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Photo by: Brandan Araujo

El Canou’co, a surfing dilemma

It was about an hour before dark. The spot had been a lot easier to find than I thought – five minutes from the main road and within easy viewing distance from a cliff. A few weeks earlier a friend had told me he had seen ‘something breaking’ along this stretch of coast. This must be it, I thought. The waves seemed unremarkable: perhaps three or four feet and flopping down onto a reef before backing off into deep water. I had no idea whether this wave had been ridden before. Or, indeed, if it was even surfable.   

I decided to give it a try. I walked down to a small beach at the bottom of a winding cliff path, from where I figured it would take me about ten minutes to reach the peak. I took two boards with me, one of which I left on the beach. I figured that if I snapped one I could easily paddle back and get the other one.

It took me a good ten minutes to get through the shorebreak and another twenty to paddle out to the line-up. Once I got there, I looked back. The beach from which I had paddled now seemed like a tiny strip of yellow sand in the far distance, surrounded by white foam and grey rocks. And what had looked like three-to-four-foot waves ‘flopping down onto a reef’ were more like six to eight feet crashing onto a boil-infested slab. I also remember being nervous and not enjoying the beautiful orange sunset as it disappeared behind a mountain.

I rushed into town, found a surf shop and asked them what the name of that wave was and whether anybody had ever surfed it. They didn’t know what I was talking about. That seemed pretty weird to me, so I bought a block of wax and left.

I caught one wave and paddled back. When I got to the beach I climbed up to the car and got changed in the dark. I forgot my other board so I had to fumble my way down the cliff path again to get it. I smiled at a fisherman on the way back up, but he just gave me a blank look. Maybe he didn’t like foreigners. Anyway, I asked him what that reef was called, pointing to the whitewater barely visible in the distance. “El Canou’co” he said, almost coughing out the last syllable of the word. Fisherman and mariners usually have names for surf spots, decades before any surfers ever turn up and give them their own names. I didn’t have a clue what “Canou’co” meant, but it sounded cool.

I didn’t care. I rushed into town, found a surf shop and asked them what the name of that wave was and whether anybody had ever surfed it. They didn’t know what I was talking about. That seemed pretty weird to me, so I bought a block of wax and left.

After that first session, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterwards. If it really was a good surf spot, why weren’t people already surfing it? After all, it was in plain view from the cliff, near a fairly large town on a stretch of coastline that had a thriving surf culture. I felt like a child who had discovered a new place to play, puzzled as to why no other children were playing there.

In fact, the wave was already known by the local surfing population. They had known it existed for at least 15 years before I turned up, but nobody was interested in paddling out there and trying it. To most people, El Canou’co was an unpredictable, dangerous and inaccessible place; not worth the effort or risk. But that also meant that nobody really put in the work to check it closely under different combinations of swell, wind and tide. As a result, the good days went unnoticed, buried under a veil of whitewater, rocks and lack of interest.

About a week later I convinced a friend to paddle out there with me. The swell was cleaner than the first day, and I felt a lot more confident. We scrambled around the rocks on the other side of the break from that first beach, found a place to jump off and rode a handful of waves each. We were the blind leading the blind, fumbling our way around in uncharted territory. My friend agreed that the place had good potential as a surf spot, but doubted it could be surfed much bigger. I mean, where would you paddle out? And how would you get back in? What would you do if you lost your board? Perhaps, El Canou’co would just end up on my list of tried and forgotten surf spots, and that first day would just become a distant memory.

To most people, El Canou’co was an unpredictable, dangerous and inaccessible place; not worth the effort or risk. But that also meant that nobody really put in the work to check it closely under different combinations of swell, wind and tide.

That was in 2004. Now, as I write this in 2018, El Canou’co is anything but forgotten, and the memory of that first day is anything but distant. In fact, looking back and thinking about my ‘first descent’ there, I can say that it was one of the key moments in my life as a surfer.

Over the next two or three years I had a lot of sessions out there on my own, mostly on quite small swells. On bigger days I would just sit and watch for hours, trying to make sense out of what looked like a confused mix of shifting peaks, waves sucking dry onto jagged rocks, and nowhere to go if you got caught inside.

It took me a long time before I realized there was second reef – further out and to one side of the one I had been surfing. The outside peak was more predictable and less scary than the inside one, even though it broke bigger. On the right swell the outside peak connected with the inside one, giving a much longer ride and the chance to drive through a fast inside section.

I started to venture out on bigger days with a bigger board. I gradually began to see a channel here, an opening there, and, step by step, the big days began to look a lot more practical. With the right combination of swell and tide and long enough calm periods between each set, you could surf it much bigger than I had thought. On big days with low tides you could see huge swirling boils at the bottom of the wave as you were taking off, which gave it an extra scariness. I called the outside wave La Caldera because of those boils, and the inside wave La Mesita because of its slab-like qualities.

As the ‘map’ revealed itself, I began to see things I had never imagined before. From what at first seemed like an indecipherable jumble of whitewater, rocks and swirling currents, a clearly-defined layout was starting to emerge, containing fast sections, slow sections, boilers, bubbles, rips, channels and places to avoid at all cost. It was like listening to a complex piece of music or a new language: at first all you hear is a rapid fire of garbled sounds, but then you gradually learn to isolate those sounds and make sense of them.  

For about eight years after that first session, my biggest problem was getting some company in the line-up. I would frantically phone and send messages to other surfers up and down the coast. If they couldn’t make it, I would beg them to ask around just in case anybody else was interested. If nobody came, sometimes I would paddle out on my own, but other times I would just sit on the cliff and mind-surf those waves. Whichever the case, I always learned something new.

A lot of surfers who came to join me were still relatively inexperienced in big waves; but they were good surfers, strong swimmers and, in some cases, half my age. So I would lend them boards and leashes, show them where to paddle out, where to take off and how to get back in again. A lot of people came and went, and a small crew started coming back on a regular basis.

There was no point trying to keep El Canou’co a secret. I’m not a competitive person, and I’ve always felt better sharing my discoveries than keeping them to myself. I didn’t feel I had the right to deprive other surfers from going there. Then again, it didn’t feel right to overexpose the place either. If it became overcrowded and started to attract disrespectful, aggressive people, I’d feel I was betraying those who had put in a lot of initial effort to maintain a good atmosphere in the line-up.

As if that wasn’t enough, there was another dilemma. It was one that I had discussed many times with my colleagues at Save the Waves. What would happen if El Canou’co suddenly became threatened by some sort of coastal intervention? Would there be enough interest among the surfing community to save it? If not, is there no alternative but to give the spot more exposure and, in the process, risk spoiling it by overcrowding?

This problem was brought to light with the famous case of Jardim do Mar on the Island of Madeira. Before Surfer Magazine published an article in 1994, the world was mostly unaware that there was a world-class wave there. Jardim do Mar was just a tiny village isolated at the bottom of a giant cliff on a small island in the North Atlantic. Before 1994, the handful of European and American surfers who had been going to Madeira had been pretty hush-hush about it. So, when the government decided to build a massive sea wall that seriously interfered with the natural coastline and almost destroyed the wave, the surfing community didn’t have the lobbying power to stop it. In the words of Sam George, Surfer Mag editor at the time:

Surfers have a voracious appetite to see articles and photos about new places. On the other hand, they don’t necessarily want those places exploited, because they don’t want other surfers – just like them – to go there. There was still that “Ooh man, don’t tell where it is.” And I’d say that that probably contributed mightily to the frustration that you might experience trying to get people to rally together to protect a place like that.’

So, one the one hand, if you are worried that a surf spot and coastline you love might be ruined by some future human intervention, perhaps you should let the whole world know about it. That way, if and when the time comes, you’ll have enough lobbying power to stop it. But on the other hand, maybe you should never publicise or tell too many people about a surf spot, because that might ruin the spot by overcrowding. After all, an excess of people coming to enjoy a spot could also be thought of as a kind of human intervention. This was the big dilemma.

I’ll never know what it is like to have been born and raised near a good surf spot, or to have lived all my life in a place that I love. But maybe having the privilege of being able to nurture a surf spot from birth, see it gradually come to life and watch it mature for more than a decade, can bring a similar feeling of attachment.

I’ll never know what it is like to have been born and raised near a good surf spot, or to have lived all my life in a place that I love. But maybe having the privilege of being able to nurture a surf spot from birth, see it gradually come to life and watch it mature for more than a decade, can bring a similar feeling of attachment. When I first stumbled upon El Canou’co I had no idea that it was even surfable, but now I know that on the right day it can be a world-class big-wave spot. It would make me very sad if some sort of human intervention took away the magic that El Canou’co still holds for me, all those years after that first innocent day.

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