Taking the plunge in Porto

PORTUGAL — Some of us don’t travel the world looking for bridges to jump from; it only works out that way.

Two years ago, I went off the 24-meter-high Stari Most bridge in Mostar, Bosnia, managing not to hurt myself. I had known long in advance about that bridge and about the local club that charges foreigners money to teach them how to jump safely.

This time, the week in October that I spent in Portugal, I had no intention of jumping off any bridge or even any knowledge of the Ponte de Dom Luis in Porto until I read in my Lonely Planet guidebook about the “local daredevils” and their ritual. That reading happened on the 3-hour train ride from Lisbon north to Porto. 

I hadn’t even packed swim trunks. But the thought of slamming into the water again seemed strangely appealing. 

The lower level is about 15 meters high, although online sources give various figures. The upper level has a height closer to the Golden Gate Bridge’s — 45 meters. Nobody goes off the upper level unless he has terminal intentions. 

Built between 1881 and 1886 and designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel, Dom Luis spans the Rio Douro between Porto and Gaia (the side with the wineries). The upper level has pedestrians and a tram line. The lower level has pedestrians and cars. 

Jumping into the Rio Douro probably has gone on as long as Dom Luis has existed, with local kids doing it to impress girls or to collect tips from tourists. A film called Aniki Bóbó (1942) immortalizes long-ago practitioners.

Knowing still almost nothing about the bridge, I checked into my hostel, quizzed the clerks about the local hobby, and then blitzed through two museums. I also scouted the Dom Luis by walking across to Gaia on the 45-meter-high upper level. On the Gaia side, I questioned two obvious local jumpers, teenagers in swim trunks who were drying themselves, about the water temperature and about the police’s attitude to them (complete apathy). One of them offered to go back in if I paid him 10 euros, but his pal shushed him. 

By then, with sunset less than an hour away, I was ready to do it. Such hare-brained schemes need to be executed ASAP rather than haunting one’s thoughts, in this case, till the next morning. I charged back to my hostel to lock up my wallet, returned to the bridge, and again crossed to the Gaia side, where I left my shoes, T-shirt, towel, and hostel keycard on the rock that I intended to swim back to. It was now a half-hour till sunset, and I was the only shirtless, barefoot person on the bridge. I reached the center, picked my spot, and stared down at the darkening water.

Porto was considerably different from Mostar.

The Rio Douro has an occupational hazard that the Neretva in Mostar did not: a constant parade of tour boats. Porto runs so many of the vessels that the cautious jumper has to look up- and downstream for traffic before taking the plunge, rather than crash onto a boat deck or end up under a propeller. 

My attitude toward the height was almost one of contempt, though you should always respect a 15-meter fall. After Mostar’s 24 meters, it looked almost … trivial. I squirted through an opening in the bridge ironwork, paused a bit to think about how the water seemed farther away than it did a second ago, and flung myself into the abyss.

The only immediate witnesses, a nearby tourist couple, stared at me in astonishment, having no context like Mostar’s parade of jumpers to explain the maniac next to them. I said something brief and banal to reassure them, though they might not even have known English.

Instantly two hazards presented themselves.

(1) I was going to land terribly. Water becomes less and less forgiving the farther you fall. At Mostar, the local bridge-jumping club had made sure that I did a good vertical plant before letting go. In Porto, I had crawled through a bolt hole in the ironwork. The fall was going to last all of between 1 and 2 seconds, closer to 1 second, and I would have none of the preferred time to adjust my posture in mid-air. That said, I scored probably the second-best option, the best being hitting with toes pointed like a knife blade.

I hit butt first — the fleshiest part of the body, no trauma to vital organs or to the spinal cord. I was hardly an aerodynamic marvel with such a landing, but I still sank like a rock into the October-cold, weirdly salty water and had the usual brief anxiety about clawing all the way back to the surface.

(2) As various sources I read later said, the current was strong. It would have been useful to know of it going in. Nature asserted itself as soon as I started swimming upstream toward my intended rock, where I had left my shirt and shoes.

After only a few strokes, I realized I would not be going upstream. No words were exchanged; it was the river silently and indifferently vetoing my plan.

I was doing a fine job of swimming in place. Once I tired — and I am no superman in the water — the current was going to carry me downstream to a destination of its choice, not mine. 

It was time for Plan B, rather than fight a river with night approaching. I began swimming immediately to the closest rock beside me, making an abrupt left turn rather than plowing straight ahead. As long as I was going perpendicular to the current rather than challenging it head on, I could move. Eventually, I reached the target and climbed ashore. Tourists were standing on this rock too, yet another silent and surprised bunch. A solitary man who doesn’t look Portuguese and comes out of the Rio Douro at twilight can be mystifying. 

I went back to my original rock and retrieved my gear. Back at the hostel after showering and drying off, I had 2 beers for 2 euros and thought about being less sharp-eyed when reading guidebooks in the future.