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Light in the Atlantic

Illuminating the Azores with Hugo Vau.
Hugo Vau - Azores

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Hugo Vau - Azores
Solitude at one of many carbon-copy left pointbreaks on the island.

HUGO VAU’S FACE is weathered, and liberally covered with a dense, black-brown thicket that springs from his cheekbones. A deep tan renders his blue eyes all the more piercing. He has the thousand-yard stare of a man who’s spent much of his life at sea, and a furrowed brow that belies his upbeat nature. 

Vau is something of an underground luminary in the Azores archipelago. While his achievements with tow partner and paddle-surfer extraordinaire Alex Botelho at Nazaré have recently earned him wide acclaim, he’s been going about his business with little fanfare for more than two decades. Originally from Lisbon, he moved to the island of Terceira some 12 years ago to work as a fisherman, and to scour the vast coastlines for points and bomboras. In terms of surfing, his knowledge of the islands is unparalleled. 

We are on the final leg, the third flight, of our journey to Vau’s adopted home of Terceira. The sun is low to the south and I grab a window seat. I note the ocean’s texture changing by the minute, until it resembles a millpond that reflects the scattered clouds in the gentle evening light. Vau sees it too, and we both feel that twinge of anticipation one gets when supreme conditions are beginning to take shape.

The Gulf Stream splits here, one half forming the Azores current that swathes the islands in balmy waters, maintaining a sub-tropical climate year-round. Often referred to as “the Hawaii of the Atlantic,” it’s easy to see the similarities in geology, the profusion of flora and fauna, and, of course, the sizable winter surf. However, the Azores are susceptible to rapid weather changes and an abundance of low clouds and precipitation, adding to the already significant humidity. Good conditions are fleeting. The biggest swells are often ruined by the same winds that spawn them.

A friend from an adjacent island has been to Vau’s house to collect his preferred pintails, and couriers them over as we arrive. It’s a reminder of how things work in such remote outposts. There’s a sense of shared responsibility that is rarely seen in the fast-paced world most of us inhabit. 

Once on the ground, after some logistical wrangling to get a taxi that fits our boards and gear, we are on our way. Interminable switchbacks lead us to a plateau, before another liberal serving greets us in the darkness on the way down the other side. We’ve only gone a handful of miles as the crow flies, but the topography has already put us on island time. The road terminates at Fajā dos Cubres, known locally as “Cubres.” We stop for a scrumptious prego (a local sandwich with steak and egg), a couple of beers, and kima maracuja (a passion fruit soft drink) before heading out into the night on foot.

Stillness abounds. The moon is a day or two from full and renders the vegetation a cool blue, so bright that we barely need our headlamps as we make our way along the two-mile track. Occasionally, Vau stops, peering at faint lines far below to our left. The scale is tricky for me to discern. 

“It’s not here yet,” he assures me, “but in the morning you will see it.” 

He strides ahead with the alacrity of a mountain goat.

“We’re almost there.”

I notice a faint, pleasant scent growing more pungent with each step. Spearmint. The fields that will be our home for the coming days are carpeted with a mass of woven, wild mint dotted with crimson fraises des bois. The fields are hotchpotch, the dividing walls a result of where it was easiest to stack the cleared volcanic rock. 

Exhausted, we pitch our tents. I can’t help but marvel at the profusion of aloe cresting each wall, resembling upturned petrified octopi silhouetted against the night sky. We climb into our sleeping bags, nostrils filled with the delightful aroma of crushed stems and leaves being flattened beneath our air mats. A more blissful sleep may not be found anywhere on earth.

*

A rumbling broke the afternoon’s stillness on New Year’s Day, 1980. The sound came from Terceira, some 30 miles to the northeast of Fajā da Caldeira de Santo Cristo. The roar grew louder, magnified by vertiginous cliffs surrounding the remote settlement. Soon, those cliffs bowed over the village. The ground was alive, a great swathe of land bending and convulsing. At first it was uniform, holding together as a block, appearing to move slowly on account of its vastness. But as this sheet of earth gathered speed it began to break up. Tree trunks snapped like twigs while giant boulders sparked on contact as they tumbled, engulfed in the ensuing landslide. The ground shook, floors buckled, roofs caved, and walls collapsed. And to the north, the Atlantic was gathering apace, building into a great wall of water, bearing down on the peaceful farming community. 

The Azores archipelago sits in the middle of the North Atlantic, 1,000 miles west of Lisbon and 1,600 miles east of the Canadian Coast, at the junction of the Eurasian, African, and North American tectonic plates. The epicenter of the 1980 earthquake occurred between the islands of Graciosa, Terceira, and Sāo Jorge, and registered 6.9 on the Richter scale. It resulted in devastation, including 61 deaths and some 20,000 people left homeless across the island chain. 

The tracks connecting Fajā da Caldeira de Santo Cristo to neighboring villages, and by extension the outside world, were completely destroyed, buried under many thousands of tons of volcanic rock and mud. With no access to the outside, survivors were marooned for three days, living off eggs, salgadeira (preserved salted pork), and other limited stores. On the fourth day, helicopters passed to survey the damage and the hamlets were soon evacuated by air and sea. Many residents, having lost everything and so utterly traumatized by events, vowed never to return. The more remote fajās and valleys remain uninhabited to this day.

But the Azorean diaspora, consisting mostly of Portuguese and Flemish blood, are a resilient bunch. It is generally accepted that when Prince Henry the Navigator discovered the islands in the 1400s, they were completely uninhabited. Early attempts by the Portuguese crown to settle the islands were limited by a lack of enthusiasm to move to such a remote archipelago. It is perhaps unsurprising that by dint of their origins, being related to the intrepid souls who first settled this distant land, and the hardships associated with living a life of subsistence day-to-day in such an isolated and elemental crucible, many of the people of Fajā da Caldeira de Santo Cristo returned and rebuilt. 

The events of 1980, the possibility of another major quake happening at any time, the continued tricky access, and the lack of what most countries would regard as standard amenities means little has changed in generations. Four decades after the devastation, Fajā is still littered with ruins. But modern change is afoot. The tracks to nearby villages have been rebuilt and widened, and the introduction of quads has replaced donkeys to ferry supplies and building materials. While there is still no electricity—a generator provides light for select buildings from sundown to 10 p.m., while other buildings use candles and gas lamps—the village will soon be connected to the island’s main electricity grid for the first time in history. The moment represents a great change in the archipelago’s future. 

With this in mind, Vau wanted to make one last trip to Fajā in the pre-electrical age.

*

The overnight dew is particularly heavy under clear skies. The dawn air is cool and wet, our sleeping bags damp. I open the fly sheet to a jeweled land with infinitesimal crystals winking in the golden morning glow and shafts of brilliant umber penetrating the ferns and aloe, illuminating the vapor. To my right, the cliffs soar high above. To my left, the glassy ocean slumbers. 

Red plastic piping is strewn everywhere, the conduit through which the electrical cabling will soon run. It’s incongruous in this village constructed of local stone, where the only other bright colors are flowers in gardens. Quads buzz past, carrying workmen and supplies. Concrete is being poured for the junction boxes, and an electrician’s tools are spread on the ground at a nodal point. We pass the old tap that once supplied the population’s water. Vau attempts to turn it on for a drink, but it’s no longer functioning. 

There are many points, Vau explains, but the one we’re going to check is his favorite. It’s a goofyfooter’s dream, he says. 

Along the way, we run into some of his old friends. One of them, José Lucio, invites us in for coffee. At 55, he was one of the first people to surf these waves. A small group is milling around his house. They’ve come together from other islands for what their tight-knit crew expects to be a week of vintage waves. 

Before our eyes, the deep-blue ocean starts pulsing. It’s building in size with each set. Serious discussions are taking place regarding board dimensions. “It’s bigger than it looks,” José Lucio advises. Underlining the point, he starts waxing up a lengthy, yellowed gun—serious artillery—dwarfing Vau’s initial choice of a simple step-up. Vau disappears, sprinting back to camp, and returns some 20 minutes later with a board more appropriate to the circumstances.

As a child, I’d heard the term “Azores High.” It referred to the anticyclone blocking that would render Britain’s southernmost coasts devoid of surf. But here I was in the Azores experiencing the other side of the coin, what is locally known as the “Sao Martinho,” a sort of Indian summer. It’s windless, sunny, and the surfing conditions are perfect. Vau tells me it’s rare for these conditions to coincide with good swell and a full moon.

Darkness comes early to the north coast this time of year. While the south of the island has the pleasure of basking in afternoon sun, lunch is barely over by the time the shadow of Sāo Jorge’s uplands starts creeping across the island’s northern lineups. By early afternoon the point is in shade, leading to a curious quality of faded-denim-blue light augmented by the copious salt spray.

Glassy faces stack and pour down the point in the shadows, while Graciosa and Terceira shine in the reflected sunlight beyond. Everyone’s wave count is high. The session lasts far beyond moonrise, and there are big drops and heavy beatings, all celebrated with choruses of hoots. It’s clear, even with the precarious rock dance needed on exit, all present are focused on squeezing every bit of juice from the day. A sprained ankle on the slippery rocks in the darkness is a small price to pay for “just one more.”

Eventually, it becomes impossible to separate the horizon from the incoming lines and there’s nothing left to do but call it a day. Safely back on the rocks, the surfers are all hugging each other. There is laughter and even tears. Far from the too-cool-for-school no-claim culture, this is the purest form of friendship and camaraderie. Genuine and honest, this is the unbridled joy that we’ve all chased since that first ride.

Later in the night, I am cleaning some gear in my tent when José and his friend Marco stop by. Commitments are calling them home. It comes to be mentioned that in all the time they’ve surfed these remarkable waves, they’ve never had any pictures taken of themselves. They’re almost hesitant to ask. We chat for a while before I offer my email address. 

“I’d really appreciate the photos if you did send them,” says Marco, “because we were with a unique memory of our lives.”

I promise to look for any pictures I have of them when I get the chance. As they leave, I tell them how fortunate I feel to have shared these days with them. 

“I think it doesn’t get better than this,” says José. “This may be the best I’ve seen in 30 years.” 

The pioneer would know.