A version of this story appears in Huck 73: The Sanctuary Issue. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue. Get your copy of Huck 73 now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
On the morning of Tuesday, 11 February, giant teepee-shaped waves marched into Nazaré, the famous surf break on the west coast of Portugal. They moved in a latticed formation that looked deceptively organised. Only when a jet ski whipped a surfer into them could you see their otherworldly scale. The surfer would drop, drop, drop, and then drop some more in a kind of slow motion that defied the speeds at which they travelled, the bottom of the wave seeming to recede, or the crest of the wave continuing to grow taller – or both. It was spectacular to witness in person. The wave dwarfed each surfer so much they appeared ant-sized. I emailed a phone pic to my mum and wrote, ‘Zoom in to see surfer.’
I watched from atop of the cliff that overlooks Nazaré with a few thousand fellow spectators. One was Carina, from Austria, on her third trip to Nazaré this winter to see the big-waves. “I can’t get enough of it,” she said. Gary, a senior citizen from North Carolina, USA, was travelling around Portugal with his wife. “It’s like the Grand Canyon,” he said. “You’re seeing it, but you can’t believe it.” Jennifer, a 20-something musician from New York: “I suffer from depression, and when I came across Sebastian’s feed on Instagram, and all those huge waves, I don’t know… I just felt happy.” Sebastian is the German surfer Sebastian Steudtner, a competitor in the event; Jennifer told me that she’d tracked the swell from her home in Tribeca. When she saw the contest was on, she immediately booked a flight.
My story was similar. Three nights earlier I was modestly drunk at a bar in London with my pal Owen Tozer, a surfer and photographer. He’d seen the swell forecast, and that the Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge – the annual big-wave event in Nazaré – was likely a go. The following morning, Storm Ciara battered the UK with hurricane-force winds – the same winds that would bring the massive waves to Nazaré. As the windows of our respective London flats rattled, we exchanged text messages teeming with thumbs-up emojis – and booked flights.
At 9am the contest was officially called on. This great force majeure, this thing that seemed more dream than real, would soon be put under that vulgar microscope of ‘How big?’ and ‘Who is the best?’ I say that half-jokingly. Surf contests have been around for over 100 years, and wave height has been a point of reference for just as long. But the majesty of Nazaré transcends such constructs. The whole place is of epic scale: the craggy cliffs, the 16th century fort, the Old Man and the Sea-evoking lighthouse, the Canyon (an immense submarine gash more than three miles deep and 140 miles long, which helps to both funnel and enlarge swell), and, of course, the monster waves. It’s a site that looks ripe for maritime disaster. And in fact, it is.
“This was known only as a place of death,” big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara told me. “Up until just 10 years ago, North Beach – which is now the surf spot – was off limits to every person in Nazaré. So many fishermen had lost their lives there. You’d see the widows around the town, dressed in black, mourning their husbands.”
Garrett would know. He single-handedly put Nazaré on the map. When he first showed up with a surfboard and a jet ski, the locals looked at him sideways and kept their distance. “Later I found out they didn’t want to know me,” he said. “They didn’t want to get close to me, because I was the person who wasn’t going to survive. They lost people every winter to the big waves.”
The Garrett-Nazaré story is like a fairy tale. In 2005, local sports teacher Dino Casimiro sent an email to Garrett inviting him to come see the great waves of Nazaré. At the time, Garrett was a well-known big-wave rider, but at age 38 he was racing a ticking clock. So began a correspondence that would last for five years. But Garrett never made it there. It was only when his wife, Nicole, found the emails and inquired about them that they finally went. “I knew right then I’d found the Holy Grail.”
He studied the break and sea conditions, and consulted the Portuguese Navy, who provided charts, financial support, and even placed buoys along the Nazaré Canyon approach. On 11 November, 2011, at what Garrett’s pretty sure was 11am, he rode his first waves there. That night, the swell jacked up, and the following morning Garrett rode the wave that would make history: 78-foot, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Nazaré has since become one of the most famous big-wave spots on the planet. There are about a dozen surfers and filmmakers who have made this once sleepy fishing village their home base. Tourism has subsequently boomed – the wave is an international attraction.
The first heat kicked off in the fog with five jet skis zapping around the lineup, surfers in tow. They stalked the looming swells, following them the way a hunter might track big game in his crosshairs. The cliff provided excellent viewing. From above you could see what the tow teams couldn’t: whether the wave was going to back off, if there was a bigger one behind it. But it was hard to tell who was who. Watching the surfers drop down the mammoth faces was like trying to follow golf balls. You could see their contrails, but those contrails were speck-like, subsumed by a riot of foam and froth.
Watching the webcast at home probably gave a better sense of what was going on than spectating. I found myself watching the monitors inside the media tent. Brazilian Maya Gabeira got a great one. Eric Rebiere streaked gloriously down a fanged giant then disappeared under an avalanche of whitewash. There were four rescue skis buzzing about. One picked him up and rushed him to the beach. Back on shore, Rebiere looked punch-drunk, barely able to stand. The medical crew grabbed him by the arms and legs, shuffled him out of the raging shorebreak, and gave him oxygen.
“This is the convergence point for big-waves,” said Portuguese surf writer and historian João Valente. “Nazaré is one of the most consistent big-wave spots on the planet. It’s the place that holds the most world records for big-waves. And it has contributed a lot to the safety-team training. The risks here are so big. The lineup is unpredictable. The things learned at Nazaré will help at any spot around the world.”
I wandered from the cliff to the beach to the top of the hill that looks down upon the fort and lighthouse that feature prominently in pictures of Nazaré. I continued to be astonished by the enormity of it all. I was reminded of a line from the movie In God’s Hands. In reference to tow-surfing, writer-actor Matt George’s character says, “The Chinese didn’t build their temples to the size of the human body, they built them to the size of the human spirit.” It was hard to find the best perspective from which to watch. It was hard to find surfers.
The waves thundered and roared. You felt them in your belly, and I’m pretty sure the ground rumbled beneath our feet. Sheets of tangy brine whacked us in the face after the big sets. At one point, I nearly got decapitated by one of the many drones buzzing about. I marvelled at the way the jet skis could outrun the waves. There was an advanced system in place: spotters watched from above where, with radios, they’d guide the jet ski rescue team to the surfer. It was life-saving, given the maelstrom of pounding waves. That’s the thing about Nazaré at this size: you could get lucky and surf an entire session without getting your hair wet; or, wrong place, wrong time, you could get ten beasts on the head – which, without the jet ski to zap you to safety, would be fatal. The crowd cheered for the riders when they caught waves, but they cheered even louder when a good rescue happened. We were looking down to the sea but we could have been looking up to the sky, astronauts doing space work, or something of that galactic sort.
On the roof of the fort I found Bill Sharp, the peroxide-haired general manager of the Big-Wave Tour. “It’s really just a day- long expression session,” he said of the event. “The point of this is guys and gals are going to go out and ride some giant waves during a certain window of goodness. Someone’s going to get the wave of the day. In the end we produce a winner, but mostly we produce a show – it’s kind of reverse-engineered.”
Bill went on to explain that the competitors would in fact be the judges. At the end of the day, the administrators would review the waves on video, pick out about a half-dozen of the best, and then hand it over to the surfers to choose the winning ride.
Just then a wild set of waves came. The colour of the sea had turned a foreboding green-brown. The explosions of water contained unspeakable force. Sometimes the waves at Nazaré will be so vertically spire-shaped that they take on a sinister air, like some kind of sea monster’s barbed tongue. I scribbled into my notebook: ‘The wave will always be the star. The surfers give it scale and consequence, but Nazaré is really just a triumphant sea. Right up there with Niagara Falls. Or the Mount Vesuvius of AD 79. This is not a contest report.’
I looked up just in time to watch a jet ski race across a huge, frothy left. In what at four-feet high would have been a mouthwatering ramp section, but at this size a total disaster, the ski popped into the air, ejecting both driver and surfer riding in the back. The crowd winced. There were a bunch of waves behind it. A wicked widow’s peak swallowed up the overturned ski and threw it shoreward. On the monitor we watched the drone angle of surfer Alex Botelho floating face down and lifeless. The safety-team and medics pulled him from the water and applied CPR. It was a terrifying image – our worst fears realised.
There were several minutes of tension and uncertainty. The webcast commentators were unsure if we’d just witnessed a death. A dark cloud hung over what had been a perfect, monumental day. Then Botelho was revived and rushed to hospital. All of this was reported over the webcast and PA – we several thousand spectators breathed a sigh of relief. (He would be discharged from hospital 15 days later, posting to Instagram: “All is on a good track. Now a long recovery ahead.”)
“Funny how these awards presentations feel like little club events,” said journalist and World Surf League commentator Ben Mondy. We were gathered in a tent adjacent to the fort. Competitors sat at tables. Awards for Commitment and Best Team were announced to rounds of applause and hoots and playful heckling. In the end, Justine Dupont won Women’s Wave of the Day and Kai Lenny won Men’s. But despite the celebration, there was a sense of something much bigger at play: namely what the swell and wind were doing, and what the waves would be like in the morning.
Here is where the big-wave tribe deviates from their fellow surfers. I remember being at a book festival several years ago, and a friend made the comment that the writers, many of them famous, dressed as if they didn’t give a shit. I quoted my writer friend Tim Baker, who once said, “Writing is like an inverted triangle, the further up you go, the bigger it gets.” Which is to say that in the lineage of Dante and Shakespeare and Jane Austen and James Joyce, sartorial concerns can seem sort of trivial. Big-wave surfers are a long way up that inverted triangle. Mortality slaps them in the face regularly. Contests are but a small thing in a life of riding giants.
The next morning it pumped. Of course, everyone was still around – because this was about a swell, not a contest. On the cliff I ran into many of the greats. There was Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker and San Francisco surfer Bianca Valenti, as well as the Italian Francisco Porcella, who told me that he’d injured his eardrum in the event. Briton Tom Lowe also showed up.
I asked Tom, Francisco and Bianca what they find most impressive in gargantuan waves.
“Deep line behind first peak,” said Tom. “Just putting it on the line back there.”
“Getting barrelled on a massive one,” said Francisco.
“The driving impresses me the most,” added Bianca. “The pickups, where they put the rider on the wave.”
“It’s more than 50 per cent the driver,” said Tom.
“It’s really the driver’s wave,” said Bianca.
The sun poked through, and the ocean took on a sparkling, almost friendly azure. Ben Mondy showed up with a coffee and a hangover. Australian cinematographer Tim Bonython trudged up with a massive camera and tripod. Hawaiian cinematographer Mike Prickett arrived with his team of about four lensmen. “Giant swell coming on Monday,” said Mike. “Like, historically big. 100-foot big.” He told me that they’d come to Nazaré to film Garrett McNamara. He went on to say that there was another film team on their way, and that the second film team was shooting Prickett’s team shooting Garrett and Nazaré. Suddenly I had the sense that I’d just stepped into The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and we were all on the hunt for the jaguar shark. Or perhaps Moby Dick is the more apt metaphor.
Just then a slick, eco-Mercedes SUV crept down the one- land road that leads to the fort. Behind the wheel was Garrett. He and his family live for half the year in Nazaré. He has been embraced by the whole country, their hero from across the water. He stopped. “Hey boys,” he said. There were handshakes and shakas. Garrett pointed. “Look at that!” We all looked seaward. The white whale loomed.
Jamie Brisick is a Contributing Editor at Huck. Follow him on Twitter.