Why Do Surfers Risk Their Lives On Record Breaking, 100 Foot Waves At Nazaré?

We went to the small, Portuguese fishing town to understand the mindsets of big wave surfers

Words: James Renhard. Main Image: Hugo Silva / Red Bull Content Pool

Imagine having your body crushed by tonnes of water. 70 foot waves crashing down upon you, pinning you beneath the surface of a furious ocean for minutes at a time. Life being squeezed out of your lungs. Broken and beaten, the chaos subsides for a second, allowing you to eventually surface, but as you gasp for air, another monster wave smashes back down again, pummelling you. It’s a long, slow, punishing assault on the body and mind, with no sign of stopping.

Now imagine this being your job. Your vocation. How you make a living. And moreover, one you travel the world for, making personal and financial sacrifices to do. This is the life of a big wave surfer.

The incident described above might sound like a work of fiction – the trope of some overly graphic torture-porn film. However, it’s not fiction. It’s exactly what happened to big wave surfer Maya Gabiera at Nazaré, Portugal in 2013. Luckily, Gabiera survived the ordeal, being pulled from the punishing assault by fellow big wave surfer Carlos Burle.

I headed to Nazaré – the place that almost took the life of Gabiera, and current home of the largest recorded wave to be surfed in history – to ask why. Why do people choose to put themselves through this ordeal? What for? Why do people surf big waves?

Many look back to the 1930s as the inception of big wave surfing, when Hawaiians John Kelly, Wally Froiseth and Fran Heath started regularly tackling big waves at Mãkaha on the west coast of their native island.

“Noll said his chances of surving the big wave were, at best, 50/50”

Flash forward over 30 years to 1969 and a storm powerful enough to uproot trees and blow houses from their foundations hit Hawaii. Police were instructing locals living nearby to evacuate their homes. Of course, the storm also brought with it monstrous waves, and American surfer Greg Noll – a man who answered to the nickname Da Bull – took to the water. Sitting in a treacherous ocean, Noll managed to not only catch a wave, but to hang on for dear life long enough to ride it.

Speaking years later in the Stacey Peralta documentary Riding Giants, Noll said that even at the time, he believed his chances of surviving – not riding the wave, but just being alive at the end of the ordeal – were 50/50. No footage exists of the wave Noll rode in, but folklore has it around 35 feet, and it’s credited as being the largest wave ever ridden at that point in history.

British big wave surfer Andrew Cotton slays a monster at Nazaré – Photo: Hugo Silva / Red bull Content Pool

The art of big wave surfing was given a form of official recognition in 1984 when the Quiksilver Eddie was created. Named after legendary Hawaiian surfer and lifeguard Eddie Aiku, who died in 1978 trying to rescue passengers of a sinking boat caught in a storm.

The event, which has been held every winter since, invites the world’s best surfers to Hawaii to test themselves against the largest waves the ocean there can throw at them. However, the competition only goes ahead if the waves are over 20 foot. As such, in its 32 year history, the Eddie has only crowned nine champions, the latest being John John Florence in February 2016. This 20 foot limit also acts as a universally recognised marker by which waves have to exceed to be classified as ‘big’.

By the early 1990’s, Laird Hamilton, along with friends Buzzy Kerbox and Darrick Doerner were chasing waves larger than people imagined could ever be surfed. They headed to the infamous Jaws, once again, a wave breaking in Hawaii, where swells can reach up to a monstrous 60 foot. Needing more power than even the biggest humans – including Hamilton, who’s a beast of a man – can provide, the group took to using small inflatable power boats to pull each other into the massive waves.

Thanks to Hamilton and his crew, tow-in surfing was invented, in turn enabling those strong enough, brave enough, and in the right place at the right time, to surf waves that nobody had previously thought possible, and to this day, few think are sensible.

The turn of the 21st century saw arguably the most significant single landmark in the history of big wave surfing, when Laird Hamilton headed to Teahupo’o, a tiny island off Tahiti with a reputation for mountainous waves. Being towed behind a jet-ski piloted by Doerner, Hamilton headed into a 70 foot wave. Footage shows him tearing down this slab of green-blue water that grows at an alarming rate behind him. All of a sudden it closes out. Hamilton disappears into a fog of white water. Seconds later, somehow, Hamilton emerges, cruising out as if he’s just caught a waist high ripple on a sandy beach break.

The world’s surfing press were in attendance, and it wasn’t long before it was a global story. It was dubbed by many as the ‘heaviest wave ever ridden’. And to this day it’s spoken about in hushed reverence, and is known as the Millennium Wave which, granted, does sound more like a Cliff Richard song than the feat of human achievement it is. Big wave surfing was on the map, and here to stay.

Today, the largest wave ever ridden is a record held by American Garrett McNamara. In January 2013, he successfully rode a breath-taking 100 foot wave at Nazaré in Portugal. At 5’10” tall, McNamara was riding literally tonnes of water in a single slab that was 50 times higher than himself.

Take a second to let that sink in…

But big wave surfing isn’t all about getting a quick tow and then gleefully sliding down a wave. Surfing is an inherently dangerous sport, but increase the amplitude by throwing massive waves into the mix, and the chances of something going wrong increase significantly. We’ve already heard how Gabiera came close to dying at Nazaré, but big wave surfing is littered with near misses, and worse.

Spot the surfer… Carlos Burle takes on a monster wave – Photo: Hugo Silva / Red Bull Content Pool

In the past 22 years, big wave surfing has taken the lives of surfing icons including Mark Foo, Donnie Solomon, Malik Joyeux, and Peter Davi. In 2011, Hawaiian Sion Milosky died while surfing big waves at Mavericks in California. In a similar scenario to Gabiera, Milosky came off his board and was pinned down by two successive waves. Sadly, unlike the Brazilian, Milosky didn’t make it, and was found floating at Pillar Point Harbour, about one mile from the spot where he’d been surfing.

Mercifully, fatalities aren’t common in big wave surfing – and statisticians would be quick to point some unanalogous numbers about the amount of people killed by washing machines or falling coconuts each year. However, the dangers are ever present, with injuries, scares, and close calls all hazards of the job.

Last year, in an interview with Magic Seaweed, Garret McNamara told of the time he was handed a hiding from a big wave at Sunset Beach, Hawaii. He fell, and the impact of the wave on top of him broke his ear drum. “You don’t know which way is up and you seem to swim down instead of up. I remember swimming into the reef and the only way I found the surface was climbing the leash. As you get to the surface it seems and feels like you are in the eye of a hurricane, it is so loud and you are spinning and then the next wave rolls over and you’re going through it all over again.”

“It was bodyboarders who first discovered big waves at Nazaré”

Big wave surfing has its roots firmly in Hawaii, but catching the largest waves on the planet isn’t just about golden beaches, clear blue water, and tourist traps selling tiki tat.

Today, the biggest swells around the world can be found in unusual locations. Granted, Hawaii still gets a fair share, as do central and south America, and the islands in the South Pacific, but leading the way on the size charts are arguably less exotic locations, including Nazaré in Portugal, El Bocal in Spain, and Mullaghmore in Ireland, where there’s not a grass skirt or a lei in sight.

Garrett McNamara is credited by many as the person that discovered that Nazaré was the home of the world’s largest waves, but surfing and bodyboarding have been common there since the late 1960’s.

In 2009, a bodyboard competition called the Sumol Special Edition took place at Nazaré, and midway through the event, gigantic waves started rolling in. Local bodyboarder Dino Casimiro got in touch with Garrett McNamara and told him about the massive waves. 12 months later McNamara set course for the Portuguese town to see the waves for himself. In 2011 McNamara returned when the swell was as big as anybody had ever seen. He caught a 74 foot wave – setting a new world record at the time, and putting Nazaré firmly on the map.

Giant waves crash in at Nazareé as spectators watch on in awe from the nearby church – Photo: Hugo Silva / Red Bull Content Pool

Of course, McNamara rode what is credited at the world’s largest wave, the 100 foot slab at Nazaré two years after his previous record-breaker. However, some have suggested that Carlos Burle, the man who saved Gabiera’s life, also caught a 100 foot wave at Nazare, doing so the wave before his compatriot was almost killed. While there is some debate about who holds the record, what’s not in doubt is that it was Nazaré that served it up.

Arriving in Nazaré, I expected – feared, almost – that it would be a gaudy, big wave theme park. I found quite the opposite. It’s a small, slightly industrialised fishing town, seemingly stuck in time, although I’m not quite sure exactly what time.

It’s not without charm or character, assuming rust, along with the faint smell of fish and diesel qualify as either. Locals quietly get about their daily business among white-walled buildings and slightly worn shop fronts, gnarled by wind and rain from the Atlantic. An interior designer from Islington would charge a king’s ransom to recreate this distressed look.

Photo: James Renhard / Mpora
Photo: James Renhard / Mpora
Photo: James Renhard / Mpora
Photo: James Renhard / Mpora
Photo: James Renhard / Mpora

The town lacks, mercifully, the Fat Al’s Surf Shack’s and Mo-Mo’s Tiki Bar’s that we’ve all come to expect with locations synonymous with surfing. It’s as if the retail wing of the surfing world is yet to catch up with Nazaré. Oh, there is the lighthouse. That lighthouse. The one known to anybody with even the slightest interest in surfing as they cannot have failed to see pictures of colossal waves towering over it when Nazaré is at it’s most monstrous. During my short stay, the water could not be flatter. Ronnie O’Sullivan would approve.

The thing that makes this sleepy fishing town so special is hidden beneath the water next to it. A large canyon beneath the Atlantic to the west of Nazaré, 140 miles wide, and three miles deep in places, dramatically reduces in size close to the harbour of the town. When storms blow large waves towards the land, the canyon wall pushes them to the surface of the water, unveiling the gigantic walls of water the likes of which big wave surfers fantasise about at night.

Waves crash against the famous lighthouse at Nazaré – PhotoL iStock

With such incredibly heightened risks, why do big wave surfers do it. Why do they dedicate themselves to riding bigger and bigger waves? When Laird Hamilton spoke exclusively to Mpora earlier this year, he suggested: “People chalk us off as being ‘adrenaline junkies’ because they’re really not being realistic about this being an inner thing that we’ve had for millions of years. It’s something that’s in us that we express through adrenaline and these things we do.”

“We tap into this core thing and that’s why we love it.” Added Hamilton, as if big wave surfing was a way of answering some sort of inner primal call, fulfilling a need that many of the rest of us have since suppressed over hundreds of years of increasing fear, sedentary lifestyles and, more recently, daytime TV.

Most of the world’s surfers wouldn’t dream of going out onto waves even approaching 50 feet and higher. Furthermore, while both Kelly Slater and John John Florence have a Quiksilver Eddie title in their illustrious trophy cases, neither appear to be a rush to chase the 100 foot monsters that would see them cement their name in that particular record book. So what sets these elite big wave chasers apart?

“As for ability, I’m just a pretty average surfer with big dreams. And maybe I’m too stubborn to let them go,” says Andrew Cotton in self-deprecating tone. Cotton is a British big wave surfer, who bases himself in Nazaré each autumn, in a small crew with Garret McNamara and the Portuguese surfer Hugo Vau, in a bid to ride the largest wave the world has ever seen. ““Maybe it’s somebody with the ambition,” he adds.

Andrew Cotton goes through the final stages of the long preparation ahead of going big wave surfing – PhotoL James Renhard

Laird Hamilton has a slightly less humble take on the minerals required to be at the cutting edge of big wave surfing. “I think there are a certain percentage of us that in the interests of mankind have a mechanism that allows us to go against all of our cautiousness. We’re using that same mechanism that was a human condition for the evolution of our species.”

So do big wave surfers, knowing the risks, really just turn off fear? It’s been written so many times that it borders on cliché that pro athletes in almost any sport, have not just a physical but a mental edge. They can turn off the voice that tells them that they’re scared, whether it’s Billy Morgan trying a Quad Cork on a snowboard for the first time, or Cam Zink landing a 100 foot backflip.

Do the big wave men and women of the world just switch off from the massive danger that’s often literally all around them when they catch monster swell? “When I find out the Eddie’s going to run, I’m scared,” admitted Jamie O’Brien when asked about the famous big wave contest in an interview with Vice. “But the outcome and the afternoon afterwards make it feel so much better. The best thing about big wave surfing—it’s not how you do it; it’s what you get out of it,” he added.

Andrew Cotton is an ambassador for Jeep – Photo: Jeep

Andrew Cotton points to yet another approach. One that’s more analytical and introspective. “I wouldn’t do anything if I thought it was dangerous or there was a chance of getting injured. There’s a fine line, but once you commit, that’s it. It’s a point of no going back. I’m happy to say: ‘No, I don’t want to do it’ but if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it . And you have to be like that in surfing, whether it’s two foot or 20 foot. If you hesitate, that’s usually when you get hurt.”

“It strikes me that big wave surfing can be torturously transient”

I wonder if the thrill of big wave surfing is enough to sustain an appetite for it, worth the risk, the mental battle, the nomadic lifestyle. Are these surfers all aiming for the number one spot, currently clung on to by Garrett McNamara, or does simply being one of the elite band riding monster waves fuel their desire enough for them to gamble with mother nature.

“No, It’s not enough. To get the recognition, that’s the goal. And it will happen at some point,” admits Andrew Cotton with a look of determination in his eyes that suggests this is more than a simple pipe dream. “I’d hate to finish my career in surfing, or look back in 20 or 30 years time and not have that (record of surfing the largest wave ever) under my belt. I’ve got a good team, and people I surround myself with are experienced guys. It’s just a matter of time, you know.”

It’s not just a seemingly uneven risk/reward balance that big wave surfers have to find. It strikes me that the prize they so greatly desire is torturously transient. A surfer could find themselves on the largest wave in the world one day, and the next day, the next hour even, find that they’ve been surpassed by a fellow big wave surfer. By a friend. Hell, possibly by one of their own team.

It’s a scenario I put to Andrew Cotton. His reply marks a departure from his otherwise laid back and open personality. “You know, it is what it is.” He replies, his tone betraying the casualness of his words. “I mean, I’d rather it was Hugo or Garrett than someone else. But then, it doesn’t matter. Yeah, for me it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t.”

Andrew Cotton explores Nazareé by jet ski on a down-day – Photo: James Renhard / Mpora

While I can’t help but buy into the excitement and romance of this nomadic life of adventure, the lure of the endless possibility, I still can’t allow myself to believe I truly understand why big wave surfers take the risks they do. Or, rather, I have an understanding of the appeal, but I can’t imagine how the balance between risk and reward is struck.

“Because it’s there,” the much-quoted George Mallory justification for wanting to climb Mount Everest springs to mind. But at least Mallory, and his fellow mountaineers can claim that no matter how challenging scaling Mt Everest is, and whatever the setbacks are, they know that the world’s highest mountain will always be there. The people chasing big waves don’t even have that.

But then, that’s the difference between this elite family of big wave surfers, and those of us who stand on the side-lines and admire them. What we lack in ability, both physical and mental, they hone and craft to allow them to not just chase the largest wave in the world, but go through the turmoil of not doing so.

To chase the excessive requires equally sizeable personal attributes, no small amount of luck and, of course, steely guts. Maybe it’s only fair that us normal people will never really understand.

Massive thanks to Jeep, who Andrew Cotton represents as an ambassador, for all their help with this feature. 

Read the rest of our December ‘Excess Issue’ here

You may also like:

“I Always Believed I Could Do Great Things”: The Laird Hamilton Interview

Andrew Cotton On The Constant Search For Bigger Waves

Swapping The Streets of London For Cornish Surf Is Easier Than You Think

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