Monday, March 22, 2004

Pororoca, Brazil

Far From the Ocean, Surfers Ride Brazil's Endless Wave
March 22, 2004

Ricardo Tatuí, right, a championship surfer, and fellow surfers traveled along the Capim River in São Domingos do Capim, Brazil, keeping watch for signs of the long-lasting, powerful wave known as the pororoca.

SAO DOMINGOS DO CAPIM, Brazil, March 21 — The ocean is nearly 200 miles away, so this is hardly the kind of place where surfers would be expected to congregate. Yet they flock here every March around the full moon and the equinox to chase a dangerous and elusive prey: the Amazon's endless wave, known as a pororoca.

A monthly occurrence, a pororoca develops when the strengthened Atlantic Ocean tide advances into the river basin, creating a giant swell that flows upstream for several hundred miles at speeds of 20 miles an hour or more. The phenomenon is most pronounced in March and April because water levels are near their highest, and the waves, which appear every 12 hours for several days, are the most tricky.

Responding to nature's challenge, surfers have been gathering here since 1999 for the Brazilian National Pororoca Surfing Championship. The tournament, which this year concludes Tuesday, was the idea of a 35-year-old surfer, Noelio Sobrinho. He is so obsessed with developing the new sport that he has the word pororoca tattooed on his left arm, he said, "so that it can be close to my heart."

At first, "nobody believed me when I said that I had figured out how to surf the pororoca," he said. "They wanted proof, so I had to organize this championship to show that others could do it, too."

Near the mouth of the Amazon, a pororoca can be as high as 12 feet. Surfers in competition prefer a wave of about half that size, because it increases their chances for a long, blissful ride.

"Surfing a pororoca is an entirely different sensation from surfing in the ocean," said Ricardo Tatuí from the Rio de Janeiro area, who won the competition in 1999 and 2001 and finished second last year. "The waves can be smaller, but they are also more treacherous, and you also have to learn to make adjustments to the curves in the river."

On an ocean beach, surfers have countless opportunities but can expect to ride a wave for less than a minute. The record with a pororoca is 34 minutes and 10 seconds, set last year by Adilton Mariano, 20, who lives near São Paulo, more than 2,000 miles south of here.

"It really requires a lot of physical preparation and resistance," he said. "The first time I did it, my legs hurt so much afterward that I could hardly walk for a couple of days. But then I learned to relax."

In the language of the Tupi Indians, "pororoca" means "mighty noise," and a classic Amazon surge is just that. Long before the pororoca can be seen, it can be heard, first as a distant rumble and eventually as a thunderous roar.

In addition, there are what might best be called natural hazards. Surfers need to watch for alligators, piranhas, snakes and leopards, as well as tree trunks and other debris stirred up by the force of the wave.

Surfers must also demonstrate maneuvers that are "radical and fluid" to win points, said Mauro Cunha, a judge in the competition.

First, surfers must find the pororoca. The contestants board motorboats or water scooters, which race madly up and down the Capim and Guamá Rivers, looking for telltale signs that a pororoca is coming — an area of calm water, caused by the tug of war between currents, or frightened birds in flight.

This has been an unusually wet rainy season in the Amazon. That lifted surfers' hopes for giant swells. But on Saturday, the first day of this year's tournament, the pororoca failed to appear at each of the four sites where the competition is held.

Old-timers, however, say the strength of the pororoca has diminished in recent years. They attribute the decline to deforestation in this region, once rich with Brazil nut trees but now dominated by pastures.

"The river seems shallower than it used to be" because of runoff from deforested land, said Francelino Carvalho, a 62-year-old carpenter and an area resident. "The deeper the water, the stronger the pororoca."

The pororoca surf competition has become such a popular tourist attraction that there is now a sanctioned "pororoca surf national circuit" that includes competitions in the neighboring states of Amapá and Maranhão in April.

For this town of 17,000 people, the tournament has been a way to make itself known. This year's competition also has a Miss Pororoca beauty pageant, concerts and dances, a food festival and a new paved highway, inaugurated by the state governor at the competition's opening ceremony.

"This is going to revolutionize radical sports," Mr. Sobrinho predicted enthusiastically. "Where else in the world can you go surfing with alligators as an audience?"

Original article with picture and map

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