How a Portuguese fishing village tamed a 100ft wave

Nazare used to be a beach resort that emptied in winter. Now it's the epicentre of big wave surfing due to the skyscraper-sized waves generated by Europe's largest underwater canyon.

It was a clear day in September in the Portuguese beach resort of Nazare. The sun sparkled off the cornflower blue ocean, which broke gently against the foot of the rugged cliffs of its North Beach. The 16th Century fort that sits atop the cliffs was dotted with a handful of tourists posing for pictures in front of its bright red lighthouse. It couldn't have been a greater contrast to the scene that would unfold in just a month's time.

When the first swell of the big wave surfing season, which generally runs from October to March, rolls in, the road to the fort and the cliffs surrounding it fill with thousands of people. All of them are hoping to catch a glimpse of the world's best big wave surfers attempting their profession's ultimate feat: risking everything to ride the monstrous, skyscraper sized waves generated by Europe's largest underwater canyon.

Nazare locals always knew their waves were big, although for generations they had no idea of their dimensions. On stormy winter days, they would drive to the lighthouse to soak up their power. The whole area would feel like it was shaking, the thunderous sound reaching the mountains. While local surfers would surf at Nazare up to a point, they knew when it was time to get out. They certainly wouldn't dream of tackling the monsters that came in with the big swells.

In fact, until recently, surfing professionals didn't believe it was possible. In 2004, a group of big wave surfers came to recce the waves but aborted their mission after just 90 minutes. At that time, there was no funding in Nazare to buy the jet skis that are needed to tackle waves of this size, which are too big to paddle surf. Even if they had them, they thought, the prospect of falling in these conditions, with huge waves coming from all directions, was too dangerous. A year later, local surf club member Dino Casimiro contacted another surfer known for his daredevil nature, American Garrett McNamara, but he wouldn't even make the trip.

In 2008, higher ups in the local government agreed for the first time that their best chance of extending the town's tourism season was by capitalising on the geological anomaly on their doorstep, which the Portuguese Hydrographic Institute had been studying since 1960. Nazare had been a popular summer holiday spot for the Portuguese for centuries, but once August 31st came around, it became a ghost town overnight.

After two more years of begging for funding, the project started to gain momentum. McNamara landed in Portugal in 2010 and, in a few days, proved that with the right equipment Nazare's biggest waves could be surfed. Just a year later, McNamara broke the world record by riding a 78ft wave. The question was: was anyone else brave or crazy enough to try?

Even by big wave surfing standards, the waves at Nazare are especially menacing. "A wave like Jaws in Hawaii is attractive to surfers because it's a perfect wave and there's less risk involved," said Portugal born big wave surfer Nic Von Rupp, who was part of the group of surfers who came to Nazare in 2004 when he was 14. "This is a monster, a freakshow. It's like looking up at a skyscraper or a mountain; the difference is it's coming in your direction and it's there to eat you alive."

It's like looking up at a skyscraper or a mountain; the difference is it's coming in your direction and it's there to eat you alive

The size and unpredictability of the waves at Nazare are caused by a submarine canyon that is 125 miles long and 3 miles deep. The difference in depth between the bottom of the canyon and the continental shelf splits waves into two. In the shallower area, the speed of the wave reduces, but inside the canyon it maintains the speed it was travelling in the deep ocean. The two collide, creating one bigger wave, which then impacts the currents near the shore, leading to a second amplification.

When there's a big swell, waves that were 30ft offshore can reach 60ft or more near the beach. In 2017, Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa topped McNamara's record when he surfed an 80ft wave. Fellow Brazilian Maya Gabeira set the women's world record at Nazare the following year on a 68 footer. Measurements still haven't been made official for the 2020 season, but 18 year old Portuguese surfer Antonio Laureano claims to have achieved the holy grail, riding a 101ft behemoth in October.

As the waves at Nazare are more dangerous than any other surfing spot in the world. These feats have only been made possible thanks to the establishment of the most stringent safety regime in big wave surfing history.

As well as the jet ski driver, who deposits the surfer on the wave, teams authorised to surf at Nazare during a big swell must also include a spotter with a radio who keeps the driver informed on the surfer's location. "When you're in the white water, you don't know where anything is, you're just trying to survive," explained Salvador, who was put in charge of safety when McNamara landed in Portugal in 2010. There is also a second rescuer on a jet ski, and on big days a third.

You learn what it really feels like to be in the present, which is very important especially in these times

Before Nazare tamed its gigantic waves, Portuguese surfers had to travel to the other side of the world - most often to Hawaii - to get close to that feeling. Now the epicentre of big wave surfing is here at home.

Nazare locals now talk about big wave surfing like Christ; there's a before and an after. Before 2010, the population barely expanded beyond its 15,000 inhabitants in winter. Since the fort was converted into a museum about the waves in 2014, around one million tourists have visited, with 350,000 in 2019 alone. Winters are sometimes busier than summers, and business owners often approach Salvador to thank him for everything he and his colleagues have done for the town.

He's now working with the city hall on a project to expand on that impact, which will help students pursue careers in sectors linked to big wave surfing, including photography, driving and being a spotter.

Unlike at other big wave surfing hotspots, there have been no deaths at Nazare so far. Hope is that as the location grows in popularity, safety measures will continue to be strengthened.

As the mist started to roll in and the colours of the sea and the lighthouse faded, a slight wind picked up the sand and it became easier to picture Nazare with a big swell on the horizon. The world's bravest surfers will be back this year to try their luck at tackling the world's biggest wave.

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