Winters in the Mediterranean are awesome.
Swells rock from west to east, sometimes pinching through the Gibraltar strait, other times originating off the coast France, before steaming up the middle and hitting major landmasses along the way. You'll even get the occasional Medicane, the Mediterranean’s own version of a hurricane.
Area Guide: Italy
For the past few months, swells have been filling into a number of these coastlines, but it's the Ligurian Sea along Italy's northern coastline that's been the talk of the basin.
“The best it's been in five years,” said Italian photographer Andrea Giana, who was snapping at home in Varazze, a city known for its Romanesque architecture, along the Italian Riviera. Its name comes from the medieval term varagine, meaning “where ships launch” due to the city being an ancient shipbuilding centre.
“People here really appreciate what we have, maybe more so than anywhere else,” said Andrea. “Up here, we love the colours of the sea and nature, but we haven't had waves in so long. I couldn't remember what it was like having salt in my mustache and eyebrows. So the past few months have been very special with perfect Italian waves.”
The Med's a fascinating place, hemmed in by ancient culture. It's also connected to the Black Sea via the sea of Marmara, south of Istanbul, and the Dardanelle Strait. Those azure waters kiss the shore of 22 countries, and it’s often referred to as the incubator of Western civilization.
That doesn't mean it's been plain sailing this season. Usually by now those coastal communities would’ve had a dozen or so proper swells, but the past few months have been glacially slow. The first real pulse arrived late in November, then there was a good day or two in December. But it wasn't until this past week that surfers really saw the Med bounce to life.
“Winter has really started now,” said Italian surfer Roby D'Amico, who was on a job in Milan and ditched it to surf this swell. “The forecast was pretty clear, couldn't miss it. Also, in the Med everything happens so quick. Usually by the afternoon it's done. The wind picks up pretty fast.”
Roby hit up Portugal-based Gony Zubizaretta, who dropped everything, hopped on a flight that day and was there for the swell the next. “Love these little strike missions,” said Gony. “This was my fourth time in Italy, Marlon [Lipke] and I scored this spot together 11 years ago. The vibes in Italy are so great. Everyone is super friendly. And the waves were absolutely perfect.”
For Alessandro Piu, a surfer from the island of Sardinia, the winter waiting game has felt like an eternity. “The Med can be so unpredictable,” he said. “I don't think it's ever been this hard to understand what's going on out there. Lots of change at a day's notice. We had days when we thought it would be great, and then it kind of fizzled out.”
Then, a couple weeks ago, the swell Alessandro had been hoping for finally hit. “We went to the west side of the island to make the most of that NW angle,” he said. “It makes the score that much more exciting, when you're driving around looking for waves and finally come across something.”
Spot Guide: Sardinia
Along with photographer Nico Belillo, the pair pulled up to a spot where they could see waves in the distance. It wasn't quite wrapping in, then they went over the hill. “I've been traveling around the world for 15 years and never saw anything like this,” said Piu of a wave breaking into the mouth of a cave. “My first wave, I surfed right under that arch.”
The gents spent five hours in the water, toasting it out with a few beers around camp.
Once swells fire into northern Italy, they can often travel down the Tyrrhenian Sea, a smaller arm of the Med off Italy's west coast, and arrive along the east coast of Sardinia. But the island's west coast is right in the path of stronger storms that start up off the mainland. “It's a magic island,” said Piu.“
Every coastline is different, and to me it looks like Mother Nature decided to unplug pieces from different areas of the planet and stick them all together, creating the island of Sardinia. That may sound crazy, but given how the island is set up, we can have more than 200 surfable days. This year's just been a bit slow.”
“Imagine getting barrelled, then having warm Italian pizza right after,” photographer Andrea Vassia concluded. “It's all pretty special.”
“Short-lived is a good way to describe the surf, Surfline forecaster Jamie Bateman explained. With relatively narrow fetches available to generate swell, storms pass quickly through the Med and the surf can be over in hours.”
Spot Guide: Sicily
“There are consistent winds in the Mediterranean, though,” he added, “the most famous being the Mistral, a cold NW wind that blows into the Gulf of Lion from Southern France. With high pressure centered to the west of Europe, the Mistral can blow strong and hard for days and send consistent, NW/WNW swell fanning out to North Africa, Sardinia, Corsica and Italy.”
“A rarer source of surf in the Mediterranean is a Medicane, a tropical-like cyclone that occasionally forms,” he continued. “They have been observed to reach Category 1 hurricane status (sustained 74-95mph winds). Unlike their ocean cousins, these storms can occur at any time of the year, but historically have been more frequent in autumn and early winter.”
“Little tidal movement means when the surf’s on, it stays on,” Bateman finished. “More often than not, the surf will be accompanied by tricky wind as those narrow fetches don’t allow for significant swell propagation. But with a geographically varied coastline, there are allows tucked-away corners to find.”
Spot Guide: Varazze