How I Surfed in Madeira: Ups, Downs and Deeper

What’s here:

  • Even if you are not very sporty, there is still a good chance you will ride a surfboard
  • Madeira is a good place to learn surfing
  • How I embarrassed myself
  • Why no serious decision should be taken before surfing


I come from a deeply continental part of Europe where the best representation of sea sport is probably a ride on an inflatable banana. It’s fun and non-demanding: the only thing required is to sit steadily on your ass.


This is why surfing has always been something exotic and what only cool laid back guys in the movies would do.

But Portugal, where I live now, is famous for this sport: they have a long shoreline, the Atlantic ocean waves and many surf schools.


Our adventure starts with meeting Dan, one of the surf instructors. He is a Swede who came to Madeira a while ago and has stayed here longer than he planned. His face is suntanned, his hair is sun-bleached, and I think to myself: yes, this is exactly how a surfer must look.


Soon we would learn that Dan is friendly but quite strict with beginners. After a while though, we would know that his occasional snaps are general safety rules and universal surf ethics. Dan is also good to explain ocean tides and what you need to do to catch a nice wave. Back in Sweden, his passion was snowboarding, but he says surfing is very different, makes you think differently: a ski slope stays the same, and a wave never repeats itself.


In Madeira, my friend and I joined Calhau Surf School. I think we were lucky because the school is just great. Don’t want to go into much detail, trust my word or check their Facebook or Tripadvisor page. However, because this post has nothing to do with advertising, I must say that I heard that most surf schools in Madeira are good. We joined this one because our friends surfed with them.


Why you need to have a teacher? Because I doubt that anyone can get on the board without instructions: you need to know the mechanics. However, once you know the basic concept, it gets clear. On the shore. In the water – if you remember your name – it’s already good. That’s my case.


This is why joining a surf school benefits you in many ways. They pick you up from Funchal, the capital of Madeira; you receive the equipment: a wetsuit and a board which matches your capacities; they give you instructions on the shore and support in the water, putting on the waves if you can’t catch them on your own. There is even a photographer on the shore, a gentleman named Rui, who takes picture of the whole lesson. To show your friends and family – yes, but also for further analysis of your progress and mistakes.


Every time after the class the group gets together in a so-called surf camp – a cute hotel Vila Bela, to see the pictures on a big screen and get suggestions how to improve next time.


All in all, you are taken care of, like an infant, in many ways thanks to the head of the school – Rodolfo. He is always there to greet you and give specific tasks for the lesson, and you will rarely go into the water without a hug and a wish for good waves.


The rest of the instructors are also very nice and friendly.


Augusto (left), who is good both with a bodyboard and a surfboard, and, in his own words, can do some crazy shit with the first and some shit with the second. His friend Cecilio (right), and Mario, who is not in the photo but helps with lessons once in a while.

Oh and this is Dan.



May remind you of Braveheart. It’s because he uses a special sunscreen which is more resistant to water.

Calhau Surf School is situated in a picturesque town of Porto da Cruz in the north of the island, and most lessons happen in this area.


However, if the weather conditions require, they can load the equipment in a van and take the group to another part of the island.


Madeira is good for surfing. The sea floor around is rocky, not sandy, this is why ocean waves come uniform, and not smeared. Also the waters around the island are deep, so even a small wave has a big carrying power.


So we jump in our wetsuits and… wait. Frankly speaking, it’s never “jump” into a wetsuit. Wearing it requires an effort, and taking off after the lesson – even more. A good wetsuit embraces you like a second skin, and actually this is what makes it effective. You are never cold in water, even during a 2-hours lesson.

We warm up on the shore, learn how to pop up on the board and get into the water.


Now the main message of this post: it’s almost 100% you will actually surf during your first lesson. I don’t remember any day where a newcomer didn’t climb the board. Maybe it will be just for a short while, you may look awkward but you will be there – standing on the board, riding a wave.



Then, your progress depends on your skills and commitment. For example, my friend got steady on the board quite quickly.



She is generally good with sports: she dances, ice-skates and skies. I, on the contrary, could never ride a bike or do at least one push-up. And balance is important, as well as strong arms to paddle when a wave is coming. It’s not that I’ve never done sports – I just didn’t develop the muscles needed for surfing. Some time ago I would have said: meh, I just have weak arms. And now it’s the first time I want to change it.


There are many surfers who are better in water, and some who are as insecure as me. But we all progress, in our own pace. It’s cool and fun.

Let’s see who will win the race. The surfers are ready to catch a wave (I am on the left)…


They are climbing the boards…




One observation, not only mine. Whenever you have a bad mood or stupid thoughts in your head – surfing washes away everything. You feel different, better. This is why in every tricky situation first surf and only after make a decision.

And since we are speaking of changing perception. A quick glance at the picture: what do you see?


The other day I heard my friends talking about half-board. I was silently questioning how it’s possible “a half board”, not a whole one. Turns out they were talking about a meal scheme at hotels. I came up with my answer.


If you have a chance to visit Madeira, go surf. I regret I have started only recently. I became a part of something I could only dream about. It’s a great feeling, and it makes you ask for more. And I know for sure what we will do when my friends come next time.


P.S. This post uses images made by Rui from Calhau Surf School; also pics by my friend Natalia; another surfer, a graphic artist Christian, and one of our instructors Augusto. Thanks a lot, guys!