When you picture the biggest waves in the world, it’s Pipeline in Hawaii or Tahiti’s Teahupoo that come to mind. Huge azure curls – bigger than eight-storey buildings – breaking onto tropical reef breaks. You don’t think of Europe’s grey, rainy Atlantic coastline.
Except that’s exactly where the biggest swells in the world hit last winter.
“Five or six years ago, you’d never have thought that if there was a big swell in Europe, you’d get Hawaiians, Americans, Australians flying over to surf it,” said big wave surfer Andrew Cotton. “In the last two years, they have.”
British rider Cotton is fast becoming a household name after he surfed what is thought to be the largest wave ever surfed – 80ft high - in Nazaré, Portugal on 2 February 2014.
It’s not often that a photo of a surfer is splashed across the front page of every national newspaper. While the rest of the UK were battening down the hatches as Storm Brigid hit the country, the 34-year-old trained plumber from North Devon was out there riding it on the west coast of Europe.
Technically, I’m not that good at surfing. I’ve just always found it easier to go in straight lines
This Friday, exactly three months to the day he surfed the mammoth wave, Cotton will be sat at in an auditorium in California, waiting to hear if he has won Ride Of The Year at the 2014 Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards, otherwise known as ‘the Oscars of surfing’.
“Technically, I’m not that good at surfing,” says Cotton when we spoke to him over the weekend. “I’ve just always found it easier to go in straight lines.”
Growing up on the north coast of Devon meant Cotton was surfing from the age of seven. He competed on the UK Pro Surf Tour (BPSA) but quickly realised his strengths lay in big wave surfing.
Now, aged 34, he’s straight-lining the world’s biggest slabs. So, what was going through his head on that day in February?
“We weren’t having the best surf. The sets that day were absolutely ginormous. It was next level for me but the conditions weren’t great. It was pretty bumpy. Still we knew that if anyone caught a wave that day, it would be up for biggest of the year.”
Cotton and his jet-ski partner Garrett McNamara were out there for four hours without catching a single wave. That was until McNamara towed Cotton into this monster…
“I came out of the session thinking we should have gone somewhere else,” he said. “But then I was watching the footage back over and I thought woah, actually that was a pretty big wave!”
For many surfers, a six-foot wave breaking on your head is terrifying enough. When you’re riding waves the size of an eight-storey building at 40mph, you’re dicing with death.
“It’s so unlike surfing. You’re absolutely flying, it’s hard just to keep the board on the water. It’s like the most challenging straight-hander you’ll ever have.”
But the big question is was he afraid? ”I wouldn’t say I was afraid because I’ve surfed [Nazaré] so much. But a couple of days before you head out, you can’t help but think about what it’s going to be like.
Of course it’s scary, but the fear comes before and after the session, rather than when you’re out there…
“Of course it’s scary, but the fear comes before and after the session, rather than when you’re out there. On the actual day, all your thoughts go into what you want to do. You just try and live in the moment.”
Even wiping out in these monster waves doesn’t phase Cotton. ”You know what, it’s not that bad!” he laughs. “Everyone says it’s horrific. I don’t know if I’m used to it because obviously I’ve fallen off quite a lot. It just doesn’t scare me.”
Cotton surfs with a dedicated crew of big wave surfers with decades of experience between them. Jet-ski rescue is always on hand. This year, he was given a Patagonia big-wave inflation vest as an extra safety precaution when he wipes out. It inflates and shoots Cotton to the surface with one pull of a toggle.
“I can’t imagine surfing without it, it’s amazing – like a safety blanket. Whenever I travel, it never leaves my side.”
Despite being one of the world’s best big wave riders, Cotton isn’t a full-time pro. He worked as a plumber until he was 27. Now he lives in the surf town of Braunton in North Devon with his wife Katie and two children, Honey (6) and Ace (2). During the summer months, he works as a lifeguard while doing a few labouring jobs on the side.
However from October to March, Cotton spends his time watching the charts, waiting to hop on the next plane to Europe or ferry to Ireland to catch the biggest swell.
It’s a long way from the glamorous lifestyle of professional surfers who jet between Fiji, Hawaii and Australia year round – but Cotton wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve tailored my lifestyle around chasing big waves. I like my job and my life in Devon. As a lifeguard, I get to swim, surf and train every day. If I was still working as a plumber, I’d be earning a lot more money but I’d probably be overweight, unfit and I wouldn’t be able to achieve my goals.”
Cotton believes that it’s easy for people – especially young children – to think that getting full-time sponsorship is the only way to surf big waves like a pro.
“Surfing doesn’t revolved around getting a good sponsor. It revolves around you as a person, it’s how you treat your surfing and your goals.”
“I’ve been lucky to have support from some great sponsors, but I’ve never been a full-time pro. I think you appreciate the opportunities you do get more. You make the most of the places and swells you travel to because you might only get to go away a few times that winter.”
Back in October when news arrived on British shores that Cotton had possibly broken a world-record for riding the biggest wave ever surfed, the mainstream media went wild. Everyone from the Daily Mail to Sky News wanted to interview him.
It didn’t know who Jeremy Paxman was. Before the interview, I thought Newsnight, I’m sure my dad watches that…
“It was a bit embarrassing really,” he says, “but at the same time, you’ve got to be thankful for it. When I came out of that session, I didn’t think I’d get the most attention from that wave. It just blew me away.
But not all the media attention was positive. The Daily Mail published a piece that portrayed Cotton as a reckless father-of-two, who puts his passion for surfing before his family. The outraged surfing community waded in to defend Cotton, chastising the Daily Mail for sensationalising his story.
“Yeah it is ridiculous. The mainstream spin is always quite hard for a surfer to suck up. You’ve just gotta laugh at it. It’s nothing I’d ever take to heart. You’ve just got to enjoy it, haven’t you?”
Then Jeremy Paxman called. He wanted Cotton to appear on Newsnight . “When I agreed to do the interview, I didn’t know who Jeremy Paxman was. He haven’t got a TV at home and I’m terrible with celebrity names.
They wanted me to go into the studio and I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just do it on Skype. Then it clicked. Jeremy Paxman. Newsnight, I’m sure my dad watches that…”
Today, Cotton still gets recognised on the street by other surfers for his achievements, but the fame hasn’t gone to his head.
He laughs as he tells me about the Italian reality TV show he’s due to feature in – “luckily it’s not being shown in the UK” – and talks enthusiastically about hanging out with his family.
Throughout our whole conversation, I never get the sense that Cotton is anything but a genuine humble guy with a good sense of humour. You only need to check out his two-year-old son’s hilarious Twitter account to see this.
He sets off today for Los Angeles for the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards today with his family. If he wins, Cotton will be the first British surfer to ever win the global Ride Of The Year award and the $10,000 prize money.
“For me, it’s not about the money. It’s about fulfilling a goal that I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid. It would be amazing to win, but who knows. Big wave surfing is very subjective and no one knows what will happen.
“I just want to go out there, have a good time with my family, take my daughter to Disneyland and cruise around the coast in an RV.”
After this, what does Cotton have lined up on the horizon?
“I want to push my paddle surfing a lot more. I’d also really like to experience Jaws in Hawaii and paddle that. It’s been on my wish list for the past three years, so I”m going to make it my main focus for next year.”
It will be interesting to see how far surfers can push the limits of big wave riding next winter. Will watching surfers tackle 100ft+ waves become the norm in a few years time? No one knows what the human capacity for riding these monster swells really is. Cotton takes each day as it comes.
“We’ve had an exceptional year this winter. I saw some of the biggest waves on my life. Who know, next winter might be terrible! There might not be another huge swell with winds like that for another five years.
That’s the amazing thing about surfing. You never know when you’re going to ride a bigger or better wave. It keeps me on my toes. I’m just always thinking about the next wave.”
Andrew wanted to say thank you to all his sponsors who’ve supported him, including Tiki Wetsuits, Sun God Sunglasses, Lifedge and Dryrobe.