On a sunny winter morning I drove down from Nazarè to Peniche. The A8, “motorway of the West”, became the sloping IP6. I began to catch glimpses of the ocean peacefully blending with the bright blue sky in front of me.
On the outskirts of Peniche, surrounded by the countryside and a few other commercial businesses, I reached my destination, the reason I left Praia do Norte and its breathtaking waves: Fatum Surfoards.
I walked by a couple of sand covered pick-ups, through the door into a huge room filled with racks full of boards. I was given such a friendly welcome and I was quickly immersed into the chilled atmosphere of the shop.
The journey of these surfboards began very far from here. To be exact, in the northernmost island of Germany, Sylt. This beautiful island is in the North Sea, on the border between Germany and Denmark. With more than 40km of shoreline, Sylt is where Gero Tragatschnig, founder and shaper of Fatum Surfboards, began to surf in the mid '80s.
Gero was introduced to Peniche by a friend in the 90's and loved it. In 1996 Gero decided to make himself a home here, to fulfill his dream to surf and shape all year round.
“I wasn't planning to move here, there was no masterplan behind the choice of this place” he said while fiddling with a board design in his office. Gero still personally designs and shapes all Fatum Surfboards.
"Back in those days there were not many tourists over here and just one surf school; it was the beginning of the soon-to-be ‘surf golden age’. “Now we have like 130 surf schools, maybe 130 isn't the right number, but for sure more than 100”.
I was interested in knowing how he and his crew have approached the fast paced surf industry.
“The only difference is that now the project is made on a computer”, said Gero smiling. “I'm not really into new materials, so far nothing has convinced me that it's worth changing”.
Riders' individual requests are the starting point for Gero and his crew. The high customization of the boards is one of the reasons Gero has remained loyal to polyurethane foam. It guarantees greater adaptability compared to new technologies. Besides, containing the production numbers avoids the use of bigger, more expensive machinery and keeps the quality standards as high as possible.
It is not only the materials that are changing, but the whole surfing world is utterly different compared to when Gero and Fatum Started out.
“I'm not saying that all these changes are for the better or for the worst, I'm just saying that now it is completely different, now it's mainstream while once it used to be a lifestyle. You had to commit your life to surf”.
He invited me to imagine what it meant to point your finger on a map and decide to go somewhere to find out whether there was any good spot and learn the wind, the swell, the waves.
“Think about going to Indonesia with just a map and the desire to discover”.
In that sentence it is possible to find the magic aura that, in my mind, has always been the cornerstone of the surf culture. Now it seems to belong to another era in terms of behavior and habits.
Suddenly something comes to my mind which had been trending a lot on social media lately and that is quite a trademark of all the changes we are discussing: manmade waves. I have asked Gero his thoughts about it. “I'm open to it”, he said and, frankly speaking, this was not the answer I was expecting. “It's a new way to surf, but it still has to prove a lot, even cost-wise. It's very expensive and it has to prove to be sustainable in the long period. It's a new water activity, maybe there will be contests hosted in wave pool in the years to come (apart from Kelly's) . It can be compared to the boulder gym, where the climbers go to train, but the real mountains are different, just like the ocean is still the ocean, the core and soul of surfing”.
We left the office and Joaquim joined us with his contagious and honest smile. Joaquim met Gero in 2003 at the old Fatum factory in Alto Verisimo (a few miles south from the current location). He wanted a copy of a longboard he already owned. The two became friends and Joaquim started testing the Bulldog model and helped Gero refine some shapes. From there the next natural transition would be full time collaboration. Joaquim described with passion the different rooms where the boards take form, where all the magic happens. Starting from the cutting to the glassing, every single part is done in house. There's also a room dedicated exclusively to the shaping for pro surfers such as Antonio Duarte (a young free surfer) and Yolanda Hopkins (who is the current Portuguese National Champion). In the last room we met Saqua glassing a board. He’s funny and has worked with Gero for over 20 years now.
On my way out I met James, a tall English guy with a beautiful rainbow scarf. Born in the South of England, he moved to Peniche after a long stay in the Hossegor area. Just like the other members of the Fatum crew, he started as a Fatum board owner, then a friend and finally a believer. Now he's head of web and communication. A huge swell is forecasted for the days to come, we ended up talking about the mindset that a surfer must have in order to brave the force of nature that dominates Praia do Norte.
Before getting in the car to head back to Nazarè, I stood watching the landscape in front of me: further up the countryside stand out the silhouettes of the new tourist and residential neighborhoods. I tried to imagine what Gero told me just earlier, how it would have looked when he first ventured here.
There is one thing here that has not changed : the ocean & the search.