Leça beach, 1927: the first surfers in Portugal

on Oct 1, 2012 in | No Comments


The history of surfing in Portugal has just changed. A movie was found that shows surfers in the late 20s, practicing bellyboard at Leça da Palmeira Beach, near Porto. This part of the Portuguese northern shore was already an icon – it might become now a cultural tourism destination for the sport lovers. The film is quite probably the oldest surf footage shot in Europe.


By João Macdonald



A documentary film produced in 1927 by the Portuguese Army Cinematographic Service shows a group of men at Leça da Palmeira Beach, on the outskirts of Porto in northern Portugal, practicing bellyboard, an old version of bodyboard. The images change the history of surfing in Portugal and become the oldest known film record of this sport in European territory.

The film’s title is Aspects of Leça da Palmeira, Matosinhos and Leixões and the excerpt corresponds to 28 seconds of a total 32.34 minutes. The full version is stored in the National Archive of Moving Images in Bucelas, near Lisbon, and can be viewed on the Digital Cinematheque’s webpage, in the Portuguese Cinematheque website.

The excerpt consists of three scenes in which about 12 individuals are seen entering the water with what appears to be an “alaia”, a primitive type of surfboard, and surfing the waves to the beach, lying on the boards.

The situation was filmed in 1926 or 1927, a period of quiet activity for the Army Cinematographic Service, created in 1917 to record the participation of Portuguese troops in WWI. The name of the director or cameraman are not known.

The detail in the film was detected by writer José Carlos Soares, a native of Leça, who relayed the information to UP magazine. The film was on public display at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Serralves in a parallel program to the exhibition “Álvaro Siza. Expose – Museums and Spaces” in 2005, and during the program “Cinema in the Pilgrimage,” inserted in the festivities of the city of Matosinhos in 2011, at the Town Hall auditorium.

Until this discovery, the oldest European record was an homemade film shot in Cornwall, in southern England, revealed in 2010 by the BBC documentary series “Sea Fever”. The TV station has dated the film back to the 1920s, but the swimsuit used by the main character is clearly a BVD, the famous brand launched in the beginning of the 1930s and made popular by swimmer and actor Johnny Weissmuler. Another homemade film, displayed in the same series, points to the period between 1929-1931 and also shows an initial British surfer (the film is stored in the collections of the Museum of British Surfing).

The oldest record of an European surfing is from 1920 and displays Edward, Prince of Wales, experiencing the waters of Waikiki Beach, Hawaii.

Until today, the beginnings of Portuguese surfing pointed to Pedro Martins de Lima, the 1946 national pioneer of bodysurfing and the one who brought into to the country the first branded surfboard, bought in Biarritz in 1959 , and António Gil da Costa Lopes, who in 1955 built a board from blueprints ordered from an American manufacturer. This is considered to be the first Portuguese surfboard, and it still exists (as revealed in the anniversary edition of the 25 years of Surf Portugal magazine). Lima came into contact with the sport in the Azores and Lopes in Madeira, both through reading American magazines.

The 1927 film now proves that the two were not the first to surf in Portugal, but they maintain the status of first Portuguese surfers, since the individuals of the film must be foreigners.


Who are those surfers?
The surfers in the movie must have been, in all probability, young people belonging to the British community of Leça. These surroundings of Porto were considered at the time a sophisticated beach resort, the preferred place for English families with business at the city.

A paper by researcher José Maria de Oliveira explains that in the 20s about 90 Brits lived in Leça, most of them renting houses on the year, with particular focus in the summer. In the middle of that decade an Initiative and Tourism Commission of Leça da Palmeira was created to improve access to beaches, constructing staircases and walls between the beach and the marginal road. The objective was to maintain the frequency of the wealthy Britons, allowing them to access the beach without being “embarrassed by the kids asking them for money and many more inappropriate things [which] need to be suppressed with energy,” wrote up a newspaper at the time.

Another justification for the individuals of the film being British is that this nation, even then, was not at all strange to surfing – or rather, to bellyboarding. According to Roger Mansfield, author of  The Surfing Tribe – The History of Surfing in Britain, the practice was introduced in southern UK by soldiers returning from World War I, influenced by socializing with soldiers from South Africa, where the sport enjoyed popularity on the back of Durban and Cape Town. The first records of British bellyboarders come, as in the films mentioned above, from the coast of Cornwall, during the years immediately following the World War (from 1918 onwards), and from the island of Jersey in the English Channel, where Nigel Oxenden, an ex-soldier who had travelled through Australia, South Africa and Hawaii, founded in 1923 the Island Surf Club.

The English community of Leça eventually went into decline in the ’30s, as the lengthy works of the nearby port of Leixões took place and the increased flight connections and advances in telecommunications allowed them to manage business in Porto from a distance.


More memory found
The 1927 film is not all. There are other new contributions to the history of surfing in Portugal, at least in the primitive sense that the sport had in the country.

This magazine’s research discovered another movie shot in Portugal in 1953, produced by British Pathé. In this documentary two boys are seen on a beach in Estoril doing “surf mat”. One of the boys, the one on the right side of the image, uses an evolved version of the “surfo-plane”, an inflatable surfing mattress invented by Australian Ernest Smithers in 1932 (more details in Surf Research, an excelent website dedicated to this sport’s history). The water mattress in the film has a keel more akin to a board.



The scene will have more to do with innate, surfing intuition typical of coastal vacationers. The very habit of “carreirinhas” – a rudimentary form of the current bodysurfing, made with fins – goes back to the 20s/30s of the past century. In 2009, in a news feature about Portuguese seaside vacations in the old times, an octogenarian remembered well from his childhood “‘doing carreirinhas’, nowadays ‘called surfing’ on the sea of Figueira da Foz” coastal city.

Perhaps 1927 film will call for further research and a revised edition of the book History of Surfing in Portugal – The origins (2008), edited by João Moraes Rocha. The film will also be of interest to the Lisbon Surf Film Fest and the Portuguese Surf Film Festival, who had the first editions in the summer of 2012, as they are potential events to show the work on the big screen.

Surf film history in Portugal also has an important chapter in the 1969 seminal movie Evolution, directed by Paul Witzig, which led to national waters Wayne Lynch, Nat Young and Ted Spencer, masters of the ars fluctu.

For now, Aspects of Leça da Palmeira, Matosinhos and Leixões is the only and oldest concrete reference to the origins of surfing in Portugal. Are there other signs? In the realm of mere surfing intuition, that may have been what led the Portuguese modernist artist Jorge Barradas, in 1927, to draw this cover for the popular magazine Ilustração:



(It might also just be a diving board. Debate remains open.)



UP magazine appreciates the help of Eduardo Matos in the emergence of this article.




Oliveira da Serra TAP Campanhas


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