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Even in recent history, they've been called "The Disappearing Islands," their coastlines vanishing from sailors' telescopic sights, hidden behind the massive swells that continuously traveled toward them. And even further back in time, the Azores' story remains mysterious, the islands rumored to be the remaining peaks of mountains in the lost kingdom of Atlantis. In native folklore, the islands are the nine flowers that an angel dropped from a bouquet that she was flying back up to heaven. The Azores have enchanted the world for ages, just as they would charm the three American surfers that successfully made landfall on a stormy afternoon, the swell 28 feet at 16 seconds. But sometimes, after flying halfway across the globe, an American just wants a motherf–king cheeseburger. And surely the islands' capital, Ponta Delgada, was large enough to necessitate a McDonald's. So as the sailors of old glared at the sea for the sight of shore, Oliver Kurtz glared through the van window for those two golden arches. All three surfers would come to understand this foreign land's rhythms and culture soon enough; their eyes and ears were wide open.
Dawn breaks in the Azores around 7 a.m., which for an eager surf photographer might as well be noon. The crew stepped outside the hotel and the sky swirled above them. The wind was either hard offshore, or it was not. It was hard to tell through the rain. What was certain, was that the storm creating the 28 feet at 16-second swell was not somewhere in the distance, but literally upon them. So the surfers jumped into the van and repeated the timeless adage, "On an island, somewhere is always offshore."
Steering the ship was their surf guide and captain, Ricardo. A Portuguese transplant from the Motherland, he smiled easily and spoke with the resolve of Vasco da Gama. His English was pretty good. "We will now check some spots in the north," he said, staring through hysterical windshield wipers. "It should be offshore there. But if it is not, then later I will take us to the Jedi."
The three surfers looked at each other, "Jedi?" They had heard this place was enchanted -- but cosmic? They shrugged and looked out of the van windows. Perhaps this place was in fact the submerged tip of a rich, lost kingdom. Grinning cows grazed in the lush, terraced pastures swaddling the land. The country roads were sandwiched by small stone cattle fences, electric green moss and ferns sprouting from every crack and crevice. They flew by villages with that modern-medieval vibe; a man walked a donkey while texting on his iPhone.
Through the dense highland forest and past the smoky crater-lake, Ricardo coasted them down the hillside toward the northern shore. The rain ceased and the sea surface looked well groomed. They spotted a right in the middle of a black-sand bay that had a punchy takeoff with a special little side-ramp. The color of the ocean was hard to define.
Ricardo slid open the van door and Brett Barley hopped out in his fullsuit, board under arm. Which seemed impossible, as everyone's sticks were buried in their boardbags, with his at the very bottom. But Brett was like that -- first in, last out -- and the feisty North Carolinian was clicking backside air-reverses off that special little ramp before the rest had their necks zipped up. By the time fellow right-coaster Oliver Kurtz followed suit, and stylish Kauaian Alex Smith laid into his first frontside hack, the wind had taken a terrible turn.
"We will check a slab about an hour from here," decided Ricardo, sliding the door shut. And the three surfers nodded, yes. Along the way, the van traced the curve of the coastline. Beside the van, sea cliffs dropped into oblivion. Alex chuckled at his phone, watching snapchats from pro surfers catching mongeese on Maui. Brett, as much a frother as a devout young father, read Scripture passages from his iPhone. Ironically, Bad Religion's "Stranger Than Fiction," blared from his ear buds. The world is scratching at my doooo-ooor...
But it was Oliver that brought it up first, Juicy J so loud in his earphones that it took the form of background music as he spoke. "What I'd do for a Double Quarter Pounder with cheese," he sighed. "I was in Morocco for an entire month, so a few days ago in the Lisbon airport I finally had McDonald's. I spent 40 euros on a meal...is that a lot?"
The slab wasn't quite working. Wrong tide, or wind or direction. Anything but the fact that maybe it wasn't that good to begin with. "Let's go to the Jedi," said Ricardo, turning the ignition. And everyone solemnly nodded. Outside the van windows, Azorean men trudged up and down cobblestone boat ramps, spear guns and fish in hands. As the three surfers passed, each fisherman stopped mid-convo and watched them curiously. They wore 21st century Third World stares.
They crossed the mountains yet again and came to another village by the sea. They stared at a left across the channel from a jetty. "This is the Jedi," said Ricardo. "Could be good in another hour."
The surfers watched the waves from the jetty wall, waiting for a set. The color of the ocean was sky mating with obsidian.
"When the first explorers settled the Azores," began Ricardo, "they'd send cheep onto the islands to see if they could breathe."
"What are cheep?" asked Oliver.
"Cheep, like baahh, baaahhh," said Ricardo.
"Oh, sheep...why would they do that?"
"Because of the smoke from the volcanoes."
It may have been a metaphor, and it may have not, but Brett understood and paddled out. The first sheep. Also, the first to get properly tubed on the ledgy left that dredged, mechanically on a sand bar across from the Jedi. Alex and Oliver quickly saw that the air was breathable and darted across the channel, too.
In the myth of Atlantis, the god Poseidon carved an island into an intricate palace where he and his true love dwelled. They named this island palace after their first son, Atlas, who later became king of the entire Atlantic Ocean. The van rolled into the ancient capital at dusk and Ricardo navigated the city's tight streets. Could this really be the present-day ruins of an empire?
Whether or not the three surfers had heard of this myth or any fantastic story of the Azores was inconsequential. They had still swum in the Azores' black sapphire sea, still licked the rain from its storms off their lips, still breathed the air in its highlands like the brave sheep of old. In short, they'd earned a comfort or two from home, and the three disappeared (as the islands once did) into the sliding glass doors of the Ponta Delgado McDonald's. The french fries tasted exactly like they did at home.
See the photos from Black Sapphire Sea in the September issue. A special thanks to SATA International, Hotel Marina Atlântico, Carlos Rodrigues and Ricardo Ribeiro for their hospitality.