Home Surfing Conquer the Challenge: Love and Pain on the World’s Biggest Wave at Nazare

Conquer the Challenge: Love and Pain on the World’s Biggest Wave at Nazare

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Andrew Cotton can see it all from his balcony in Nazare, a Portuguese town known for having some of the biggest waves in the world. It is usually pretty peaceful, with small waves and white noise. But when the surf is really good and the swell is just right, it’s completely different!

Nazare is a small town located 60 miles north of Lisbon. It has some of the biggest waves ever that can reach up to the height of 10 story buildings!

These dangerous ocean conditions have been a threat for the local fishermen for many generations, but for some people like Cotton, it is his way of life and source of income. He said: “Strangely, I have managed to turn this into my job – so when the wave is big enough I go out there and do what I need to do.”

Cotton can sense the arrival of the biggest and most famous wave in the world even before he opens his eyes. When the windows start to shake, Cotton knows that it’s a big wave coming! The ocean can seem scary when there are no waves but it gets especially petrifying when there is an enormous one rolling in. Nazare’s wave has several sources that all lead to one giant swell.

If you head 130 miles off the coast of Portugal and dive three miles down, you’ll enter a very calm and cold place that dates back millions of years: the Atlantic Ocean. Near the shore there’s an underwater canyon near Nazare city that sometimes creates huge water mountains when particular conditions line up.

On 14 September 1152, a hunter was saved from falling off a cliff and into the wild ocean below. This created a connection between Nazare (a location) and the idea of heaven, hell, and high water in the minds of the Portuguese.

But for those who like to surf big waves, they have been made aware of Nazare’s waves later on due to an email sent by Dino Casemiro in 2005.

When Casemiro was a young kid, he used to take the box lids from women as they packed fish. Then he’d use them to ride ocean waves in Praia do Norte, which is an especially big and powerful beach. His family wasn’t too happy about it; they thought that the waves would be too strong and he might get hurt.

People in Nazare looked at the waves with respect and fear. The ocean gave them food and tourists, but it also took away their loved ones. Casemiro kept trying but sometimes he would just sit on the beach watching these huge, perfect waves knowing that neither his skill nor equipment were good enough to be able to ride them. But then he thought of people who possibly could.

Just over a decade ago, a group of brave surfers in Hawaii invented a way to catch fast-moving and huge waves. They used jet skis to tow each other around the waves – this was known as “Tow-in surfing”.

One day when the waves were especially wild, Casemiro decided to take a photo. Then he went surfing…on his computer. He looked up some of the cutting-edge surfers who used Tow-in and Big Wave Surfing techniques. But remember this was back in 2005!

In 2011, Garrett McNamara set a world record for riding the biggest wave ever. He had already made his own website with a ‘contact me’ button before everyone got Instagram and Facebook. A female voice on the radio said “You have three giant waves coming.”

Cotton drove the jet ski up a steep wave, while Garrett McNamara rode the surfboard down. McNamara wasn’t happy with his timing though, saying that he wanted to be in deeper as he was turning off at the bottom of the wave. He then noticed something strange. When he looked out across the ocean, the sky had gone completely dark.

It was November 1st, 2011. Six years had passed since Casemiro sent his first email to McNamara, one year since McNamara stood on the lighthouse in Nazare proclaiming that he’d found the solution he was searching for, and fifteen seconds after beginning to ride the biggest wave ever surfed.

The video of what happened is both fascinating and confusing.

McNamara furiously dropped down the wave but seemed to move through it slowly while it raised up faster than they could travel.

McNamara is being lifted up onto the crest of a big wave. It looks like he is shrinking as the wave rises, and tonnes of water could come crashing down on him at any moment. All you can hear while surfing the wave is the sound of the wind rushing past your ears.

When you’re following your heart, it’s like driving a car under an avalanche, but instead of running away from it – you’re taunting it. And when this happened, the waves traveled really fast. A few days later Kelly Slater told everyone what had been sent to him using Twitter!

Garrett McNamara recently got caught on camera riding a really big wave in Portugal. A week later, he shared the footage with ESPN so it could be seen by people across the US first. But then, it quickly spread all over Portugal and the rest of the world! Garrett said that the attention from this was way bigger than the wave itself.

McNamara recently made a huge achievement as he surfed a record-breaking wave of 78 feet (24 metres) in Nazare. After his accomplishments, many people asked him to be interviewed on TV and the radio, and even newspapers all around the world came to talk to him.

Thanks to Casemiro, who had a hunch that Nazare’s waters could offer more than fishing and summer tourists, the city hall supported his idea. So McNamara’s success was also a triumph for this piece of smart town planning.

Pedro Pisco and Casemiro planned to use the big waves at Praia do Norte to attract attention. So, they gathered a small group of surfers and gave them the equipment they needed. Then they came up with an idea to show the world what their town has to offer. Most people in Nazare weren’t confident about it, but it paid off!

At first, people did not have faith in us. Nobody trusted us,” Casemiro says. “It was difficult. Everyone laughed at us. They said we were wasting time by trying to ride waves on Praia do Norte and nobody wanted to be our sponsors.

When McNamara came to Nazare, it looked like all the doubters were right. The jet-skis weren’t strong enough and their engines would suddenly stop when they swallowed up random plastic bags. This left the rider and surfer stranded in front of the upcoming waves, which was really dangerous!

Englishman Cotton admits he wasn’t very good in driving when they were working. He said that he just faked it while controlling the motor. The day before, the team had another failed attempt due to a broken jet-ski and Cotton got injured.

At first, McNamara, Cotton and Al Mennie did not plan on going out. But the weather changed and they decided to try out something new that would make a big impact. Justine Dupont from France came to Nazare in 2016 after her sponsor had left, but she wanted to keep surfing big waves. She shared “When you cut loose from the tow rope it feels like you’re all alone.”

It’s like you’re taking an elevator ride: the wave is still rising up from beneath your feet. You are rapidly gaining speed and it feels like every part of you is being used and activated, almost like a superhero. All that matters at this moment is living in and experiencing this moment — nothing else matters.

Dupont had watched videos and seen a famous photo of an incredibly big wave that McNamara had ridden. When she and her friend Fred David arrived at Nazare in 2016, they were both amazed and scared by those huge waves. She said, “I was really anxious and blown away by the footage.”

Fred and I were in the water but the waves weren’t too strong. Fred said to me, “If you’re scared now, how will we be able to stay here?”

But I pushed away my fear and did much more than just that. Sheena Dupont is now one of the best big-wave surfers out there and no one has caught Nazare’s waves like she did back in February 2020.

Even though it was scary, I still needed that fear in order to stay safe since being aware of all potential dangers is really important.

At the start of 2020, a big wave surfer named Marcio Freire, who was a 47-year-old Brazilian man, became the first person ever to die while surfing Praia do Norte.

No matter how risky it is, dupont still goes surfing. She knows that there’s always a chance that she won’t survive the experience.

“When you’re riding the wave and everything is happening just right, it feels like total freedom,” online said “But when something goes wrong, I think ‘this might be it; I might die.’ There’s always that little moment when you question what’s going to happen.”

Dupont and David post pictures of injuries they get in their daily activities on social media. It is always thrilling to see how the wave will come crashing down, but then it can be quite dangerous too when you are under the water. All Cotton wants is for everyone to have faith in their successes and to accept that life has its dangers.

In 2017, another surfer helped him go on a wave and he misjudged the line. As a result of this mistake, he was thrown 20 feet in the air and when he landed back into water it badly broke his back. Surprisingly though, within a year he managed to get back to surfing at Nazare.

He believes that if someone wants to take up an activity like this then there should not be any fear. Basically, you can’t only think about being safe – there is no meaning to it.

Sometimes when you’re surfing, you may fall or get wiped out by a wave. But no matter how much it hurts, you can’t just quit because the waves won’t stop coming! So you either have to learn to enjoy it or don’t do it at all.

Sometimes when the situation is really tough, I switch off and just become numb to it. That’s probably the best way to manage since your body and mind can usually handle more extreme danger and discomfort than you think they can.

When you’re scared, it doesn’t take long for things to get dangerous. Being underwater for 30 seconds can feel like a minute when your heartbeat accelerates. That’s why surfing with someone else is so important! Both the surfer and the driver must work together as a team.

“It’s not about focusing on yourself — it has to be all about working together,” says Cotton from the surf community.

Surfing with your best mate can be great, but sometimes you can’t give them the waves they want. It might make you feel frustrated, and lead to arguments and guilt.

Just like a marriage, surfing with someone you know has good times and bad times. Mrs Dupont knows this all too well – it’s tricky work when your partner is also your buddy out at sea!

Even though I know my friend Fred will try his best, we reached a point where he had difficulty getting me to ride really big waves. So for the bigger days, I’ve started working with Lucas Chumbo from Brazil. He’s someone I respect and usually don’t have arguments with, but with Fred it’s different – sometimes I need to say something.

Starting off in Nazare was fun because Fred and I could surf a lot and get better fast. But when days got big and stormy, it felt risky being out there. It made us think ‘what are we doing here? Is this really safe? We should go home – after all, we have a wonderful life together’.

It can be tough seeing your loved one in an unsafe situation, but it’s even worse when you’re away from home and don’t know what’s going on.

On huge days at Nazare, Fred is in the water, but now he’s on a jet-ski working to safely bring Dupont back to the beach after she goes out surfing. McNamara’s wife Nicole chooses to stay close rather than ignore the risks. She stands on the lighthouse and spots huge waves from miles away so that McNamara, Cotton, and Mennie can go out for them.

A year later, Garrett and she got married at the same spot. Three children were born – one of them was given the middle name Nazare in recognition.

Nazare is part of their family life because it was a significant place that both Dupont and Cotton have visited often throughout their careers. But they’ve surely made Nazare’s name more well-known than it already was to begin with.

Before becoming a professional big-wave surfer, Cotton worked as a plumber and lifeguard in Devon where he originated from.

When famous surfer Garrett McNamara came to Nazare in December 2010, the local newspaper didn’t give it much thought. In the paper, there was only a small article about his press conference with the mayor at that time. However, less than 4 months before that, Regiao da Nazare had published a big report under a headline saying “Professions on the Verge of Extinction”.

This passage showed a picture of Jose Manuel Rebelo, who is a basket weaver. In another image, it showed a person called Jose Maria Eusebio clutching a pair of sandals in his hand. There was also an image of dressmaker Ana Emilia Amada Curado Louracio looking up from her sewing machine.

The article discussed how many traditional industries were fading away in a certain town that has terracotta roofs and polished cobbles. It worried about what the future might look like for this place.

However, it never imagined the huge change that recently came to Nazare.

Lots of people, mostly teens, are heading towards the lighthouse. Food vendors and merchandise sellers line the way. On the cliffs, there’s a huge group of people and noisy drones buzzing overhead. People on jet-skis and surfers are riding big waves in the ocean below. Nazare is known to be one of the biggest waves in the world after its rise to fame across the Atlantic Ocean got noticed.

The world record for surfing the biggest wave was broken twice since 2011, both in Nazare. The current holder of this record is Sebastian Steudtner from Germany who rode an 86-foot-high (26 metres high) wave in October 2020. Meanwhile, France’s Dupont and Brazil’s Maya Gabeira have been competing over the highest wave surfed by a woman, with both waves owned by Nazare. This amazingly large place is also surprisingly easy to get to at the same time!

Cortes Bank is a place that attracts surfers for a few days every year, and it’s 100 miles away from California. Meanwhile, Nazare is known for its big wave surfing and it is located close to an airport that can be reached in 90 minutes by car. At Nazare, people on the shoreline can hear the cheers of surfers down below – almost like they’re in a stadium!

The lighthouse in Nazare is famous because of the amazing online footage people have been taking. This old building has now become a surfing museum and tickets cost only 2 euros! Last year, it welcomed 371,391 visitors which was five times more than its first full year open. It appears that in the 10 years since 2010, tourists have come to visit the town three times more!!

Estate agents have plenty of choices for potential customers, and they speak multiple languages. Dupont and her partner now live in a peaceful house with lots of trees not too far from Nazare. In 2016, you might only see two people at the lighthouse but these days the area is so busy that people aren’t even allowed to enter anymore. The same goes for surfers who are trying to check out the waves.

I used to show off my sponsors’ beanies, but now I kind of keep them hidden because I don’t want people to stop me and ask me a bunch of questions. Even though these people are really nice, the town has changed a lot – and it’s probably for the better!

Because there are more visitors now, businesses that previously only had money during summer can still make money even during winter when waves are high.

Many people who work in Nazare, like cobblers, dressmakers and basket-weavers, don’t get much money from the surfers. Not everyone is equally rewarded for surfing either. There are a few special competitions where you can win a lot of money if you do well. Last year, one female surfer won $9000 at one of the biggest competitions in Nazare! Plus, some sponsors give out extra prizes to the good surfers too.

Before 2011, McNamara was being supported by some unknown Brazilian surf equipment companies that weren’t popular. He says they were the “not cool” ones.

However, after Nazare made a huge public announcement about McNamara’s world record, many big brands came to him with lots of offers.

Apart from new surfing sponsors, he also got offers from famous names in car manufacturing industry like Germany, Swiss watchmaking and Swedish bike rack companies.

It’s important to get a lot of attention when you do something special in sports. In order for this to happen, it’s not just about doing well; the media has to notice too.

But, sometimes the wrong person gets picked for the most amazing achievement of the year or someone might be chosen because of their brand or agency marketing them. This can influence who gets noticed and who doesn’t.

Measuring the big, moving waves in the ocean is tricky and takes a long time. It took 18 months for Stefan Steudtner to get his record wave confirmed. To make up for this huge wait, people will talk about it and put out news about it about twice or three times each year.

People are sharing different stories about how high the waves here can get, with stats like 115 feet, 101 feet and even 98 feet. But it’s hard to know for sure which number is correct! This place is famous for big surfing waves and attracts lots of surfers from all around the world. Cotton was one of the first people to try tow surfing in Nazare and had a lot of fun while doing it.

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