Life's a beach: Goncalo on living and working as a surf coach

Goncalo, who’s had a love for surfing for as long as he can remember, founded a surf school called Time To Surf in 2004, and hasn’t looked back since. We recently caught up with him to ask about his life as a surf coach in Lisbon, what inspired him to setup Time To Surf, and how his work affects his lifestyle. He’s one of the hardest workers we’ve ever met, and he has some great advice for those looking for a better work-life balance.

Goncalo - Time To Surf

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and what Time to Surf is all about?

My name’s Goncalo, and I’m 36. As you can probably guess, surfing is a huge part of my life, and I’ve been surfing since I was aged 9 when my grandparents retired and moved to the Algarve. This meant that I spent every summer (and the odd extra day when I could convince my parents!) surfing over there.

Summers in Algarve

I never wanted to be a professional surfer, so I went on a surf teaching course at the age of 19 and taught it as a summer gig for five years until I finished Uni. Then in June 2004, after taking a year off to travel, I started to teach friends with a van, some wet suits and a couple of boards. This carried on for about a year and a half until I realized I wanted to do it permanently.

I started investing in my own training and before I knew it Time To Surf had been born! Now it’s my livelihood and it pays the bills, but most importantly it means I can stay faithful to my principles of surfing, not having a 9-5 job, staying close to the ocean, working on something I love and sharing my passion with other people.

Goncalo Surf School

We grew substantially, mostly teaching Portuguese residents, until 2009 when the economic crisis hit. We started to focus more on teaching tourists, which has been great. I don’t care who I teach, but those who really want to learn are my favorite. I don’t like big crowds either because I want to make everyone feel special. Some surf schools do well with big crowds, but it’s not what I prefer.

Time To Surf isn’t just about physically surfing; it’s about celebrating surfing, celebrating Portugal, eating at nice restaurants and checking out the views. I stumbled onto Time To Surf, but I love it.

Is it easy to have and manage a surf school?

Yes, and no. I’m not so focused on money and I know what to expect, but I work hard because I love what I do. It means I’m always pushing myself with dozens of new ideas for the next season, so I don’t give myself much time to rest.

Surfers in the ocean

Anyone with a seasonal business will know that the weather can be tough; business is great in the summer, but then it’s hot during the day, and in the winter it gets chilly and business quietens down a little bit.

I work hard at weekends so managing family life can be tough as well, and my social networks don’t always understand. Many surf coaches have lost relationships because of this; I give half-jokey, half-serious lectures on how to maintain a relationship and still be able to surf!

Does it feel like work?

I absolutely love what I do so for me it’s the best job in the world. But summer feels more like work as I have more clients and less time for friends. Also, teaching 12 hours a day in 30-degree heat with lots of people, and traffic on the way to work with no parking spaces when I get there can get tiring!

Goncalo - Time To Surf

Mid-season and winter is less like work because I have fewer clients, and the ones I do have are completely dedicated to surfing. It means my technical teaching is pushed to the limit, but I love the challenge.

What is the hardest part of your business?

I like to think I’m a tough guy, so the hours I work isn’t a problem. I could do 12 hours a day, 7 days a week I love surfing that much! The hardest part is managing my family life with my wife and kids, but I manage this quite well now.

Being a surf coach and a manager can be hard as well, having to switch between teaching surfing at the beach and then marketing from the office.

Beaches in Portugal

As I said earlier, having a seasonal business is also difficult; you’ll work like an animal for six months and then it quietens down over the winter. You start to question yourself, your business, wondering whether you’ll have a good season next year. I feel stuck in limbo for a couple of months until work picks up again. No matter how good your business, you suffer from lack of cash flow in the winter. Hiring can be difficult as well as I can’t always offer year-long positions.

Do you plan to take Time to Surf worldwide or keep it to Lisbon?

Something in the middle of that really – I have a plan but at the moment it’s very broad. I don’t see Time To Surf like other surf schools with facilities all over the world and me traveling around; I love Portugal, and I love my family, so I want to stay here!

I’ve learned to appreciate staying local – I can spend time with my family and save on gas at the same time! I’ve found that less frequent trips are better and setting up across the globe doesn’t fit with my model of celebrating Portugal, and it means I can stay committed to my regular students back in Lisbon.

I want to be the best in Portugal and I don’t believe that all businesses are meant to be international. Portugal is an essential part of Time To Surf, and so I want to grow it here.

Does teaching surfing regularly take the fun out of surfing for you?

Not at all! Teaching surfing allows me to be at the beach and helps me to constantly improve my own game so that I can surf with more pleasure.

What’s the best thing about living and working a beach life?

Being a surf coach is different to being self-employed. It’s hard in the summer, but then I have more free time than others. I live in a favorable environment, and us surfers always get gorgeous girlfriends (or at least we try to)!

The best thing though is that people’s happiness with the sun, the beach, and the surfing is contagious. That’s why I love working with tourists; they remind me every single day how good life is and how good my country is – a lot of people take that for granted.

Are there any downsides to having a beach life?

If something happens to me and I can’t surf, then I’m going to have trouble finding a new job. This doesn’t worry me, but it’s present in my choices. I know that one day I will pay the price for spending so much time in the water and the cold, and surfers paddle a lot so we wear our shoulders out, and our knees suffer a bit.

Beach Bar

There’s also uncertainty about being a surf coach – you aren’t sure if you’re going to get a big bonus at the end of the year like bankers and you don’t know how good your season is going to be. I’m not going to be rich, but I’m happy that I work a lot doing something that I love.

Have you ever worked in an office before?

No, I haven’t, and I have no wish to do it anytime soon! I want to keep teaching surfing until I’m at least 75, and I much prefer wearing a wetsuit over a business suit!

Surf Zone

It must be amazing regularly meeting people from all over the world with their own unique stories?

Yes, it is, it’s like I’m traveling but in proxy. Most of the people I meet are so nice, and now there’s a lot of cities I want to visit because of these people. Sweden is high up on my list!

What are your favorite surf spots and countries around the world and why?

I think the best surfing spots in Europe are here in Portugal. But I also love Morocco because it’s so close to Portugal so I can go regularly. The people are great and the surfing is awesome.

Costa Rica is beautiful, fun and safe; it’s always 28 degrees whether you’re in or out of the water or if it’s day or night. I love the fruit juice there as well!

Brazil is nice too; the wave quality isn’t quite as good but the water is still nice and so are the people.

We get plenty of people visiting Surf Office who aren’t looking to surf, what are your favorite things to do in Lisbon outside of surfing?

I absolutely love Portugal, to me it’s the best country in the world. There’s so much to do, but it, of course, depends on everyone’s profile. You can take a stroll through the old part of town; there’s lots of history there.

But don’t just stay in the city, we have great weather and big outdoor spaces in Portugal so go and check out nature too! You could rent a car and drive to Sintra – it’s nice there.

There’s plenty of culture going on, and we have some of the best festivals in Europe in the summer because it’s sunny and cheap; I’d recommend scheduling a trip around these.

Portugal is so rich in things to do, just take your pick!

What’s the best piece of advice you can give to someone who wants to have a better work-life balance?

Get as good as you can in whatever you do with the best possible training and experience, and then get out there and dedicate yourself to being the best at what you do! It’s so easy to make excuses, but only you can get out there and just do it. Then you can choose when you work, with whom, what work you want to do…then you’ve already started to balance out your life.

I know this sounds biased but I’d really recommend surfing – your mind is clear in the water, and it can help you to make better life choices; it definitely has for me!

Maybe you can’t change something right away but be patient and wait for the opportunity. It will arise, and that’s when you’ve got to take your life changing actions – stay true to your principles and you’ll get the opportunity somewhere down the road.

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