Words by Evan Quarnstrom, cover shot uploaded to MSW by Remy June.
Back in July, I was sitting in an office on the shores of Chiba, Japan, banging away at a keyboard while covering surfing’s olympic debut. It felt a bit surreal that after so many years of work, I was finally watching Italo and Carissa hoist the first ever gold medals held by surfers in the Olympics.
For nearly seven years I had a job that I’d be hard pressed not to call a dream job, working at the International Surfing Association, developing the sport of surfing around the globe and preparing for the sport’s olympic debut. Fast forward to 2022, and life couldn’t be more different.
Spot guide: Rio de Janeiro
I’m sitting in a beach-side house on the coast of southeastern Brazil, waiting out the scorching midday sun to go check the waves. There’s a coconut tree beside the squeaky front gate that opens to a puddle-riddled dirt road that leads to the beach. A rusty truck periodically drives by announcing today’s price for a batch of 40 eggs over a megaphone. Life here is simple, but meaningful.
In November, I left behind my comfort zone in California and bought a one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro, with nothing but a backpack and a boardbag. As nice as a consistent pay check every month was, I set out to pursue a new set of goals that full-time employment hadn’t allowed.
I’m not even sure I can classify my trip to Brazil as a surf trip, but I’ve been either surfing or skimboarding nearly every day, so guess I might as well call it that. It’s certainly not a conventional surf trip; spending the south Atlantic offseason in Brazil is something I'd never really thought about.
Surfing played a role in deciding where I wanted to go, of course, but it wasn’t the only factor. I’ve always had a drive to learn languages, see new places, and travel in a minimalistic manner, embracing all those little and good things that come as a result.
I was fascinated by Brazil. It’s a far away land, a chance to improve my Portuguese, an inundation of açaí bowls, and a country with a newfound knack for producing professional surfers at an alarming rate.
So, in late 2021 the stars had aligned. After years of dreaming up such a trip, I finally found myself in a position to pack it up for new horizons: six months in Brazil learning Portuguese, absorbing the culture, and, of course, hunting for waves as best I could.
I decided to kick off my trip in Rio – a coastal metropolis that could provide the best of both worlds as far as integrating into Brazilian society and providing plenty of opportunity to surf. Plus, I had a few friends that I made through work that could host me during my stay.
On day one of living oceanfront in Rio, my own 'Brazil-has-crappy-waves' stereotype slowly dissolved, as I looked out the window and watched head-high left-handers pitch over a shallow sand bar. I gazed in awe as they drained around a jetty into the adjacent beach.
Stories ranging from simple fist fights on the beach to Julian Wilson being told he could only paddle out if they were allowed to break one of his boards first. The Brazilian coconut wireless is alive and well.
With only four or so people out in the water, I looked at my Brazilian friend and said, “What are we waiting for?!” Nothing would be better to wash off the jetlag than going for a surf.
As it turned out, that lefthander is really the most localized spot in Rio – so much so that even locals I know don’t surf it. They told me tales of all the altercations that have taken place at that spot, with stories ranging from simple fist fights on the beach to Julian Wilson being told he could only paddle out if they were allowed to break one of his boards first. The Brazilian coconut wireless is alive and well.
Ok, so that spot was off limits, but down the beach the waves looked pretty good too. (I may or may not have snuck in some sessions at the secret left when no one was looking. Shhh.)
There was a surprising punch to it all. A few islands offshore bend and wrap the swells to focus on this point of the beach, and on a medium sized swell, quick a-frames were breaking up and down the coast.
After a fun session that featured a barrel that probably didn’t look as cool as it felt, I was intrigued by the waves at my new home spot. Is it always this good?
Over the next two months, I got a more intimate feel for the surf spots from the east to west ends of Rio. I learned the summertime intricacies of swell direction, wind direction, tides, and sand bars. The beaches in Rio are all oriented at different angles, with curves and plenty of offshore islands that make it important to understand all the intricacies of conditions.
I have to say I was fairly surprised with the consistency of swell, decent surf, and overall power behind the array of beachbreaks. Given the waves that I regularly surfed in San Diego, the arrogance held within the preconceived notion that the waves would suck in Brazil was fully misplaced. While it’s hard to beat a nice, long-period Pacific swell gracing the coast of California, on average I’d say the waves were comparable, perhaps even better, than what I was surfing on a daily basis at home. It also didn’t hurt that I wasn’t restricted to surfing outside of office hours as I had been for so many years.
Aside from getting to know the waves, surfing and skimboarding around Rio was a quick ‘in’ to the social circles of each of these sports. I was welcomed with open arms, forging relationships brokered by a common passion for the ocean. That’s what a surf trip is all about.
The challenges: Transportation and my one-board quiver
The first major challenge is actually the physical logistics of going surfing.
Many of my woes could have been solved by renting a car or motorcycle, but given my long-term, budget-conscious travel plans, renting or buying a vehicle was not on the cards.
I went with the next best option and rented a bicycle. Getting to the beach would be done by a combination of bike, bus, uber, metro, or mooching rides from friends.
Finding a ride by a car or scooter from a friend was always option A. Anytime I was invited anywhere to go surf, the answer was always yes. Those opportunities don’t always come up though.
When my friends couldn’t drive me I moved to plan B, which usually was riding my bike if going to my local beach (still a 20-minute ride in non-bike friendly streets). Riding on busy streets with a surfboard under my arm proved to be a bit sketchy at times – and real sweaty.
Taking an uber, or a bus depending on the beach, was the other option. This required bringing my day bag for the board, and a backpack for items such as a towel, wax, fins, bus fare, etc which presents another problem: where the heck do I leave my stuff?
On an empty beach this wouldn’t be much of a problem, but on the tourist-packed beaches of Rio, it would be a little silly to leave my possessions in the open.
You either need to get good at hiding your stuff, or ask one of the beach vendors to keep an eye on them. This usually costs a small amount of money as it’s polite to buy something small from them for the favour. But the vendors (if you trust them) don’t show up until mid-morning, so if you want to surf at sunrise or sunset, you are out of luck.
Essentially, taking into consideration all these obstacles, I would do mental calculations that determined where I was going to surf. Where I am able to surf isn’t always where the best waves are, so it’s been important to just keep the “any day in the ocean is a good day” mindset. I just try to be happy with any type of surfing.
Secondly, the other issue is my one-board quiver.
Technically, I brought two boards to Brazil; a surfboard and a skimboard. Given that they are completely different sports, it’s essentially one type of board for each activity.
I brought just one board to travel light and make my bag manageable to travel with. It’s still on the heavy side, but there are times when I have had to walk distances with the bag that just isn’t possible with several boards. Despite a homemade axle and scooter wheels that I engineered to velcro to my board bag, it’s a struggle to transport that thing by foot for more than a short distance.
When taxis and ubers are an option, I take that over lugging the bag around by foot, but most times, the drivers either can’t fit a board in their car or don’t want the hassle of putting it on their roof. Or sometimes in small towns, there are no taxis or ubers at all! In that case, I’m walking rain or shine.The minimalist approach has its benefits, but it also has its downsides.
Or sometimes in small towns, there are no taxis or ubers at all! In that case, I’m walking rain or shine.The minimalist approach has its benefits, but it also has its downsides
For my surfboard, I went with a 5’7’’ Hypto Krypto, the theory being that I can use that board in most conditions, from waist high mush to overhead barrels. It has mostly served me well, but there's definitely times that I wish I had my fish or a my step up.
Yeah, yeah, it's a Hypto. But there's enough volume in that sucker to surf small days, and it really starts to pop when the surf picks up and gets a tad more powerful.
Another downside of having only one board - the first week of my trip an out of control longboarder ran me over in the lineup, and my one surfboard was out of commission for a week while it was in the ding repair shop...
One wave at a time
So far, my trip around Brazil has been a great ride.
I’ve been vastly improving my Portuguese, mainly through being integrated into the day to day life of Brazilian surfing and its culture. Best of all, I’ve been getting more time in the water than I have in years. I can’t remember the last time I was this tanned.
For the last month or so I moved on from Rio down south to Ubatuba, the hometown of Filipe Toledo. Here, I’ve been enjoying the refreshingly slow pace of life and spending most of my time at Praia da Sununga, considered one of the best skimboarding wedges in the world.
I’d be lying if I didn’t miss many of the things I temporarily left behind at home: my family and friends, my girlfriend, the freedom of owning a car, ripe avocados, owning a blender, the dry warmth of the California coast, brussel sprouts, and a night’s sleep free of mosquito bites.
But on the other hand, I’ve already gained so much; A new network of friends on the other side of the world, the ability to comfortably speak a new language, and a reinforced sense of the things that are truly important to me in life.
The biggest lesson that this trip has reinforced is that it’s important to chase your dreams and see the world while you can. It’s crazy to think how many amazing people and beautiful places are out there in the world just waiting to enter your life, but if you don’t leave your comfort zone and get out there, those connections will never get a chance to materialize.
I’ve got three more months left to explore this foreign land. I know this type of opportunity is rare in the grand scheme of life, so I’m doing my best to enjoy it while it lasts, one wave at a time.