Meet Vitinha, the surfer in a hat – The people we met on the way

I met Vitor Tavares, or Vitinha, while doing a story on surf tourism in Ericeira, Portugal, in summer, 2015. I was with photographer Greg Funnell

Today’s Ericeira, less than an hour north of Lisbon, is a place of Quiksilver shops and pro surfers, where surfing is so ingrained that it was named a World Surfing Reserve in 2009 (it was the second place in the world to receive that status, after Malibu, California).

But it wasn’t always thus. Ericeira was a fishing town that became a summer retreat for Lisboetas in the 1940s and 50s. This was a place for promenading, and the local fishermen and holidaymakers barely noticed that Ribeira D’Ilhas, a sandy beach north of town, boasted one of the longest right-handed reef breaks in the world.   

“My father and grandfather were fishermen,” says Vitor Tavares, now 45 and better known as Vitinha, who always wears his trademark hat, and sometimes even surfs in it. We meet near the beach shack cafe at Foz do Lizandro, a surf beach just south of town, while I’m doing a story on the town’s surf scene. “At aged six, I remember going to the beach while they were working on the boats and just body surfing in the waves. It was just this rush of pure happiness. At eight, my parents managed to get me a board somehow, and that was that.”

At eight, Tavares wasn’t remotely aware that he was part of the first wave of local surfers in Ericeira, just as word was getting out among the world’s surfers that there was this magical stretch of Atlantic coastline with clean, consistent waves and hardly anyone in the water.   

“We learned everything from foreigners who came here,” says Vitinha. “We used to call them ‘beefs’, and we’d watch them, then queue up to ask them questions. We’d also buy boards, wax and leashes from the Australians or Americans who were coming, because you couldn’t buy any of that stuff round here. My family eventually made money from them, too—in the summer, we’d rent out our house to the beefs that wanted to surf here, and we’d go and camp.”

We used to call the foreign surfers ‘beefs’, and we’d watch them, then queue up to ask them questions.

Slowly, word got out.  Ribeira D’Ilhas hosted Portugal’s first national surfing competition in 1977, and gradually Ericeira became a surf town. Among those early ‘beefs’ was Nick Uricchio, an American who moved here in the late 70s because, in his words, “it was like California in the early days”. In 1982, with local surfer Miguel Katzenstein, he set up the Semente surfboard company, creating a focal point for the local surf scene.

Today, Semente sponsors a roster of top locally-based pros, including Vasco Ribeiro, the World Surf League’s second top-ranked Portuguese surfer. And Ericeira has taken off as a venue for events, hosting the annual Quiksilver Pro Portugal, while the World Tour of Surfing visits Peniche, a short drive up the coast.

Things haven’t just changed for the top-ranked pros, though. Vitinha works as an instructor for Lapoint, a global surf camp company whose clients are mostly young, blonde Scandinavians who come here for a gap year fantasy of surfing, morning yoga and hammocks. Scores of other camps and surf schools have popped up around the town.

Vitinha, like fellow coach Joaquim Pipio, used to work in a local print factory until it closed down. “Surf tourism saved me,” he says. “I was facing unemployment, and now I get to make a living doing something I love. Surfing’s been good for this place, and you won’t find many locals who disagree with that.”

If Tavares and Pipio are of an older generation, Lapoint’s younger instructors have grown up knowing Ericeira as a surf mecca—like João Durão, an ever-smiling 24-year-old who looks like a Portuguese Patrick Swayze circa Point Break, and who epitomises the Endless Summer vibe of the Lapoint camps. “I grew up not just with surfing, but with the whole culture around it,” he says.

Durão, who grew up just up the coast in Peniche, was a sponsored surfer while still at school, but says that competing was never truly for him. “You need that edge, and I was always too happy,” says Durão, who says he’d be a fashion designer or a dog trainer if he weren’t a surf instructor. “I just like being out there, in the water, meeting people from around the world. Surfing for me is about people and fun; living in board shorts on a tropical island and driving a big old Ford truck. That’s happiness.”

Read more about Lapoint camps here, and about Semente surfboards here.

Nick Uricchio and Miguel Katzenstein, who founded the Semente surfboard company in 1982. They couldn’t stand each other when they first met in the late 1970s. “He was this Yankee asshole who stole my waves and my friend’s girlfriend,” recalls Katzenstein (Pic: Greg Funnell)

Nick Uricchio came from the East Coast but grew up in California. Arriving in Ericeira in 1978 was, he says “like finding California in the early days… great surf, great food, beautiful women.” (Pic: Greg Funnell)

Lapoint surf instructor João Durão (Pic: Greg Funnell)

Lapoint surf instructor João Durão (Pic: Greg Funnell)

Vitinha going for a surf, minus the hat (Pic: Greg Funnell)