L’isola Bella: Surfing and Exploring the Mediterranean Island of Sardinia.

On Tour: Italy

by Jon Rose

I arrived in Rome on October 14 at 6:00 in the evening, and Saxon Boucher was due in an hour later. I was surprised to walk off the plane into such humid weather. Our contact, Italian surfer Emiliano “Emi” Cataldi was eagerly awaiting our arrival. Emi would be our point man for the next two weeks, and by the time the last mussel slithered down my throat at our first Italian dinner, we had our plan locked. We would jump on the next ferry over to the island of Sardinia at 11:00 p.m. the following night with hopes of catching the first waves of a low-pressure system coming off northeastern Africa. The twelve-hour ferry crossing was followed by an hour-long car ride to the east coast town of Budoni, a quaint costal village full of boarded-up vacation rentals and small cafes that would be obviously in cruise control now that the tourist season was over.

Emi clued us in on how Mediterranean surf works. Since swells are only wind-generated, they come and go with the blink of an eye. “You must be on it at all times,” he explained, “It may be flat in the morning, then six feet by the afternoon, then flat again the next morning. If it’s a good swell you can follow it around the island and surf it for five days, but never two days at the same spot. The good ones usually start on the southeastern tip, then shift to the southwestern tip, then run all the way up the west coast.” This was our plan.

During one of our many seafood dinners, Emi asked Saxon and me, in all of our travels, what our favorite surf destinations were. Both Saxon and I answered with the obvious: Mentawai boat trips and Tavarua. When we asked him his favorite, he said “Hawai‘i” with no hesitation. This was odd to Saxon and me, for the North Shore crowd factor alone. But Emi reminded us that growing up surfing in Italy makes you crave consistency, sometimes even more than quality. “I love Hawai‘i,” he said, “’cause I know that when I wake up in the morning, I’m going to be able to surf, no matter what!” Emi’s a grade-A surf enthusiast, and once you hear his tales of getting skunked for months at a time, you know why. His dedication to the sport is inspiring, to say the least.

The second town we visited was Cagliari. With its gridlocked streets and high-rise apartment buildings, Cagliari’s metropolitan feel definitely stood out, and it was no surprise when Emi told us that it was in fact the biggest city on Sardinia. It would also be our home for the next two days, as we intended on getting the first sign of waves at a spot an hour outside the city. Dark thunderclouds loomed overhead during the morning session at a left point, which was a surprising semi-stormy four feet and extremely crowded. The lineup was scattered with guys mainly in their thirties along with a few older longboarders, and every time they spoke, their hands would fly in the air as if they were tossing some pizza dough. By afternoon the sun was beaming and we surfed the opposite side of the bay–a two-foot right that peeled perfectly along a boulder-strewn point. Light offshore winds and the sight of an ancient brick-built pirate lookout situated on the headland made for a truly memorable session.

As the swell moved, so did we. Our next stop was Buggeru, the home of many Italian surf competitions. Located on the southwest coast, Buggeru is made up of a long white-sand beach, scattered olive-tree orchards, and a postcard-like fishing village tucked into the north corner of the beach. It was the perfect contrast to Cagliari’s city atmosphere, however, we arrived in the interim between two swells, so our only surf there consisted of a dribbly left sandbar.

Saxon and I definitely stood out like sore thumbs in the lineup. I remember a funny little confrontation I had during session at a right, which we found out later was a semi-secret spot. There were about six guys out, and all but one of them had given me the standard surfer head nod accompanied by a quick ciao! The one holdout finally looked over at me and asked how we’d found this spot. He kept stating how hard it was to find. He was right, too–Emi even got us lost a couple times on the winding cobblestone roads–but eventually we found the break, much to the dismay of this ornery local. So, in my best Spicoli voice, I told him that we’d just been lucky and stumbled upon it.

With a suspicious look on his face, he responded with a very doubtful, “Really?” I don’t think he saw Dustin on the beach or had a clue that Emi brought us there. The last thing I wanted to do was make it hard for Emi to come back to that spot. At dinner that evening, Emi thanked me and said his fingers were crossed underwater that I wouldn’t turn around, point at him, and say, “Yeah, that guy over there with the dreads … he brought us here!”

Word of another southwest swell swept us back down to the Cagliari area. By this point we’d gotten used to not being in the same place more than one night at a time. Back on the southern tip we stayed with Emi’s good buddy Ricardo–a fireman from Rome as well a die-hard surfer–who recently went in halves on a Sardinian villa with his father, an avid scuba diver. In a raspy voice, Ricardo explained how it was the perfect getaway from the intensity of Rome and a great venue for both his and his father’s hobbies. Their tile-roof villa was nestled in the hillside of a small island called Sant Antioco that’s connected to Sardinia by a short bridge and is rumored to have some of the clearest water in the Med. With the summer tourist boom long gone, the main village on the island was a ghost town when we arrived. Saxon went to the local barbershop and got his scruffy face shaved the old-fashioned way.

With just four days left in our trip, we were on the move once again. This time up the west coast toward Oristano, a very typical Sardinian town, with bright-white one-story buildings and a Catholic church anchoring it from the center. Oristano is home to Sardinia’s better-known surf spots such as Capo Mannu, a right point with striking resemblances to Steamer Lane. Cove after cove, each new spot had its own dilapidated pirate lookout perched in the hills, which contributed to my ongoing sense of disbelief that I was actually surfing in these places.

Our last sessions before heading back to catch the ferry were at a reef break situated off the tip of a jagged little peninsula an hour outside Oristano. Six-foot wedging rights peeled down the reef, causing the spot to look like a mini version of Soupbowls, Barbados’ famous right-hander–the kind of wave that gives you more speed with each pressed turn. When we paddled out, there were two other surfers in the lineup–a longboarder and a Boogie boarder wearing a helmet. When I asked Emi why none of the owners of the ten cars parked on the cliff above the spot were joining us, he said there were two reasons. First, some were probably a little intimidated by the shallowness of the reef and unfamiliarity with the spot–which apparently is rarely surfed. And secondly, they were all probably more stoked to be spectators, watching a caliber of surfing that they’ve never seen except in videos or magazines. It made no difference to us; it just meant an epic session with only five guys out.

We paddled out with sub-par expectations. Granted, it was the biggest surf we’d seen thus far, we were still thinking, “It’s just the Med.” About two hours into the session, I was waiting for the next set, and sure enough a big lumpy one came rolling in toward the channel. It looked like it was going to break wide and cap in the channel, when all of a sudden it backed off and refocused where I was sitting on the main peak. I stroked into it and carefully held my rail. A soft curtain fell over me at first, and then I drove into the hollow section and pumped for three or four seconds, and then I came shooting out onto the shoulder. I uncontrollably claimed it by thrusting my chest forward. A second later, I felt a little lame for claiming a five-foot barrel, but I then thought, “Wait a minute, I’m in f–king Italy!” Because of how unlikely it seemed, it was one of the most memorable barrels of my life.

That evening the sun set with gold sparkles tickling the green ocean. I felt surfed-out on a day that I would remember for the rest of my life. The three-hour drive to Olpia to catch the ferry back to Rome whizzed by, and I sipped an Ichnusa–a local Sardinian beer–with an ear-to-ear grin as I thought about all the waves I had just surfed, and more importantly, where I had surfed them. I was content with the thought of flying back to my life in California, and I couldn’t help but feel that I’d gotten away with something I wasn’t supposed to. In a way, I almost felt guilty. For about a second …

Ultimately, Sardinia has changed the way I look at maps. On the plane ride home, Saxon and I stared at the map in the back of the airline magazine with confused looks on our faces. I thought about all the waves we had surfed the past two weeks, and I still couldn’t figure out how they’d gotten there. I’d heard of great waves breaking on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, which seems to be a similarly enclosed type setup, but Italy? We spent a good hour frothing over the map and talking about taking trips to places we’d never even consider before.

n the channel, when all of a sudden it backed off and refocused where I was sitting on the main peak. I stroked into it and carefully held my rail. A soft curtain fell over me at first, and then I drove into the hollow section and pumped for three or four seconds, and then I came shooting out onto the shoulder. I uncontrollably claimed it by thrusting my chest forward. A second later, I felt a little lame for claiming a five-foot barrel, but I then thought, “Wait a minute, I’m in f–king Italy!” Because of how unlikely it seemed, it was one of the most memorable barrels of my life.

That evening the sun set with gold sparkles tickling the green ocean. I felt surfed-out on a day that I would remember for the rest of my life. The three-hour drive to Olpia to catch the ferry back to Rome whizzed by, and I sipped an Ichnusa–a local Sardinian beer–with an ear-to-ear grin as I thought about all the waves I had just surfed, and more importantly, where I had surfed them. I was content with the thought of flying back to my life in California, and I couldn’t help but feel that I’d gotten away with something I wasn’t supposed to. In a way, I almost felt guilty. For about a second …

Ultimately, Sardinia has changed the way I look at maps. On the plane ride home, Saxon and I stared at the map in the back of the airline magazine with confused looks on our faces. I thought about all the waves we had surfed the past two weeks, and I still couldn’t figure out how they’d gotten there. I’d heard of great waves breaking on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, which seems to be a similarly enclosed type setup, but Italy? We spent a good hour frothing over the map and talking about taking trips to places we’d never even consider before.