable to surf so as not to aggravate his injury and risk his participation in two days’ time at the national championships at Praia Grande, Nicolau suggests going to the Praia d’El Rey golf course. We gladly agree, this being one of the most beautiful courses we know. Half of it has incredible sea views, the rest shielded from the sea air by verdant pine forest. But before that, our stomachs are saying it’s time for a compulsory stop at Sushi Fish in Baleal. Joana Paula, the essence of friendliness, welcomes us to her highly-regarded restaurant. The sushi is said to be the best in the west and that’s no exaggeration. Nicolau is crazy about Japanese food so it’s no surprise he’s happy with this fresh fish celebration.
At the wheel of the buggy, gliding along the lush freeways overlooking the Atlantic, Nic is an ace. It’s a shame he doesn’t have the same talent for golf that he has for surfing. The boy’s improving though, but needs to practise to reach the level of other surfers, such as Slater or Julian Wilson, who devote their spare time to playing golf.
Amid some spot-on strokes and others not quite, the grin we get from Nicolau is even broader. Once again Peniche has given him a fistful of good memories.
text Maria Ana Ventura photos Carlos Pinto
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