Meet the locals: Ericeira’s big wave rider Joana Andrade

by Aleksandra Yurchenko

Does your heart skip a beat when you watch the monsters of Nazare rising in front of your eyes? The enormousness and overwhelming power of the element leave no space for egotistical illusions and replace them with a feeling of primal fear and negligibility. Although, that’s us – bystanders, what about those few who dare to look the monster in the eye and attempt to surf one of the biggest and most powerful waves on this planet?

Ericeira’s local Joana Andrade, is one of those daredevils, who put herself under the Big Wave Surfing radar in 2013, when she surfed a 30-feet wave in Papoa beach (Peniche), which got her into the list of contenders for the Billabong XXL Awards that year.

She’s been a regular on the list of Biggest Wave entries ever since, and is one of the runners for Red Bull Queen of the Bay award to take place in Waimea Bay, Hawaii, alongside many top names, such as Paige Alms (current Big Wave World Champion and XXL Big Wave Champion) and Hawaii’s local Keala Kennelly.

Hoping to get into the head of someone who would willingly put themselves through life or death situation each time they go for the wave, I set off to Portugal and soon found myself sipping Sagres (local Portuguese beer) at Ribeira d’Ilhas – home to this year’s Billabong Pro qualifying series, as I waited for Joana to join me.

As the sun is setting down into the cold waters of the Atlantic, Portugal’s very best Frederico Morais keeps trading turns at waves with the locals and tourists in lieu of the competition.

Joana joins me straight out of surf. Looking at this delicate woman, one would be awed to find out how she chooses to spend her time free from running a surf school she founded a few years ago. But when it comes to big wave surfing, Joana remarks, it’s not as much a matter of physical strength, as the mental power and trusting your own instincts, hopefully, topped off with a pinch of luck.

As we order cold beers and settle, our conversation unfolds and, it soon becomes apparent, that it’s not purely the love for the ocean that brought Joana to BWS – and that her longing to chase a thin line between absolute control and sheer vulnerability dwells upon far more complex and controversial motivators.

“I was born and raised in Carcavelos (a beach town just outside of Lisbon). When I was a teenager, my parents were worried that I wouldn’t grow taller, and so, took me to a bunch of doctors, who recommended that I should get into sports”, Joana recalls. “I tried everything from karate, to basketball and horse riding. At the time (mid 90’s) surfing wasn’t a trendy thing with this easy-living hippyish vibe surrounding it; back then it was a dodgy sport and kids who surfed normally were in the gangs. My parents were not fans of it, and that’s exactly what I decided I wanted to do.” (smiles).

Was she a rebellious kid then? “For as far back as I can remember, I was always sort of pain-in-the-ass.” (giggles). Joana follows up with a story that serves as a perfect example of the sort of stubbornness her parents had to deal with. “I drowned twice in my life, and none of those happened while surfing. One day, when I was still a kid, I got offended at my parents for something and decided to teach them a lesson. So, while diving at the pool, I decided to simply not come up, and stayed there, at the bottom, holding my breath…until I drowned, and they took me out, unconscious”. As she tells the story, not a glimpse of regret crosses her face, on the contrary, it seems that she’s almost proud of it. I note, that those breathholding techniques she developed in her childhood must come handy these days. “Well, I was once able to hold my breath for around 6 minutes during one of the meditation and breathing practices.” – she parries.

I ask how old she was when she got hooked on surfing.

“I was probably 14 and had couple of girlfriends with whom we surfed for fun until I started competing.”

Joana competed for almost 14 years, starting at regional level, and progressing to national and European competitions. At 17 she won the 4th place at European Junior contest, later became vice National Champion in 2002/2003 and competed for Portugal in the Canary Islands. Joana spent two years on the World Tour and dropped out. In 2006/2007 she was honored as the best Portuguese surfer.

S: Why did you drop out of WT?

J: At the time, I just didn’t really enjoy or cope with the pressure that came with it. To me the best surfer out there, on the line-up, is the one who’s most connected to the ocean and lives the moment with a smile on the face – that’s the true spirit and what surfing is about, having fun and connecting with the element and yourself.”

So, what did she do after leaving the WT? “I managed to keep one sponsor and went free surfing for couple of years with my girls. We surfed across the globe, made videos and generally had the best time”.

S: Is this when you first thought that you might enjoy surfing bigger waves?

J: Actually, even as a competing teenager I always had more fun at bigger waves but then, one day, roughly 5 years ago, I was at Nazare and saw Garrett McNamara surfing 20+ meter waves and remember thinking “I could do that …” Later that year I went to Peniche and surfed what turned out to be the biggest wave of that swell. (She got nominated for Billabong XXL Awards for that wave – see below).

S: So that’s when you got hooked on the adrenaline pumping or is it something else that is so tempting to you in surfing big waves?

J: I guess it’s the testing of the limits and a feeling of complete oneness with the moment because, literally, your life depends on it. Surfing big waves also taught me to trust myself, listen to my intuition and my body.

S: What about the fear? What role do you think it plays and how do you cope with it?

J: Fear is good, it keeps you alert and it sharpens your instincts; panic, on the other hand, can be deadly as it totally paralyzes you. For me it’s the breathing that saves me from descending into black hole of panic – I remind myself to breathe and it makes miracles to my mind and body.

As one beer turns into two, Joana shares a personal story of pain and confrontation she was able to live through, and, come to terms with many years later, through opening up about it and sharing with her close ones. Could it be, that facing her fear in the ocean, is what gave her the confidence that allowed her to liberate from the burden of perplexity of her teenage years? It seems, that, as with the big wave surfing, where she balances on a thin line between life and death, she’s constantly trying to find this balance in her life too – sometimes she fails, and the old demons take over, other times, she succeeds and astonishes the bystander with the open-heartedness and wisdom of a Tibetan monk.

What role does surfing, and, specifically, big wave surfing play in this constant battle? An escape, a temple offering the stillness? A drug that fills her with life when on it but gives her a “cold turkey treatment” once she gets off it? A place of solitude and contemplation? A source of pure joy that gets her through her days? Or maybe all of these at once. We can only guess.

S: Speaking of the rituals, I remember watching interview with Dave Rastovich, who said, that he drinks a little bit of ocean water each time he goes in for the surf: he believes, it helps him tune in with the element that is surrounding him. Do you follow any rituals, specifically, as you go in for the big wave?

J: I do a lot of pranayama breathing and meditating the days before the big day – it gets me into the right state of mind and helps me re-connect with myself – which I find crucial for my performance when the time comes.

S: There’s a lot of discussion these days around equality in surfing, and around the fact, that for a female surfer to be successful and sponsored, she has to portray a specific image and possess some outstanding physical attributes. Do you find it is more difficult being a female big wave surfer?

J: In terms of ability, I think, once you’re out there in the water, fear makes all of us equal. It gets a little bit more complicated with the sponsors, but, I believe, mainly due to a less mature and more niche position of this discipline in the surf industry. I am grateful to be supported by some local Portuguese brands and companies, who help me with the gear, but, to be honest, it does become more and more challenging each year.

I ask whether the surf school she runs, provides enough financial means to support herself. “Yeah, the school enables me to make a living out of something that I enjoy doing and share my love for the ocean and, hopefully, my knowledge with those, who are just making their first steps in surfing.”

We stick to our beers and keep talking, joined by Joana’s childhood friend and surf buddy Camila and Camila’s mom. At this point the beach is only lit by a huge moon hanging above our heads. The café is half-empty, as the tourists and locals exchange their wetsuits for something more fancy (think shorts and hoodies), and start filling the numerous restaurants in downtown Ericeira.

Conversation naturally flows into a more personal space, probably, as the side effect of the consumed beers, or, maybe, it’s the chilliness of the evening at the ocean that requires a warmer treatment. We share some personal stories, we discuss how the beautiful preserved area we’re in is now endangered due to new developments under discussion, despite its unique status; we turn to spiritual stuff, and, after a longsome discussion conclude, that, open hearts and open minds, should be the tools for making a difference in this world. Suddenly, Joana says: “You know, I have a feeling that I will die in the ocean”. There’s no fear or sadness in how she says it, but calmness and almost mystic feeling. “Not the worst way to go”, I conclude – “doing something you love.”

As we wind down, now really freezing to the bones but lighthearted and with a feeling of connectedness that warms us up from the inside, I wander off with a feeling that I barely scratched on the surface of Joana’s story, one of many not-so-straightforward narratives where big wave surfing plays its role.