Too Many Rocks – A Surf Trip To Madeira

Ben Selway accompanies a team of British chargers to a big rock in the middle of the Atlantic

I had to laugh.

Why on Earth would any self-respecting man want to prize themselves away from their cosy wind and rain lashed living room, to spend a week standing on masses of slippery rocks trying to make over-sized fat point breaks look fun?

Not to sound ungrateful by any means – but unless a wave vaguely has a shoulder, I’m not interested. Besides, rather bizarrely I’ve started to enjoy being a recluse in the grip of winter – especially when the fire’s raging and there’s good telly on. Madeira’s notoriously famous for fat points. All credit to the guys who surf them when it’s 20 feet and going  berserk, however, I have my preferences and naturally when Croyde charger Andrew Cotton initially tried to sell the idea of going to the island I was dubious. Nevertheless, something convinced me – I can’t remember what exactly, but before long I found myself being dragged off my extremely comfortable sofa and stuffed into a hideously cramped, low budget plane. In spite of my reluctance, the painful flight and the tiny over-priced cans of coke, I discovered on arrival that Cotty was right, and I was wrong. The skies were clear, the swell was running and just in the distance and nestled into the cliffs that framed the splendid vista that our hotel balcony overlooked, was a curiously hollow and extremely good looking right.



It was like watching a group of romping lions savaging a helpless and knackered out Gazelle on the Serengeti. To make matters worse, the poor guy clearly wasn’t getting zip all in the way of help – not from us, and especially not from the bemused crowd of crones watching from the breakwater. But, if you feel surfing macking Jardim el Solo is a good idea you can’t expect much else.

The problem facing the hapless taker was the simple task of getting out. The truth is – Madeira doesn’t give access to all her areas for many folk, especially without putting them through a little whoop-ass first. In fact for a while it was the catalyst in me not coming here – I heard the paddle outs and ins were hideous and the spectre below only served as butt-clenching confirmation. “Bit embarrassing innit?” said I. “Fuck that. I’d give up and paddle to that harbour a couple of miles south,” Josh added. “So hideous,” chuckled Fergal. The poor guy clearly had enough and for the umpteenth time was sent packing, horizon bound, away from the looming and rapidly approaching set, and the menacing labyrinth of boulders on the shoreline. He almost made it at one point. But it was one of those moments of relief when you paddle in to the shallows, find your feet on the bottom and prepare yourself for the awkward looking reef dance to dry land. But, it wasn’t to be. His hesitancy once again got the better of him and instead of sitting on the shore enjoying a cold post-surf beer, he was engulfed by another wall of white water, which slammed him into the rocks like a sumo taking down Wee Jimmy Cranky. He made it eventually after a pride pillaging 20 minutes – which to us and the old folk on the breakwater didn’t seem that long, but for him must have seemed like hours.

The cheek of ’em

Josh Hughes is a cheeky little fecker. There used to be a time when your average, bog-standard grommet could withstand character building tit-for-tat and that every whip of the tongue or dead leg was simply taken in jest. They were a placid breed who knew full well that any ill-treatment was something that their elders had to do, just because they had it done to them. Like the majority of our hip-hop influenced, daisy-chaining youth of today, the Newquay youngster isn’t one to pander to traditionalism, and, from the outset clearly wasn’t going to take any shit from us. “Get us a round of apple and cinnamon teas,” ordered Cotty. “Get it yourself,” he replied. “Cheeky little fecker!” Fergal barked. “But I don’t want one, why should I make them?!” And that’s how it was. Any form of grommet abuse was futile. After all, we couldn’t force him to knock up some teas (he could’ve phlegmed in them), and as Fergs found out during a backseat play fight, any form of physical abuse was met by a wall of retaliation and equally painful consequences.


The Right.

It is totally preposterous to make exuberant claims like ‘this is the best wave ever’, ‘we discovered this wave,’ etc… but, the right that reeled off before us with man-made precision, was pretty fecking good. Given the circumstances you’d think suiting up and getting in there wouldn’t have been an issue, but the day/night before went from a pleasant sightseeing tour of the island to an eight hour intoxicated haze. Our demise started early. It was Cotty’s fault. Talk of a cute little sawdust strewn truck stop, halfway across the island didn’t help matters. More specifically – the overpowering liquor they worryingly sell by vat load to all the passing lorry drivers. “You’ve got to check it out. One glass of this shit sends you on the way,” he warns. “God knows why they sell it here though. Can you imagine getting half-cut and driving a lorry through these roads?!” He had a point. To say the roads in Madeira are challenging would be understatement, especially the ones that snake their way tantalisingly close to the near vertical cliff edges. A couple of glasses later and a meal with Lord George (more on him later) thrown into the mix, we were all, (with exception of the borderline teetotal, Fergal) on our way to having crippling hangovers the following morning. So, you can imagine when we laid eyes on said ‘best waves we’ve ever seen’ breaking perfectly down the point and unlike any other day on the trip – the general feeling was that of disappointment. Cotty sat watching in silence, trying to kick-start himself with crystal meth strength coffee, while Josh and I looked on nodding in agreement at Fergal’s kid-like excitement and unhelpful comments like “Arr, boys, ye shouldn’ta drank so much.” “We’ve got to get in Cotty,” I informed with my head pulsating. Suffering, he could barely muster a reply, but remained positive. “I think I can surf better on a hangover.” On the contrary, the surf didn’t last long. We thought we conquered it, and for about an hour believed we were on the straight and narrow to coming home with one of those rare sessions you’d be telling the grand-kiddies about for years to come. However, our fun was murdered when it suddenly picked up from six to 10 feet, sending a freakishly big set ramping through. Both Fergs and Cotty thought it would be a clever idea to take off when clearly it was going to close-out, and in quick succession surfaced with snapped boards. Best right in Europe? Well, for about an hour it was.


The cliffs

You cannot go to Madeira and not talk about the island’s gargantuan cliffs. On the west side they are particularly huge, and if you have the urge you can actually pay someone to scale the entire height of them in a rickety old, Bond et Jaws-styled cable car. Better than that, you can avoid the touristy bit, the safety walls and the done and dusted photo opportunity – and go off the beaten track like Fergs did and really get amongst it. “I love it,” laughs Fergal with a wild look in his eyes. “We do it at home regularly.” He was referring to his favourite post-surf pastime – standing within inches of the drop-off until your nerves give up. That’s if of course a sudden gust of wind doesn’t whisk you off beforehand, or even more dramatically, the ground beneath your feet erodes away taking rocks and you with it. It’s then, when you’re perched on the edge of one for the sake of peer pressure you realise how big they actually are!

Lords, Phesants & Barrels 

As he neared the ledge, it jacked up fast, quicker than Pete Doherty out of rehab and drawing water hard off the gurgling reef before it. His momentum didn’t even grant him the time to stand and under the equivocal gazes of the crew, he was sent with a mass of flailing limbs into the churning pit, and down into the depths. “Who is he?” asked Fergs, slightly bewildered. “I think he’s a Lord,” Cotty offered. “He knows a mate of mine in Croyde who told him we’d be out here.” ‘Lord George’ as he was affectionately labelled, was in fact a thoroughly nice bloke from Devon, who impulsively booked a ticket to go surfing for a couple of days, and through friends of friends, happened upon us. We’re not entirely certain where the ‘Lord’ part of his name originated. It was probably a rumour started by one of their mutual pals, but nevertheless, if you heard his impeccable and charmingly noble speaking voice, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. It later transpired we got it wrong. He wasn’t actually a lord at all, but was the inheritor of a 10,000 acre plot of land in deepest Devon County, which, thanks to a bit of business savvy, he uses as a ‘pheasant shoot’. Previous to our introduction, I had no prior knowledge of such a thing, and rattling off at birds was something I thought gun-toting country folk did when they fancied something other than chicken for dinner. But it seems hunting for game is big business, especially when you bear in mind that a day’s worth of killing would cost the punter an overdraft massacring £3,000 and upwards. With this much cash being bandied about, you then realise that George’s Pheasant Shoot isn’t exactly Laser Quest and subsequently you wouldn’t expect to see your average Joe tooled up there donning tweed shooting attire. “We get all sorts of interesting characters,” George tells me. “We’ve had all sorts of celebrities and rocks stars up for it. They all love it and dress up in the full traditional hunting outfits. It’s a proper spectacle.” Unfortunately for the Pheasants, business is so good that his trigger-happy customers are literally queuing up for a slice of the action, allowing him to pick and choose his clients – thus enabling him to saunter off on trips like this whenever he gets the urge.