Mystical Madeira
Destinations

Mystical Madeira Makes its Case as the Hawaii of Europe

With volcanic mountains, crystal-clear water, and powerful island-style surf

Photography by Maxime Houyvet // Story by John Skye and Nayra Alonso
Featured in the Summer 2011 Edition of Standup Journal

Forget golden sand beaches…Forget protective reefs and flat-water lagoons…

Standup paddling in the waves off the island of Madeira is a hard-core adventure.

Madeira is basically a giant cliff in the middle of the Atlantic… which happens to have some serious waves around it.

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We learned about the power of the waves and the rocks quickly…Our first-day windsurfing ended with three broken boards, two broken sails, and a broken mast, plus my feet were shredded on the rocks.

After the disastrous sailing session, we went looking for more forgiving waves to paddlesurf…

Just getting down the rocks and into the surf on Madeira is usually not that Forget golden sand beaches… Forget protective reefs and flat-water lagoons… Standup paddling in the waves off the island of Madeira is a hard-core adventure.

Madeira is basically a giant cliff in the middle of the Atlantic… which happens to have some serious waves around it.

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We learned about the power of the waves and the rocks quickly… Our first-day windsurfing ended with three broken boards, two broken sails and a broken mast, plus my feet were shredded on the rocks.

After the disastrous sailing session, we went looking for more forgiving waves to paddlesurf…

Just getting down the rocks and into the surf on Madeira is usually not that simple… So when we arrived at our first surf spot and there was almost a beach, we were stoked!

Conditions looked fun from land… The wave didn’t seem to have too much power, and there was a decent channel for paddling back out. Nayra and I enthusiastically hit the water first.

We were soon in for a shock!

After my first wave, a closeout set appeared on the horizon, breaking the whole way across the bay. It wiped me out and broke my leash in the process. Madeira demanded our respect again!

Arriving on “The Isle of Wood”

We arrived in the capital of Funchal, off the overnight ferry from Gran Canaria, with almost no knowledge of this island at all…

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Four-time Olympic Portuguese windsurfer Joao Rodriguez met us off the boat. He kindly organized a place for us to stay at one of the best surf spots on the island. He led us directly to the door.

The road network on La Ilha da Madeira (literally “the isle of wood”) is a multi-million-dollar system of bridges and tunnels that cuts through or over the mountains and cliffs.

How life was ever established on the far reaches of this island is a mystery… What took us 30 minutes to travel on the “via” motorway would have literally taken days if we were forced to use the smaller roads.

The landscape as we drove was nothing short of spectacular… Towering mountains are cut down the middle with deep valleys or fast-flowing rivers. Numerous waterfalls gush from the cliffs, rushing downward toward the sea.

Nestled into the side of the mountains, villages spread up the cliff face and through the valleys, often balancing precariously on the edge of nothing.

Casper, the Friendly Danish Surfing Champion

By chance, three-time Danish Junior Surfing Champion Casper Steinfath was staying in our hostel. Casper pretty much brought standup paddling to Denmark. He was stoked to have some company on the water.

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His family has been going to Madeira for years. Their wealth of knowledge became invaluable as the trip went on. Hitting the right spots, with the right winds and tides, is crucially important on this island. And let’s be honest—we had no idea!

That night we talked with the Steinfath family. They pointed us to another wave in the north. The tides needed to be right, but everything looked pretty good for the next day, so we set off early with our map in hand.

When we got there, it didn’t even seem possible to ride the wave… There were rocks poking through the break, and every wave appeared to just smash into the side of the cliff.

We had pretty much given up when a good looking set rose up on the horizon… As it hit the point, it wrapped around, reeling off down the coast as a perfect left-hander.

Suddenly our mood changed. The only problem was working out how to actually get into the water. Luckily, local waterman Sapo turned up to point us in the right direction… Sapo, the Ultimate Local Guide…

In Search of Great “Poncha” and Great Surf, Sapo ended up being our guide for the whole trip…

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He works as a park ranger but, from what we could see, he rarely seems to do much work at all. He was literally on the water every day, surfing, sailing or standup paddling. During our stay he devoted all of his free time to taking us around the island, searching for conditions and taking us to the very best ‘Poncha’ bars.

‘Poncha’ is a local drink made up mainly of rum. I believe there is some fruit juice in there, too, but the rum is definitely the key ingredient. It is very nice—it’s hard to stop at one, and you’ll probably have three before you leave (with blurry vision).

Anyway, back to the water…

Taking Sapo’s advice, and armed with a new leash after my earlier adventure, we headed out and caught some waves.

To start, we sampled the shoulder, getting a feel for the speed and power the wave had to offer. The sets were well over head-high and, breaking top to bottom, there was not much room for error.

In the middle of the wave a large rock poked its head above the water. Any mistakes here would be severely punished.

Maxi the photographer was in the water with us, swimming deeper into the pit with each wave. My confidence building, a solid set came through and, with Maxi shouting “go, go,” I had little choice. Taking off, I suddenly realized I was way deeper than I wanted to be, and as the wave sucked out beneath me the only thing I could think of was getting the rail to hold and racing to the safety of the channel.

I was flying—probably the fastest I have ever been on an sup—but still I couldn’t outrun the wave. I could feel the lip right on my shoulder, but still I was forced to fade into the flats to slalom around the rock, cutting back even deeper on my return.

Somehow I made it intact, and somehow I knew I had flown past Maxi. As I paddled back out to the peak I passed him in the water. I was smug, thinking he must have the shot of the century. Unfortunately, instead of the big thumbs up I was hoping for he shouted, “You have to get deeper and come closer…. I have the fish eye lens!” The next day with some wind forecast for the north, we set off to Puerto Moniz in search of some windsurf conditions. Unfortunately, the wind was a little too crazy to sail. But the town was beautiful, so we went exploring. We discovered the most amazing “semi-natural” swimming pool… Paddling in “Nature-Made” Swimming Pools

As there are literally no beaches on the island, many of the towns have used existing tide pools and rock formations to make perfect swimming pools… In Puerto Moniz they have blocked off a number of pools, plus added steps into the water, and bridges. It’s really quite spectacular.

Maxi ordered us into the water for some pics. At the time I thought it was all a bit of a joke.

The feeling was like nothing else; perfectly flat and calm water cut through the rocks in a series of rivers and bays. We spent our time cruising around the pools as vacationers looked on in surprise.

Our Best Day… Right Out Front

What was probably the best day of the trip turned out to be spent right in front of the house…

Sapo woke us early with a text message. As we looked out the window at the ocean we could see him already on the water—one lone paddle board enjoying perfect head-high right-handers.

It looked like paradise and we hit the water in record time. The first few waves were a dream. Nayra had a couple of beauties, carving her way easily over 100 meters from the outside all the way through to the fast, hollow inside section.

The swell was building and as the session went on the waves increased in size by the minute. In the end it was easily double overhead and the inside section was fast and hollow. Picking it up on the outside, you could get two or three nice carves before setting a line for the inside and locking into the end section.

Sapo had the wave of the day, cutting back under a solid triple-head lip before charging through the inside section and getting spat out the end with a smile that would remain for the rest of the day.

Casper joined us on his surfboard, dropping into some bombs and pulling into a few mean looking barrels. That night we all enjoyed a few well-earned Poncha’s (except Casper, who is too young and therefore enjoyed well-earned orange juices!).

Finding a Mellow Wave on Madeira

So far, every session had been pretty extreme. I think everyone was keen to just have a nice, enjoyable, cruisey surf. Casper’s dad and his friend Tim knew just the place to go…

It was a mission to get there, but the results were exactly what we wanted. At the bottom of a cable car waited a small but perfect-looking right-hander. The standup boards would not fit in the cable car, so we headed off to the nearest harbor, three kilometers down the coast.

The trip to the wave was amazing; the huge cliffs of Madeira towered above as we cruised across the crystal clear waters. Casper, who recently finished in the top 10 at the World Cup racing event, was travelling about twice our speed and had already caught about 10 waves by the time we arrived. The rest of his family, along with Maxi, arrived by cable car and soon we were all enjoying the waves.

Casper gave us a lesson in real standup riding as he hung 10 and cross-stepped his way around the board, his smooth style revealing his solid surfing background. Even his younger brother put us to shame, dancing around on the 10-foot board and ripping the small waves apart.

After a full, action-packed surf day the 3-km return paddle was definitely harder than on the way up. I was dead by the time we made it back. As we arrived in the harbour the kids in canoes showed us their skills by standing up in the canoes, racing us back to the shore, shouting and screaming in Portuguese.

We also discovered that the harbor is home to the best Poncha bars on the island… and of course, Sapo directed us to the very best “passion fruit” poncha.

Heading home

At the end of the trip we left Madeira highly content… The place was not easy by any standards. But the rewards were high and the people we met along the way were amazing… The most incredible part of the whole trip really was the people we met. They are a real contrast to typical localism… They want to share their knowledge and their waves with us and anyone that steps foot on the island.

We windsurfed, surfed, or standup paddled every day and in a huge range of conditions that literally tested us to the limits.

Once thing is for sure—we will definitely return one day to Madeira… to see our new island friends and to test our limits again…

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Mystical Madeira Makes its Case as the Hawaii of Europe
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