The Jewel of the South

Campeche is everything you never knew about Brazil.

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In 1929, French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was working for the airmail service Aéropostale, delivering letters and packages between Buenos Aires and Paris. The route had 11 stops in Brazil alone, as the primitive planes of the era needed constant refueling and service. At Campeche, then just a small fishing village outside of Florianópolis on Santa Catarina Island off the coast of southern Brazil, Saint-Exupéry’s flight pattern most likely would have seen him approach from the south, make a low first pass over the small island in front of the beach, then gently turn the plane to the east and up over the ocean in order to circle back down to the landing strip. 

If the famous pilot was making his stop sometime in the early autumn, and if a strong south swell of just the right angle happened to be spilling in off the Atlantic on his final descent, he would have seen the sight that today brings so many visitors to the island: wave after wave after wave reeling down the sandbank in perfect symmetry for close to half a mile.

Campeche became Saint-Exupéry’s favorite layover in South America, and his relationship with the local fishermen, who called him Zé Perry, has been the topic of numerous books and documentaries. While it’s been more than 90 years since he last flew over the island and its right point after being transferred back to Europe in 1931, his presence is still felt by those who come seeking the town’s aquatic rarity. Saint-Exupéry had not yet published any of his many books—including The Little Prince—that would establish him as one of the most read and acclaimed writers of all time, but his most celebrated work is written, literally, across the cityscape. 

Fábio Gouveia, who moved to Campeche after his retirement from the world tour, now finds outside his front door what he spent two decades hunting across the world. Photograph by Christian Herzog. Illustrations by Ross MacDonald.

For a traveling surfer seeking out Campeche’s sand-bottomed perfection, to get from the airport to the beach, they must head down Avenida Pequeno Príncipe on a straight line toward the coast, first passing by the Megalith Saint-Exupéry, then the Pequeno Príncipe Fishmonger, Pequeno Príncipe Realty, and finally the Pequeno Príncipe Restaurant, which sits right on the sand. That’s where one will find a large sign featuring the drawing of a little blond boy with a mantle over his back. The Little Prince. O Pequeno Príncipe.

While Saint-Exupéry and the wave remain fixtures of Campeche, the surrounding town would be unrecognizable to the Frenchman today. Especially in the last 15 years, Campeche has been transformed from a mostly forgotten fishing village frequented by wayward surfers in the know to one of the most sought-after residential neighborhoods on the Magic Island, as Florianópolis is commonly referred to. And there is no doubt that the wave was one of the sparks that lit the boom, seducing a horde of surfers from all over the country and world to make a permanent move to the island. 

Fábio Gouveia, the first Brazilian surfer to have an impact on the world tour, and godfather of the now-dominant Brazilian Storm, is perhaps the best-known example. Born in João Pessoa, he spent a good portion of his life as a professional surfer living in Recife, both cities on the northeastern coast of Brazil, more than 2,000 miles from Florianópolis. But when, in 2002, he decided it was time to find a permanent home, one where he could best “raise a surfing family,” he opted with little hesitation for Florianópolis, the rights at Campeche being a major factor. Always quick to reply with a smart remark when answering a question, he explains that relocating his family to a house that’s only a three-minute car ride from the point actually saved him a pile of money.

“Financially,” he says, “buying a house at Campeche was the best move I ever made in my life. Twenty years ago, the prices were still accessible, and after three years I figured out that I’d paid for the house just by adding up all the airfare I didn’t spend by not having to fly halfway around the globe to find waves of similar quality.”

Fábinho, as he’s affectionately known in Brazil due to his diminutive stature, describes the wave itself in terms of many of the world’s best spots, ones he knows intimately from his career as a traveling pro. 

“I wouldn’t compare Campeche with J-Bay or Rincon,” he says, “because it’s a sand-bottom pointbreak. It has many faces as the sand moves around. Snapper Rocks, Burleigh Heads, or Currumbin on the Gold Coast are the places it reminds me of a lot. Those are the types of waves that I always dreamed of having in front of my house. Now, I do.”

When it’s fully on, the wave at Campeche starts about 500 yards up the beach from Riozinho, and surfers are able to connect all the sections together only on those extraordinary and rare days when everything lines up just right. The sand has to have formed just so on the outside peak, called the Pontal, where the submerged bank advances to the middle of the channel that separates the beach from the outer island. The wave tends to gain in size as it goes, running along an angle from the coast, until it gets to the final section. There, the wall aligns itself parallel to the beach and dumps its full force into a barrel over nearly dry sand. That fast, extremely hollow portion produces some of the best tubes on the entire Brazilian coastline. 

“I’ve seen Marco Polo—another Brazilian ex-CT’er who resides close by—get five barrels in a row on a single wave,” Gouveia says, remembering one of the best sessions he’s been a part of out there.

While Gouveia explains that most surfers prefer a thruster at Campeche for the purpose of bagging those famous barrels, the wave also offers up the opportunity for testing out other types of crafts. Since he moved to the area, Gouveia has gotten back to an old passion: shaping surfboards. Under his FG label, and situated in the main surfboard design and manufacturing center in Brazil, Fábinho has successfully made the transition to nearly full-time shaper, with many of his models designed with Campeche in mind.

“In the last few years,” he says, “I’ve gotten more and more into fishes and similar boards. I think Campeche, with its long, drawn-out walls, is a suitable wave to experiment with different lines than the ones I was used to as a competitor.” 

Despite its world-class highs and overall pliability, the problem at Campeche is reliability. For the sand to properly accumulate in the middle of the channel, there needs to be a spring and summer with a high count of storms from the east. Then there’s the wind, which needs to blow from the west, even though the predominant wind direction on the island is from the northeast. Finally, most of the south and southeast swells move in between April and September, while the mullet fishing season starts in early May and finishes at the end of July. During this period, the artisanal fishing communities have the power to close down the beaches, and that includes surfing. In recent years, after many and sometimes even violent conflicts, the fishermen have become more flexible, often taking the red flag down when the surf gets too big to take their canoes through the impact zone.

Fortunately, the point isn’t the only wave in the immediate area that’s holding. There’s also Riozinho, named for the little river that flows into the ocean in front of it. Riozinho is more or less its own separate wave, a beachbreak of rights and lefts as opposed to a point, which works not only on the same swells as Campeche, but also picks up those of different fetches.

Yago Dora (top) and Gouveia (bottom), two top-shelf takes on what could very well be the same day at Campeche. Photographs by James Thisted.

As such, it works more often than Campeche proper, and attracts its own crowd. Still, the allure of Campeche Point at its absolute best is what draws surfers to, and keeps them in, the area.

“I don’t sleep when I think there is a chance that the Campeche rights will be good,” says Marcelo Frugoli, a realtor and surfer who moved from São Paulo to the island in the early 1980s, among the first batch of outsiders to do so. “There’s a group of us who call ourselves ‘The Ghosts.’ Even when it’s dark out, we’ll be at the beach trying to figure out if it’s breaking.” 

Frugoli says that nowadays it’s more necessary than ever to get there as early as possible. 

“We used to do that because of the wind, as the northeaster can come up any time. But in the last few years, our motivation changed. Getting there early is the only chance to surf without the crowd. When the waves are on, there will easily be 150 guys out, and, being a difficult wave to read, you will have problems if you think you can sit down the line and catch the leftovers. Some guys will go through a whole session without riding a single wave.”

Frugoli, just like Gouveia, says that investing in Campeche real estate was the best decision he ever made. Since he moved, the prices have skyrocketed. But, like in many other places around the planet, the trend of rich people buying all the coastal land has pushed locals away from the breaks they grew up surfing. Its backlash is well known, even more so when people are fighting over a world-class wave.

THE BAD PRINCE’S REDEMPTION: A surf enforcer finds enlightenment

Adilson “Cupim” Miguel is a legendary figure in Florianópolis. Known for decades as the ruler of the coveted Campeche rights, his fame went exponential when, in August 2014, a fight broke out at the break. Three locals punched a non-local who had come to surf from a different part of the island. A passerby filmed the struggle, and the video made the news at the biggest television networks in Brazil. 

Cupim wasn’t involved in the incident. The three locals who did participate, however, were Cupim’s pupils. One was a military police officer. Not afraid to show his face, Cupim agreed to an interview with a TV station reporter, in which he didn’t defend the beating, but did state the obvious: “Every beach has a local crew that feels they have a preference to surf the best waves, and outsiders that want to break that unwritten rule will incur the risk of getting into some serious trouble.”

That interview, inversely, caused Cupim serious trouble. A multitude of police agencies, including at the federal level, came after him. With Florianópolis and Campeche being major tourist destinations, the pressure was on. Authorities made it clear that they wouldn’t tolerate visitors having to ask the permission of locals in order to get in the water and ride some waves, and that someone had to be held responsible for the unlawful behavior. Though the police tried, they couldn’t find Cupim guilty of anything besides scaring the people who saw his interview. 

After some time, the situation began to cool down, and Cupim was able to get back to his routine of surfing Campeche every day, no matter the conditions—just what he plans to do until the day he dies. Still, the whole situation made him stop to think about what had happened and reflect on his attitudes and their consequences.

“The best thing is to lay your head on the pillow and be able to sleep,” he says. “When that’s not happening, something is wrong. And then you have to look inside yourself. I never really got violent with anybody. But I had a voice, said things, asked many people to surf the next section down the beach and leave the main one for the locals. They tried to find something, but I never had any problems with the police. There was a lot of yelling in the water, up until the point where I saw that I was wrong. I talked to many people after that and said I was sorry. Today, they’re my friends. 

“That’s the reason we’re here in this world, to evolve. If I had kept acting the same way, I might have had a heart attack by now. Today I feel good. Localism is over. There are just too many people. Some years ago, there were fewer people with more disrespect. Nowadays, there are more people with more respect than before. The locals and the outsiders respect each other.”

Does it sound like something you might read in a book by Saint-Exupéry, about a Bad Prince who turned into a Good Prince? Wait, there’s more.

“We are eternal,” Cupim says. “We are time travelers. We are here using this physical vehicle to get better. Our passage is a concise one compared to a very long life after we leave our body. I never hurt anybody. Today, if I see an argument over a wave, I try to interfere positively. I tell people to let go. People exaggerate. They used to say I did many things that I never did. What can I say? I have an ugly face. But now I try to give a good example to the kids. Not by saying that I didn’t do things, but by explaining to them what’s wrong and what’s right. The things I did wrong helped me to grow and be a better person. People like me the way I am. I didn’t hide. I don’t owe nothing to nobody.”

Cupim, en route. Photograph by Christian Herzog.

Most surf spots of quality have a local surfer who takes on the role of enforcer, regulating who can and can’t get waves when he and his posse are in the lineup. Campeche is no exception, and the spot’s local leader, Adilson “Cupim” Miguel, has been in that position for the last 45 years. Born a few hundred meters from the wave, he was also Campeche’s first local surfer, possibly the very first person to surf the break. It’s been so long that he doesn’t quite remember.

“I started surfing in 1976,” Cupim says, “at another beach nearby, where my grandmother had a little farm by the ocean. There were some other surfers who used to keep their boards there that I used. But as soon as I got my own board, I started surfing Campeche rights. At that time, only one other guy would join me in the water. His name was Zé Maria Whitaker. He had moved to the island from São Paulo, and if anybody surfed Campeche before I did, it was him. A very nice guy. We got on very well and surfed together for many years. Eventually, a couple more of my friends saw me surfing and decided that they wanted to have some fun. During those initial years, there wasn’t any localism, as there was no need for it.”

It wasn’t until 1982, when the first national surfing festival was held on the island, that Cupim saw the need to mark his territory. 

“What happened here was very similar to what happened in Hawaii,” he says. “During the contest, a big swell hit Campeche and it was on fire for days straight. Suddenly, some of the guys that weren’t locals but who surfed with us occasionally appeared in the magazines in articles about that swell, talking about how they owned the place and could surf it better than anybody else. Today, looking back, I can understand they did that in the excitement of the moment. But at the time it caused a negative reaction. And it brought publicity for the wave that didn’t do us any good either. After those articles came out, there were guys with money from São Paulo who would hear that a cold front was moving in from the south and get on an airplane the next day to come to surf our wave.”

Ultimately, these stories just reaffirm the draw of the wave. Cupim has mellowed in recent years and concedes that now, with so many people in the water, it’s impossible to even try to determine who’s a local and who’s not. And, over the last few years, he’s changed the focus of his protectionism to causes he believes are more significant and in tune with the current times, including preserving the cultural legacy of his ancestors who came from the Azores Islands as well as the threatened environment of the island in general and Campeche specifically.

At 59 years old, he has surfed his beloved wave nearly every day since 1976. Do the math. He could very well be a world record holder of some kind. But he doesn’t care. He wants to keep surfing the waves he knows Saint-Exupéry long ago admired just as he does today.

“My grandmother on my father’s side was born here in 1898,” says Cupim, “and when I was just a little kid, she used to tell me about this French aviator that was friends with all the fishermen. He would come to their houses to try the soup made from the fish they’d just brought in from the beach after pulling the net in together, asking questions and taking notes.”

Known as a land of temperamental beachbreaks, Brazil is off most point-chasers’ radars. But touch down in Campeche during the winter months as the right combination of swell and wind are sweeping across the island and you might stumble into a view like this. Photograph by James Thisted.

[Feature image by Christian Herzog]