It was a clear day in September in the Portuguese beach resort of Nazaré. The sun sparkled off the cornflower-blue ocean, which broke gently against the foot of the rugged cliffs of its North Beach. The 16th-Century fort that sits atop the cliffs was dotted with a handful of tourists posing for pictures in front of its bright-red lighthouse. It couldn't have been a greater contrast to the scene that would unfold in just a month's time.
When the first swell of the big wave surfing season, which generally runs from October to March, rolls in, the road to the fort and the cliffs surrounding it fill with thousands of people. All of them are hoping to catch a glimpse of the world's best big wave surfers attempting their profession's ultimate feat: risking everything to ride the monstrous, skyscraper-sized waves generated by Europe's largest underwater canyon.
Nazaré locals always knew their waves were big, although for generations they had no idea of their dimensions. On stormy winter days, they'd drive to the lighthouse to soak up their power. The whole area would feel like it was shaking, the thunderous sound reaching the mountains. While local surfers would surf at Nazaré up to a point, they knew when it was time to get out. They certainly wouldn't dream of tackling the monsters that came in with the big swells.
In fact, until recently, surfing professionals didn't believe it was possible. In 2004, a group of big wave surfers came to recce the waves but aborted their mission after just 90 minutes. At that time, there was no funding in Nazaré to buy the jet skis that are needed to tackle waves of this size, which are too big to paddle surf. Even if they had them, they thought, the prospect of falling in these conditions, with huge waves coming from all directions, was too dangerous. A year later, local surf club member Dino Casimiro contacted another surfer known for his daredevil nature, American Garrett McNamara, but he wouldn't even make the trip.
Nazaré has long been a popular summer holiday spot, but is now also the epicentre of big wave surfing (Credit: Fernando Trabanco Fotografía/Getty Images)
In 2008, higher ups in the local government agreed for the first time that their best chance of extending the town's tourism season was by capitalising on the geological anomaly on their doorstep, which the Portuguese Hydrographic Institute had been studying since 1960. Nazaré had been a popular summer holiday spot for the Portuguese for centuries, but once 31 August came around, it became a ghost town overnight. Its other main industry, fishing, was fast declining too.
"It was never [about] being respected by the big wave surfing community," said Paulo "Pitbull" Salvador, a PE teacher and lifeguard who was involved in the first meeting at the city hall. "It was about bringing people to Nazaré outside the summer months."
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After two more years of begging for funding, the project started to gain momentum. McNamara landed in Portugal in 2010 and, in a few days, proved that with the right equipment Nazaré's biggest waves could be surfed. Just a year later, McNamara broke the world record by riding a 78ft wave. The question was: was anyone else brave – or crazy – enough to try?
Even by big wave surfing standards, the waves at Nazaré are especially menacing. "A wave like Jaws in Hawaii is attractive to surfers because it's a perfect wave and there's less risk involved," said Portugal-born big wave surfer Nic Von Rupp, who was part of the group of surfers who came to Nazaré in 2004 when he was 14. "This is a monster, a freakshow. It's like looking up at a skyscraper or a mountain; the difference is it's coming in your direction and it's there to eat you alive. It doesn't have any pity."
It's like looking up at a skyscraper or a mountain; the difference is it's coming in your direction and it's there to eat you alive
The size and unpredictability of the waves at Nazaré are caused by a submarine canyon that is 200km long and 5km deep. The difference in depth between the bottom of the canyon and the continental shelf splits waves into two. In the shallower area, the speed of the wave reduces, but inside the canyon it maintains the speed it was travelling in the deep ocean. The two collide, creating one bigger wave, which then impacts the currents near the shore, leading to a second amplification.
When there's a big swell, waves that were 30ft offshore can reach 60ft or more near the beach. In 2017, Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa topped McNamara's record when he surfed an 80ft wave. Fellow Brazilian Maya Gabeira set the women's world record at Nazaré the following year on a 68-footer. Measurements still haven't been made official for the 2020 season, but 18-year-old Portuguese surfer António Laureano claims to have achieved the holy grail, riding a 101ft behemoth in October.
The skyscraper-sized waves at Nazaré are generated by Europe's largest underwater canyon (Credit: Rui Caria/Getty Images)
As the waves at Nazaré are more dangerous than any other surfing spot in the world, according to Von Rupp, these feats have only been made possible thanks to the establishment of the most stringent safety regime in big wave surfing history.
As well as the jet ski driver, who deposits the surfer on the wave, teams authorised to surf at Nazaré during a big swell must also include a spotter with a radio who keeps the driver informed on the surfer's location. "When you're in the white water, you don't know where anything is, you're just trying to survive," explained Salvador, who was put in charge of safety when McNamara landed in Portugal in 2010. There is also a second rescuer on a jet ski, and on big days a third.
Even then, the reality is that you can die, says Joana Andrade, the only Portuguese woman to surf the big waves at Nazaré. She prepared for eight months before her first attempt in 2013, a process that involved physical and spiritual training such as visualisation and breathing techniques. "You can have the physical body super well prepared but it's your mind that's going to save you if things go wrong," she explained. According to Von Rupp, some surfers meditate on their own drowning. "You have to be prepared not to panic if you're about to pass out, because that's when you open your mouth and let all your oxygen out. Your best chance of survival is keeping calm."
If the worst happens, responsibility shifts to the first jet ski driver. For Von Rupp and Andrade, this is Sergio Cosme, who has become known as "the guardian angel of Nazaré". "If you practise something 100 times, it becomes automatic," he told me. "In that moment, there are so many concerns in your head and in the case of safety, you have to be able to do things automatically and minimise the time of all the procedures because you only have seconds to do them."
But years of training doesn't guarantee a successful rescue, something Cosme struggles to talk about. Last year, his friend, Portuguese big wave surfer Alex Botelho, was knocked unconscious between the waves and stopped breathing for 10 minutes before being rescued by his partner Hugo Vau and resuscitated on the beach. "One day, the worst could happen, and it will be really hard to handle that," Cosme said.
People flock here between October and May to watch the world's best big wave surfers (Credit: Beatrice Lindfors)
Andrade believes it is worth the risks. "When the jet ski driver says, I'm going to put you on this wave, there are so many monkeys in my mind. I feel I can't do it, it's a mix of fear and adrenaline," she said. "But when he releases the cable, it's a feeling of freedom, understanding and peace. Although it's super fast, it feels like an eternity. You learn what it really feels like to be in the present, which is very important especially in these times."
You learn what it really feels like to be in the present, which is very important especially in these times
Before Nazaré tamed its gigantic waves, Von Rupp's generation of Portuguese surfers had to travel to the other side of the world – most often to Hawaii – to get close to that feeling. Now the epicentre of big wave surfing is an hour from his house. "To be part of that history in the making is amazing," he enthused. "It's also become a much safer sport, which has called in talented young Portuguese surfers to pursue careers in big wave surfing."
Nazaré locals now talk about big wave surfing like Christ; there's a before and an after. Before 2010, the population barely expanded beyond its 15,000 inhabitants in winter. Since the fort was converted into a museum about the waves in 2014, around one million tourists have visited, with 350,000 in 2019 alone. Winters are sometimes busier than summers, and business owners often approach Salvador to thank him for everything he and his colleagues have done for the town.
He's now working with the city hall on a project to expand on that impact, which will help students pursue careers in sectors linked to big wave surfing, including photography, driving and being a spotter.
Unlike at other big wave surfing hotspots, there have been no deaths at Nazaré so far. Cosme's hope is that as the location grows in popularity, safety measures will continue to be strengthened.
As the mist started to roll in and the colours of the sea and the lighthouse faded, a slight wind picked up the sand and it became easier to picture Nazaré with a big swell on the horizon. The world's bravest surfers will be back this year to try their luck at tackling the world's biggest wave.
In 2014, the fort was converted into a museum about the waves (Credit: Beatrice Lindfors)
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