It’s Europe’s infamous big wave spot and a crew of lucky people got to witness it breaking.
Words and photos Sharpy
A bunch of lucky blighters that had the smarts to enter the Sharp’s Brewery Big Wave Surf Adventure competition got to go on an adventure. A mission to the world’s most insane big wave spot and get a guided tour with the British surfer who’s name is woven in to the Nazare narrative: Cotty. We tagged along, well, there was free beer on offer…
Waves are funny old things. From six inches to 60 feet they behave in pretty much the same way. That’s the physical rules of this universe for you. The six-inch kind are common. Most beaches anywhere in the world get six inchers every now and then … not so many get 60 feet.
Another strange thing is there have been stone cold surfable 60 footers reeling off in Portugal for decades and no one seemed to notice. Sure the fishermen knew the dangers for centuries and the hectic conditions shaped local culture. Indeed the carnival going on at the same time as this swell event is a celebration of life, from the days when a lot of fisher folk didn’t get to enjoy very long ones.
It’s a baffling notion that the spot where feasibly the biggest waves ever going to be ridden has only been in our consciousness for just over five years. All because some locals sent a photo to Garrett McNamara and asked if he’d come check out the potential. The rest you’ll know, Garrett, Cotty, and as the years have gone on, an expanding crew of big wave warriors have made the joint as famous as the more renowned big wave amphitheatres like Mavericks and Pe’ahi.
“That’s what I call an adventure, access all areas, hanging with Cotty, Garrett and Sharpy, watching big wave surfers while drinking Doom Bar from the iconic lighthouse in Nazaré, awesome company and the most enormous waves I’m ever likely to witness. Thank you Sharp’s & Cotty … Can we do it all again please?!”
Initially derided as being a bit ‘soft’ those early critics had never stood on the famous headland and felt the ground shake. That’s how much power is in the waves there. A big one you will actually feel through your feet if you’re stood on top of the fort that clings precariously to the end of the headland. The sentinel witness to so much crazy in the last five years.
The mini-earthquake was just one of many moments that left the rag tag mob of recent Sharp’s Brewery winners with their jaws dropped. We all looked at each other with the same quizzical look. Yep. The floor did just actually shake as another huge wave slammed into the point.
A last minute excursion to catch mahoosive Naz is a tricky thing to plan for one person. Even more so when you’ve got eight winners … a veritable cat herding situation. With the last big storm of the winter turbocharging off Greenland and all eyes focussed on the charts the surfers were frantically booking flights and prepping skis. Cotty green lit the winner’s trip on and even though the wind forecast was a bit suss it was deemed worth the risk for the biggest swell in a very long time. The Sharp’s Brewery winners just had to blag the time off work to come see one of the craziest shows on Earth.
“It was such an incredible experience which has really inspired me for future adventures. I was extremely excited and honoured to win the adventure of a lifetime shared with a group of lovely people. Getting to experience a massive swell at Nazare from the lighthouse was a real privilege in addition to meeting Cotty and fellow lovely big wave surfers. It was like a dream, adventure in the truest sense!”
Nazare is all of an hour and twenty minutes drive from Lisbon airport so it’s not a killer mission. Two-hour flight from the UK on top of that and you’re there. The Sharp’s Brewery winners flew early doors on the big Tuesday at the end of February and timed it perfectly arriving mid-morning.
The dawn session was too windy, Cotty and co whizzed out at dawn on the skis to check it out but it was fugly. ‘Sketchy’ and ‘dangerous’ aren’t two words you want to describe conditions when considering towing ultra huge surf.
As the day went on the wind backed down and conditions began to sort themselves out. The winners were more than happy to get a guided tour of the fort; which has now become a kind of mini museum to the developing phenomenon that is Praia do Norte’s big wave scene. Ironically on massive days the fort is shut to the public for safety reasons mainly so the camera crews don’t get bumped over the edge with 50 grands worth of camera gear by someone frothing to take an Instagram shot. There are no fences up there you see, just a wonderfully un-health and safety approved foot high ledge.
One thing about being with Cotty is that door is always open. So the winners got to witness the session from the roof of the fort. The best seats in the house. While it was a slow day surf wise as the crews were understandably being super selective about the waves they were taking. Just watching mutant wedges upend themselves and do twisted hydrodynamic experiments pushing at the edge of what waves can do is hypnotic in its own right. The occasional madman riding waves bigger than houses just adds to the show. Francisco Porcella, Jamie Mitchell, Lucas Chumbo and the rest risked all for the thrill of riding massive water. The scene there on big days, with thousands of people there for the show, is really quite something. To be amongst it all is an experience that takes some topping. www.sharpsbrewery.co.uk
Come late afternoon Cotty couldn’t resist anymore and jumped in for some driving duties. His trainer Blakey really wasn’t keen on him risking his recovering knees in the not so flawless surf and having one of the most experienced drivers out there is always handy.
Come dark we all rendezvoused in the harbour to see the business end of skis and factory units that supports the whole operation and from there to a slap up tea of fresh fish and prawns the size of sausages washed down with a few Doom Bars.
As days go … pretty damn special.
How big you calling the last swell of the winter at Nazare?
That’s always the question on everybody’s lips and I’m sure every single person would give you a different answer, anywhere between 50 to 80ft maybe? It probably wasn’t the biggest ever we’ve surfed Nazare but I think the bar was definitely raised in regards of a couple of the rides and crazy jet ski scenarios on the beach and getting close to the cliff.
How dangerous does all the bump make it?
Yeah the conditions were really tough, I wouldn’t say the bump makes it dangerous just a lot harder to surf critically and deep on the wave and definitely way harder to drive the ski. I suppose it just makes the risks higher and everyone out there manages those risks differently. I personally always want to surf Nazare critical and deep but with minimum risk to myself or safety team so when it’s bumpy and windy like that I don’t take chances.
Do all the international guys hit you up as a free forecast service to see if it’s worth the trip?
Haha, surfing is a small community, big wave surfing even smaller. The Whatsapp definitely starts heating up before swells but the favours are always returned.
How’s the crew now? It’s come a long way since you and Garret started out there.
Yeah it’s been a crazy progression which is great to see and keeps the sport moving forward with everyone pushing each other, the last two years especially. To think back to 2014 on days like that we were pretty much alone.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WHEN YOU GO OVER THE HANDLEBARS ON A SKI LIKE PEDRO AND LUCAS DID? CAN THEY BE RESTARTED OR IS IT GAME OVER?
It’s not always game over. Losing a ski is inevitable at some point there, sometimes you’re lucky and others not. I never use the kill cords on the skis at Nazare so sometimes you can be lucky and get back on the ski and it will still be running … which just might give you enough time to escape before the next wave hits you.
HOW LONG CAN YOU HOLD YOUR BREATH FOR?
In a static breath hold about five minutes.
CAN YOU TRY AND PUT IN TO WORDS WHAT IT’S LIKE GETTING SMASHED BY A BIG ONE OUT THERE?
The pressure is insane that’s goes through your body, it’s amazing what you can put yourself through and come out the other side. Every wipeout is different and an unknown roller coaster just some are a lot more painful and scary than others, it’s not always the biggest ones that are the worst either…