August 02, 2020
A small fishing hamlet in Portugal has become a magnet for the world’s most fearless big-wave surfers. Tim Lewis reveals how Nazaré became the ocean’s Everest
Riding the giant: big-wave surfing in Nazaré
Everyone you meet in Nazaré tells you the waves here are different: heavier, more powerful, less predictable, somehow menacing. So, on my last afternoon in the Portuguese town in February, I went out on the back of a jet ski piloted by Andrew Cotton, a big-wave surfer from Devon, to see for myself. Cotton is easygoing, with cropped, gold-tipped hair and pale eyes, but he turns serious as we leave the harbour. He explains that jet skis are set up differently in Nazaré: the kill switch, which cuts the engine if the rider is thrown off, is not attached to the driver’s wrist as usual because… I miss the exact reason as Cotton guns the engine and sea spray covers us and I’m distracted, wondering if they really had to call it a “kill” switch. I’m already freaked out enough that I’ve promised to check in with my family as soon as I’m back on dry land.
Nazaré, specifically Praia do Norte or North Beach, is home to the biggest surfable waves on the planet. Ten years ago, it was unknown even in big-wave circles, but that changed when Garrett McNamara, a 52-year-old Hawaiian who is one of the pioneers of the sport, was given a tip-off by local bodyboarders. He came to Portugal for the first time in 2010; the following year, he rode a monstrous wave measured at 23.77m (78ft) and entered the Guinness World Records. In 2017, also in Nazaré, Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa nudged up the mark to 24.38m (80ft). If one day someone conquers a 100ft wave – a holy grail of surfing – almost certainly it will take place in Nazaré.
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