Sandbanks disintegrate, tides surge in, and high pressures reign for months on end; the temporality of waves is both lamented and accepted by the surfing community. But when “the jewel of the Atlantic”, Jardim do Mar, was crippled by human intervention, exasperation turned to despair. Ten years on and the tide may have turned on Madeira, igniting talk of resurrection.
A freak of nature, perched off the island of Madeira, Jardim do Mar assimilated raw Atlantic swells into thundering boulder-bottomed rights. Along with two other top class waves, in 2003 Jardim was severely impaired by a poorly conceived sea wall and promenade. Before local opposition could gain momentum, the municipal cogs had started their inexorable whirring, and thousands of right angled blocks were deposited far into the lineup.
The result was not only a visual monstrosity, abhorred by residents and visitors alike, but a warbling wave breaking mere meters from a hellish assortment of jagged concrete.
“Before you could surf it on the smaller days for four, maybe five hours around the low tide, but now you can only surf it for one hour, and then after that the waves break right on the blocks.” says Belmiro Mendes, local Jardineiro and former Madeiran champ. “It used to be that whenever the waves were good, everyone went to surf Jardim. Now no one surfs there, except on the days when it is really big and perfect.”
It was ridiculous, anyone with half a brain could have predicted this result. It was like building a sea wall in the impact zone at Teahupoo. Every time they build the walls up again the waves knock it down.” João Valente, Surf Portugal
Another infamous development took place at Lugar de Baixo, one of the few quality sheltered spots on Madeira. The once perfect righthand tube was squashed by a €50 million luxury marina which, in over a decade, has never been used. The savage sea conditions have regularly dismantled the principal sea wall and barely a single boat has dared to enter its treacherous waters.
The man at the heart of these projects is President Alberto João Jardim, who’s 30 year quasi-dictatorial reign has overseen a programme of endless borrowing, grant seeking and rampant development. While Jardim has implemented some important infrastructure developments, the small volcanic island is now spotted with grandiose white elephant projects, predominately financed by EU grants.
“Developers draw up projects on the back of hankerchiefs, then siphon off the funds when they flood in,” says Joao Valente, editor of Surf Portugal and regular visitor to the island. “many have spoken out in criticism of the “cosy” relationships between the government, grant givers and local developers.”
The situation deteriorated still further when the EU grants dried up, leaving Jardim to venture onto the open market for funds. Today the island’s 250 thousand strong population boasts a €6 billion debt (per capita, twice that of the Portuguese mainland).
Hope for Future
Fortunately this woeful story is yet to reach its conclusion. Alberto Jardim’s administration is coming to an end, and those set to fill the space seem more receptive to wave riding as part of the island’s future.
“The local government has publicly demonstrated its intention to recover the surf spots that were affected by coastal defenses. Jardim do Mar is one of them.” Said João Rodrigues, former Olympic windsurfer and spearhead of the campaign to recover the island’s waves. “Considering the three surf spots affected, the less expensive option is Lugar de Baixo, and that’s where we are focusing our energy and attention. If we could successfully recover this spot, then we could start looking at the other two with a different background.”
The local government have watched bewildered as surfing reserves have been created on the Portuguese mainland, and lucrative international competitions have migrated to the Azores. With surfer visitor numbers on Madeira shaved down to a hardcore crew, and EU loans fading into a pleasant distant memory, the island is being forced to consider the fiscal value of its natural assets.
“Ever since the sea wall projects went ahead, a negative aura has shrouded the island, with surfers generally choosing to exclude it from their itineraries, despite the fact that Madeira still has world class waves.” Says Joao Valente. “The new Secretary for the Environment, Manuel António Rodrigues Correia, has acknowledged that something has to be done to reverse this negative perception. As a result they are faced with the absurd, but necessary, task of removing that which was built.”
While organisations such as Save the Waves and Salvem o Surf have been hugely successful in preventing the needless destruction of our coastlines, rarely are we given the opportunity to rejuvenate a spot which was thought destroyed, already consigned to the category of legendary, but lost.
“It’s still a long way we have to go. And we do need the help from everybody,” says João Rodrigues. “Surfers from any part of the world could have a key role here. Working together with us in order to preserve the unaffected spots, showing local people the positive contributions surfers have to offer, and when we recover the waves, spreading the word that the tide has changed!”