Ultimate Renegades | Andrew Cotton On The Constant Search For Bigger Waves
"Drawing different lines on bigger waves, that sort of surfing resonates with me.”
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. As a Jeep Brand Ambassador, Andrew Cotton is undoubtedly one of these – a surfer who grew up on the beach breaks of the South West, but quickly began looking further afield for new waves to ride. In this exclusive interview, he talks about that journey, and how a boy from a small coastal village in North Devon grew up to be one of the only surfers alive to ride a wave over 60ft
Most regular surfers can pinpoint they first time they first saw a professional surfer and thought ‘I want to do that’. Whether it was Tom Curren a few decades ago or Carissa Moore today, there has always been a plethora of professional surfers around on the TV, in magazines and online that allow young people to dream about making surfing their day job.
Up until the last few years however, this was not the case for big wave surfers like Andrew Cotton. Unlike conventional surfing, the path to become a professional big wave rider simply didn’t exist. Surfers like Andrew had to pave it for themselves.
“Back when I was getting into surfing, there just wasn’t any professional free surfers" says Cotton. “I think Brock Little was the first I knew about, but there wasn’t anywhere near as many as there are now."
“There was never the aim to be a professional big wave surfer" he laughs. "I just knew I liked surfing big waves. It was never a choice, or something I heard about others doing, it was just something I enjoyed, that felt natural to me."
Cotton learned to surf through family and friends around Croyde Bay. It's a part of the UK that's well-known for producing great surfing talent on smaller waves, but it is in no way synonymous with big wave surfers. In fact he never considered that you could make a career by focussing less on technicalities and more on charging and size until he stepped outside of the UK.
"There was a big swell one day, a solid 20ft swell. I got hold of a big board and just paddled out."
“My first big wave was in Hawaii when I was 18 or 19," says Cotton. “I did a trip out there for a couple of months and it got pretty big. I surfed a few well known spots and that was the first time I’d really stepped into big waves."
After surfing out in Hawaii for a few months, his first chance to surf a massively big wave seemed to just fall into his lap, and he went from Croyde’s five foot swells to Hawaiin monsters.
“Being on the North shore for a few months, your threshold goes up quite quickly and we were surfing Sunset quite regularly. There was a big swell one day, a solid 20ft swell. I got hold of a big board and just paddled out."
"The thing is, I find that small wave surfing is so much more technical and that's just something I’m just not very good at. In the end, you do what you love and that you’re good at, you have a natural draw to it."
"I like drawing, I might not be as gymnastic on a small wave but I like drawing different lines on bigger waves and that sort of surfing resonates with me."
Even with that early experience, there's still a big step up between 20 foot waves on the North Shore and the monsters that Cotton has surfed off Nazaré, the Portuguese port town whose name has become a by-word for gnarliness. How did he make the leap? Through years of work and perseverance, he tells Mpora. In fact, if you look up the definition of a working surfer, Cotton fits it perfectly.
While most people think that young surfers fly around the world and get to spend their life on the beach, that's often far from the truth. Many surfers have to work for many years simply to be able to afford a flight to chase the waves they want. Cotton worked for many years behind the scenes of the surf industry, making money as a rep to support his surf trips.
“I’ve always worked within surfing in some way" he says. "I managed to work with a few brands like Analog from Burton, repping for them while they also sponsored me. I always thought I was going to carry on like that you know, probably staying as a rep."
The fates weren't in his favour however, as Analog shut down all operations and dropped both their surfers and staff.
"When Analog pulled out of surfing not only did I lose my job, I lost my sponsor. After that I thought ok, how do I make it so in the winters I can go surfing? It was never a case of making it as a famous surfer, just making surfing a possible lifestyle."
His lifestyle only started paying for itself once he started documenting his travels and creating his own films - taking viewers behind the scenes. As the waves got bigger and the tides turned in his favour along the way, these films began making his name in the industry.
Big wave surfing is as much about chasing waves as it is about surfing them and Cotton and his crew spend most of the season on the hunt, documenting the journey on film as they go.
“We firstly started the web series Behind The Lines just to make our own content so we could go surfing. It was a risk" says Cotton.
“My friend Marty Crocker came up with the idea, it kind of makes it exciting and gives people an insight into travelling and looking for waves."
“Sometimes it can be such a mission you know, to get a wave - or the wave you want. That’s a lot of what big wave surfing is on a daily basis, all the charts and trying to make the right call and go to the right place. To document that process is a good motivation."
It all came together on one particular trip to Nazaré in February 2014 where Cotton rode a wave which grabbed the attention of the surfing world, earning him a nomination for a prestigious Billabong XXL Award.
“I was very lucky that I was doing that webisode and then I caught a couple of really big waves, it all just came together at the right time" he laughs. “Forward thinking and a lot of luck."
Nowadays, Andrew Cotton is one of the best known names in British big wave surfing, and becoming a household name in the surfing community at large.
And although flying whenever and wherever at a moment's notice to chase waves is a luxury still only belonging to the Kelly Slaters and Alana Blanchards of the world, chasing and charging big waves is finally a staple of Cotton's work life.
Thanks to the support of sponsors (including Jeep) he no longer has to worry about whether he'll be able to get out for the next season. The only worry is being prepared to go when the waves decide it's time.
"One of the most important things for a surfer is getting there at the right time and being able to pack up all your kit and everything you need in a moment."
The sponsorship with Jeep fits Cotton perfectly and the Renegade with its four wheel drive is great for going to places that are a bit more extreme. Every surfer, especially in Europe needs the same thing, Good kit and a good car is integral for surfing
Going from being one of many surfers in a small town, to a face known globally for charging the biggest waves on the planet is quite a journey. So where to next? Both for him and for big wave surfing as a whole?
"The waves are quickly getting bigger and bigger" he says without missing a beat.
"The paddle movement [paddling out rather than using jetskis] is getting massive. It's a movement most people never thought was even possible. The thing that pushed it was when the safety started developing a lot quicker. Whether you like or not, having good safety equipment really gives you the edge psychologically."
"I think that at the minute it would be quite interesting to see how big the waves will get and how much the paddling is going to grow, it’s an exciting time."
It definitely feels like a big moment for big wave surfing. As the discipline develops, there's a snowball effect starting. More and more pros are getting into big wave surfing, bringing it more exposure in turn. And it's people like Andrew Cotton who are leading the charge.
When future kids from Devon look at professional surfers and think: 'I want to do that', it may well be big wave chargers they're referring to, not competition riders. And to a large extent, they'll have Andrew Cotton to thank for that. Renegades like him are paving the way, making what once seemed impossible possible.
The Jeep Ultimate Renegades
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. In this second installment of the series we shift our attention to surfing, asking big wave surf legend Andrew Cotton to pick out his ultimate renegades.