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From The Field: Terra de Ouricos

A three-day dream run at one of the Atlantic's most beloved slabs

While keeping an eye on winds and swell for a nearby cluster of fickle volcanic islands in the Atlantic, we pulled the trigger on a rotten red eye out of San Francisco, blasting head on into a winter storm that redirected us through a very cranky JFK, lifting off out of New York as the city was battening down the hatches. With a curbside pickup at Lisbon International, we rolled up at dawn to one of Portugal’s finest slabs of rock, alongside visiting Californian hellwoman Bianca Valenti fresh off her maiden Nazare voyage, and WSL Big Wave Tour host Shannon Reporting, just as a healthy west swell was beginning to peak. A well-overhead bomb wedged off the rock at the top of the point, freight trained for fifty yards and blew its guts out. Stiff offshore winds sent a plume fifty feet into the air.

When this little corner of Portugal turns on like this, you can count on Tiago Pires to be the man to watch. Photo: Joao “Brek” Bracourt

Beneath the moonscape cliffside, Tiago Pires, Vasco Ribiero, and Miguel Fortes were putting on a clinic at the main peak, while up-and-coming charger Alex Botelho clawed his way into pit after pit up at the top of the point's brutal slab, taking off from as deep as possible, a lion of a young man standing tall and getting blown out of barrels to the collective enjoyment of the main pack looking on. Photographer Joao “Brek” Bracourt would claim Botelho had made 18 barrels that first session.

We'd gotten tipped off to this infamous little slab by Joao De Macedo; we'd shared mutual friends for years, but had never met in person. He'd planned to meet us later in the day, had some obligations in the morning, unfortunately. De Macedo's been busy lately, getting things in order for his first year on the WSL Big Wave Tour, which he'd qualified for after a fourth place finish at Nazare. As Valenti, my brother Jack, and I scrambled to attach fins and leashes to step-ups and round tails, De Macedo texted from an hour away: "I'm dropping everything." The morning's session was just beginning.

A set moved down the point, and one after the other, Portuguese and Spanish pros from three generations faded the main peak's mutant wedge, drawing out their bottom turns and pulling up and under the first section's falling axe, coming out with the spit, burning off speed with beautiful arcs or dramatic mid-face check-turns before pulling back into the inside double-up, a few being blown out into the middle of the bay and back into the relentless currents born from eight-foot, full moon tide swings.

"Some of these guys are so stylish, and surf this wave sooo good," said European Champ Gony Zubizaretta, waxing up a new 6'2" roundtail Semente, shaped by legendary shaper Nick Uricchio. "Tiago. Miguel Ruivo. Miguel Fortes. [Fortes] looks like Patrick Swayze in Point Break, and surfs like Tom Curren. That narrow stance, crouched low, just so stylish."

Gony Zubizaretta, grace under pressure. Photo by Sebastian Keim

As a clean up set washed through the deep pack of European talent, we followed Zubizaretta down the cruel, cheese-grater path, our bare feet quivering atop the cuspate rock, as waves exploded against the cliffs. Zubizaretta and Valenti slipped out just before the next formation of thick winter lines began to stand up.

We timed the set, safely back from the jump rock, a stone's throw from each deep set wave's detonation. Botelho backdoored a mutant from next to the rock, came flying out of a flexing cavern and kicked out in a cloud of spit to the roar of the small crowd gathered on the cliffs above. Right behind him, Valenti snuck into a thick double-up, pulled in as the thing grew, disappearing completely to the click-click-click of shutters above, before blasting through twenty yards down the line (Over a liter of house red a few days later, the boys would confess their utter dismay at Valenti's surfing this swell, many a big wave star claiming they'd never seen anything like it—and that she'd captured a few local hearts in the process).

After three days picking off sets deeper than most of the men, taking critical drops with ease and drawing beautiful lines with her bottom turns, many a local was overheard remarking that they’d never seen a woman surf like Bianca Valenti. Photo by Luis Rodriguez

The jump rock proved painless. Nerve-wracking, sure, but no big deal. A few deep breaths, a casual paddle around the indicator slab, and I found myself all alone at the peak as everyone regained position, gathered their marbles after the set's thorough clearing. A deep one began to stack up at the top of the point; I turned on it, over-gunned on a brand new 7'0 Patterson, raced the first section and kicked out, a quick one to shake the nerves. Behind it, a bomp stacked up in front of me, scratching to get under it. As the current pulled me right into the impact zone where the two peaks met, I casually pushed my board to the side and dove under as the thing doubled up on top of me, my leash pulling taught before that old familiar feeling of…release. I came up to a leggy attached firmly to a cleanly-removed leash plug. All the best laid plans…

Alex Botelho, once more unto the breach, at one of his most precious slabs of Atlantic rock. Photo: Joao Cabrita Silva

While my first session was pretty much over before it began, the next three days would prove to be the best run of swell this little corner of the Atlantic would see all year, with plenty of opportunities to redeem myself (whether they were taken remains up for debate).

"This place is heavy," Joao de Macedo would say later on, smiling hugely after a flogging left him with tiger stripes across his back after a freak double-up we'd watched sent him straight to the bottom. He'd come up unfazed, paddled back out, and threaded the next barrel on his backhand for thirty yards. "When it's good here, it's as good as anywhere."

By the time the wind turned onshore the third day, marking an end to the unseasonal streak, most everyone was dealing with some minor tragedy – broken boards galore, bruised ribs (and egos, in my case), concussions, urchin spines lodged stubbornly deep. A small price to pay for 72 hours of heavy Atlantic heaven.

Like a cat shot out of a cannon, Tiago Pires enjoying the blast. Photo by Sebastian Keim