Inside the killer sport of big wave surfing with swells reaching 100 feet
Surfing is reaching new heights – literally – like surfers are racing Ready to catch the biggest waves in the world and risk it all.
Some claim to have already found it on Praia do Norte, a beach near a small Portuguese fishing village called Nazaré. Nazareth has become the new ‘Everest’ of the surfing community and boasts killer swells.
American surfer Garrett McNamara couldn’t believe what he was seeing when he received a photo of a giant wave off the coast of Portugal in 2007.
This was the place where the power of the Atlantic Ocean was in full force, with huge waves crashing violently against the rocky cliffs of the village.
Nazareth is a completely different vehicle. Europe’s largest underwater canyon nearly doubles the size of each wave, sending the water roaring in two directions on her.
Hydraulic frenzy means surfers have no idea where or how they will break.
Garrett traveled to this small fishing village to see the swells and tame the waves that shocked the world in 2011.
Video of him surfing world record-breaking 78-foot ‘Big Mama’ waves goes viral, and Nazareth will have its rightful place A promised land for the big wave surf community.
Surfing terminology guide
barrel ring: Curl as the waves break, one of the most sought after in surfing
Pause: Where the waves break, white water on it
carve: sharp maneuvers on the wave surface
Drop: The first part of a surf ride where surfers enter the waves
Duck Diving: Dive with your board under oncoming or crashing waves
cooking: Beginners of surfing, people who don’t know the back and front
peak: Highest point of breaking waves
spit: Sea water blowing out of barrels
tube: The hollow of the wave, the same as the barrel
wipe out: Falling off a wave while surfing
catch the wave
When Bianca Valenti’s big-wave surfing career took off in 2006, she and a friend paddled out into the growing swells of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.
“It was a perfect wave. No one was there and I had no idea how big it was,” she told The Sun Online.
“We rode the low tide and quickly walked outside. Waves crashed in front of us on the side of our two-story house – heavy, square and hollow – I’ve never seen such a thing in my life.” I had never seen anything before.
“I tried to duck dive and the board was ripped out of my hands, spinning, dragging, twisting, I opened my eyes and it was all dark and I didn’t know what happened.”
Bianca couldn’t believe she had enough energy left to swim and began to accept that if she was sucked under another wave, she might die.
The California surfer somehow luckily escaped to shore and was out of breath.
Looking back at the wave that nearly killed her, she thought.
“I never looked back,” she said.
However, her friends stopped surfing that day.
Despite the exhilaration that big wave surfing brings, the death of a tight-knit community can bring the world to its knees.
In January, veteran Brazilian surfer Marcio Freire, nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’, died tragically at the age of 47 after being wiped out by the waves of Nazaré.
British big wave surfer Andrew Cotton has surfed Nazareth every year since he helped Garrett McNamara pioneer the Nazareth location.
He told The Sun Online: “We don’t see it as a dangerous sport. Everyone who surfs the big way is calculated. We have safety measures in place and we do a lot of training.
“The ocean is dangerous,” he added. “Marcio is very talented and the waves that drowned him weren’t too big for him. It was a normal day for him.”
In 2017, Andrew was hit by a big wave for the second time since he was thrown off a wave in Nazareth and broke his back.
It took him a year to recover and he soon resumed surfing in Nazaré.
“I often play around with the idea of going backwards, especially after a big injury. But for me, the joy and happiness that surfing definitely outweighs any danger.”
According to Garrett, Nazareth is the most unpredictable place. “When it’s clean and smooth, it’s like cutting butter with a hot knife. You’re just having fun and doing your best to get the barrel and get a good turn.”
“But when it’s choppy, and usually choppy in Nazareth, it’s about survival.”
According to Bianca, preparing to catch a big wave is no easy task. It takes years of riding giants to truly understand when to hold and when to fold.
“You have to be 95 percent confident that you can do it, or you’ll die from serious injuries,” she said bluntly.
“Once you decide to join the wave, you can’t hold back for a single nanosecond, because the time matters.
“But the moment I commit, everything quiets down and the focus is on the waves and lines you’re choosing. There’s beauty in that, it’s like a moving meditation.”
She’s not the only one who believes a quiet mind leads to the perfect ride.
Dominican big wave surfer Andres Flores says:
He recently broke the world record for surfing the biggest wave in paddling.
Andres pushed the boundaries of what was considered safe for paddle surfers. Another dominance in an already dangerous sport, he’s another feat to overcome in order to become the best.
Most big waves opt for the tow-in surfing method, where the surfer grabs a rope attached to the jet ski and is dragged into the wave.
But he’s a purist with a penchant for paddling. Without the jet ski, Andrés explained: “You and the board are just sitting in the impact zone.”
However, this also means that you are in danger of being caught in a big wave without rescue.
Despite the danger, the waves seem to be a constant draw for these athletes, and many leave their lives behind on a whim to chase winter swells around the world.
“Big wave surfing is like an adrenaline rush at its best, and it’s very addictive,” Andrés explained.
“There is always danger, but your body is used to that feeling.
His goal is simple; “Of course, keep chasing big waves.”
“I always want to be better. I’m competing with myself because I can’t compete with anyone but the ocean.”
In Nazaré, efforts are underway to contain the elusive 100-foot waves.