Riding the giant: big-wave surfing in Nazaré

A small fishing hamlet in Portugal has become a magnet for the world’s most fearless big-wave surfers. Tim Lewis reveals how Nazaré became the ocean’s Everest

by Tim LewisSun 2 Aug 2020 08.00 BST

Everyone you meet in Nazaré tells you the waves here are different: heavier, more powerful, less predictable, somehow menacing. So, on my last afternoon in the Portuguese town in February, I went out on the back of a jet ski piloted by Andrew Cotton, a big-wave surfer from Devon, to see for myself. Cotton is easygoing, with cropped, gold-tipped hair and pale eyes, but he turns serious as we leave the harbour. He explains that jet skis are set up differently in Nazaré: the kill switch, which cuts the engine if the rider is thrown off, is not attached to the driver’s wrist as usual because… I miss the exact reason as Cotton guns the engine and sea spray covers us and I’m distracted, wondering if they really had to call it a “kill” switch. I’m already freaked out enough that I’ve promised to check in with my family as soon as I’m back on dry land.

Nazaré, specifically Praia do Norte or North Beach, is home to the biggest surfable waves on the planet. Ten years ago, it was unknown even in big-wave circles, but that changed when Garrett McNamara, a 52-year-old Hawaiian who is one of the pioneers of the sport, was given a tip-off by local bodyboarders. He came to Portugal for the first time in 2010; the following year, he rode a monstrous wave measured at 23.77m (78ft) and entered the Guinness World Records. In 2017, also in Nazaré, Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa nudged up the mark to 24.38m (80ft). If one day someone conquers a 100ft wave – a holy grail of surfing – almost certainly it will take place in Nazaré.

The video footage of these record-breaking rides is mesmerising: the surfers are tiny specks being chased by a terrifying wall of water eight storeys tall. But the mystique of Nazaré comes almost as much from its spectacular wipeouts. The Brazilian big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira nearly drowned in 2013 after being pounded by a wave estimated at 70ft (five years later she set the women’s world record riding a 20.8m, or 68ft, wave in Nazaré). The Australian legend Ross Clarke-Jones was stranded on the rocks and only escaped by scrambling up the sheer face of a 30m cliff. Probably the most famous smash-down in Nazaré history involves Cotton, who I’m sitting behind now and hugging for dear life (social distancing is not on the horizon yet). In 2017, he was slammed by a giant wave and propelled like a human cannonball, shattering his back.

The memory of that day isn’t one that Cotton seems to especially enjoy revisiting. “For me, it was just an injury,” he says. “It wasn’t a trauma. It hurt, it was painful, but I never thought I was going to die. It’s just how it goes.” But McNamara, who was in the water that day, certainly hasn’t forgotten it. “That was probably the most insane catapult ever in surfing history,” he tells me. “You know the old Roman catapult to break the brick wall? He was the stone.”

There are, mercifully, none of those dangers this afternoon. The sun is high, winds low and the waves curl up and break without serious intent. Cotton and I idle on the jet ski for a couple of minutes, looking back at the town. It’s an unusual viewpoint, one that is usually reserved for the world’s most skilled big-wave surfers. On top of the cliff there’s the Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo, a stone outpost that dates from 1577, and the stubby red lighthouse, which has become the signature of all photographs of Nazaré. Most of the renowned big-wave surf spots are off remote islands in the middle of the ocean. Praia do Norte is right by the shore, with the fort providing a natural grandstand. Today, with no surfers in the water, there are a few dozen people looking out at us; they are so close that you can almost hear snatches of their conversation.

Riding the storm: Sebastian Steudtner surfs at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, 2018.
Riding the storm: Sebastian Steudtner surfs at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, 2018. Photograph: Octavio Passos/Getty Images

“The lighthouse gives the waves perspective,” explains McNamara, “which makes them magnificent and beautiful and unbelievable. Then when you get here on a big day, you realise it is everything you see in the photos – and then some. There’s nowhere you can view the waves like here. Nowhere where you can be so close to the action. If Cotty [Cotton] is on a wave, you can yell at him on the wave and he can hear you: ‘Hey, we’ve got the cream tea over here on the left! Get your cream tea!’”

Tumbling behind the fort is the town of Nazaré, home to 15,000 inhabitants. It is a historic, attractive jumble of red-roofed white houses, with a funicular railway that connects the beach and the cliffs. Since anyone can remember, it has survived on two industries: fishing and tourism in the summer. Until now, its greatest claim to fame was that Stanley Kubrick and Henri Cartier-Bresson made photo essays here.

But the wave – sometimes known as Big Mama – has changed that. Winter used to be dead in Nazaré: many restaurants wouldn’t even bother to open. Now, with reliable conditions from October to March, the town is busy all year round with surfers and people who just want to marvel at the biggest waves on the planet. The fort, which is owned by the Portuguese ministry of defence, was opened to the public for the first time in 2014 – 40,000 people came. In 2019, there were 335,000 visitors.

Before I go out with Cotton I meet Walter Chicharro, the mayor of Nazaré. For generations, his family have been fishermen (the name Chicharro means “large horse mackerel” he notes proudly). But, speaking before Covid-19 hit, he had hopes the wave would put Nazaré on the map. He would like one day to see a 100-room, five-star hotel. “At the moment, there are only four stars,” Chicharro says. In recent times, though pre-pandemic, both Burger King and McDonald’s enquired about opening sites in Nazaré.

In fact, in 2020, Nazaré is precious little changed by the dramatic events of the past decade. There are no chain stores, hardly any shops even selling surfing tat. But looking back at the town from the jet ski, a global breakthrough seems inevitable. Even some of the surfers feel conflicted about it. “This is what happens: because there are more people, these brands like McDonald’s and Burger King come in,” says Justine Dupont, the dominant female big-wave surfer from France, who has lived in Nazaré since 2016. “It’s a good thing, because there are more people and a bad thing, because I don’t really like these restaurants – if I can call them restaurants. In everything, there is a plus and a minus.”

Nazaré’s story began approximately 150m years ago, when the Atlantic ocean was formed in the Jurassic period. Monster waves typically happen when water goes from very deep to very shallow over a short distance. This is why most of the big-wave hotspots are near islands, such as Hawaii and Tahiti. Nazaré is a mainland aberration because of a vast undersea canyon that runs from 140 miles out to sea right up to Praia do Norte – and then abruptly stops. At points, it is at least three miles deep – three times the depth of the Grand Canyon.

Monster waves have crashed down on Praia do Norte for centuries. Generations of local fishermen have feared them. “North Beach was always off limits,” says McNamara, who I meet on the last day of Nazaré’s annual carnival. His costume is a black hoodie with a white diablo mask propped on his forehead and his features are eagle-like: dark, watchful eyes under thick brows. “And the fishermen would go out to sea, back in the day, before the harbour was built, and they wouldn’t return a lot. So it’s just been a place of death.”

For 30 years, Portugal has been a surfing destination – notably at Peniche and Ericeira – but still nobody went to Nazaré. One of the reasons was that no one could figure out how to reach the waves. You couldn’t paddle out to them: they were too big. This only changed with the advent of tow-in surfing, which was pioneered in Hawaii in the mid-1990s, and used jet skis to drop surfers exactly where they needed to be to catch the wave. For a few years, tow-in revolutionised surfing: boards became smaller and surfers, such as the Hawaiian Laird Hamilton, could swoop down waves as big as 50ft and create images so spectacular that they went far beyond specialist surf magazines.

‘Way beyond all other waves’: Nazaré’s lighthouse at Praia do Norte acts as a grandstand for spectators.
‘Way beyond all other waves’: Nazaré’s lighthouse at Praia do Norte acts as a grandstand for spectators. Photograph: Octavio Passos/Getty Images

But as quickly as it shot to prominence, tow-in surfing began to languish. It became regarded as elitist, environmentally damaging; but, most of all, it stopped being fashionable. It was at this time that McNamara landed in Nazaré, in 2010. McNamara didn’t especially care that tow-in surfing wasn’t in vogue. He heard about Nazaré for the first time in 2005 when he received an email out of the blue from Dino Casimiro, a local bodyboarder and sports teacher. Casimiro admits that he tried to contact every big-wave surfer he’d ever heard of, but McNamara was the only one who had a website and email address. McNamara didn’t bite immediately, in part because he wasn’t totally sure where Casimiro was talking about. “To be honest, as an average American, one who got his education in the ocean, I didn’t know where Portugal was,” he admits.

So it took five years to convince McNamara to take a closer look at Nazaré, but as soon as he went up to the lighthouse and looked down at Praia do Norte he knew his life was about to change. “I’d been searching for the 100ft wave for about 10 years, and when I walked up to the tip the first day, I saw it,” he recalls. “Da-da! The holy grail! The first day, I realised what we’d stumbled upon. I’d found what I’d been searching for my whole big-wave career.”

McNamara began to put the infrastructure in place to take on the waves. He organised jet skis and for rescue support he made contact with Cotton, who had abandoned his dream of becoming a big-wave surfer, moved back to North Devon and retrained as a plumber. “I was working for an underfloor heating company,” recalls Cotton. McNamara consulted with the Portuguese navy, which helped him map out the contours of the seabed around the canyon. Crucially, buoys were put in the middle of the ocean, which would give advance warning of when the big swells – and skyscraper waves – would be coming. “It’s somewhat scientific, but also instinct and gut,” says McNamara.

Cotton remembers that it was eerie being out on the water during this period, back in the early 2010s. “It was just perfect for tow-surfing, but there was no one on it, no one about. It was a big-wave Disneyland, but there was no one at the amusement park. What the hell!”

On the day McNamara broke the world record, it was just him and Cotton in the water, with McNamara’s wife on the cliff filming it. “Thankfully I got to be the first,” says McNamara. “It was like stepping on the moon. The Everest of the ocean right here. Way beyond all other waves.”

It has taken a while for the surfing community to come round to accepting Nazaré. The great destinations of the sport were Hawaii, California and Australia, not a tourist trap in Portugal, one hour from Lisbon. Without seeing it, the wave was dismissed as a “burger” – a wave that is mushy and full of water, so it doesn’t curl in the classic way.

Cotton says, “The surf community were like, ‘Nah, this is the worst wave ever. We know Hawaii has the biggest waves.’ But what Garrett realised is that it didn’t matter what the surfing industry thought. The mainstream media were like, ‘Whoa!’” McNamara’s world record made the front pages of newspapers around the world. The CBS news show 60 Minutes, which has had ratings of more than 20m, did a special report on surfing in Nazaré. Most surfers are sponsored by surf brands, such as Billabong and Quiksilver; McNamara signed a deal with Mercedes-Benz.

‘It was a big-wave Disneyland’: surfer Andrew Cotton.
‘It was a big-wave Disneyland’: surfer Andrew Cotton. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Observer

Slowly, the surfing world has been won over, too. Nazaré is simply the most reliable spot in the world for big waves now. The counter is that it is probably also the most scary place to surf. The risks were again made clear in February when the Portuguese surfe r Alex Botelho wiped out on Praia do Norte; he remained unconscious and without a pulse for minutes after being dragged from the surf.

McNamara’s connection to Nazaré remains intense: one person calls him the town’s “unofficial mayor”. He married his wife Nicole on Praia do Norte in November 2012, and their children have grown up in the town. “My son was made on North Beach,” he says, smiling, “and my daughter was named after Nazaré.” As for the dangers of surfing here, McNamara believes that all you can do is prepare thoroughly and never lose sight of the risks involved. He also points out there have been no fatalities from tow-in surfing since it started in the early 1990s.

“God must love tow surfers – and I’m not a religious person,” he says, with a barking laugh. McNamara shakes his head in mild disbelief: “I’ve never even had a cut surfing here. Nazaré loves me! I said God loves surfers, but Mama Nazaré definitely loves me.”

The last person I speak to about Nazaré is Dino Casimiro, the bodyboarder who first made contact with McNamara. He’s lived in the town his whole life – 42 years – and works for the council now. Does he have any regrets about sharing Nazaré’s secret with the world? “For you to understand, my only gain is white hairs!” he replies. “I did it for my people. I did it because I think Nazaré is a really special place and Praia do Norte is amazing. It’s truly a wonder of the world.”

Casimiro only feels conflicted when one of the surfers is injured on the wave. He felt this again when Botelho, a friend, wound up in hospital earlier this year. “It was a horrible day, I didn’t feel too well,” he says. “I felt I was to blame, I felt responsible. And I spoke to Garrett and he said, ‘Man, don’t think about that. You showed to the world the biggest wave. If something bad happens, they understand that can be the price of surfing the biggest waves on the planet.”


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