Does that mean anything to you? It didn’t mean anything to anybody a dozen years ago. But the little town of that name on the Portuguese coast has in the past few years vaulted into prominence as the go-to destination for surfers the world round.
But not just any surfers — big-wave riders only.
We aren’t talking high school kids ditching eighth-period English and nipping off to ride a couple of late-afternoon breakers down by the pier. We’re talking men and women strapping on wetsuits and inflatable life vests to be towed by a jet ski into 60- and 70-foot monsters that could kill them if they wiped out, or at a minimum drag them under and hold them in the whitewater churn for multiple minutes.
That is, like, gnarly, bro!
What is it about this place? And why has it become Europe’s big-wave capital, if not the world’s?
A confession before we get too far into this. I’m no more a surfer than I am an intergalactic traveler. I’ve been on a surfboard in my life, but never on my feet on a surfboard — I’ve only made it to my knees. But I lived on the ocean for years, in Pacific Beach (San Diego), and when the surf was big, compliments of a storm off the Mexican coast, I could watch the waves crash onto the sand for hours. The power, the sound, the regularity — I was transfixed, and that fascination has stayed with me.
But big in San Diego is not big at Peahi (aka Jaws) on the North Shore, or at Mavericks, or at Todos Santos, or at any other renowned big-wave surf spot.
And big at those places is still smaller than big at Nazaré.
And big is what it was on January 8 at Nazaré (pronounced nuh-zehr), one of the biggest and gnarliest days of this surf season, and maybe all time, according to one surf chronicler. It was the kind of day that brings out all the top big-wave riders who flock to this seaside town every winter. The first 70-footer roared in just after sunrise, and the bombs kept coming all day long. Some of the best big-wave surfers in the world notched the largest waves of their lives. Wipeouts were severe, near catastrophic. Some safety skis reported fighting the whitewater for 30 minutes before reaching the lineup, it was so turbulent. The Beach Boys didn’t sing songs about these sorts of waves. “Epic,” “heavy,” “rad,” “gnarly” — one exhausts the surfer-dude lexicon in describing the day.
It has been days like January 8 that have transformed this sleepy Portuguese fishing village into the big-wave mecca of the world. The transformation started when Hawaiian big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara, at the invitation of a fellow surfer, arrived one winter day in 2010. “I’ve seen some big waves at Mavericks and Jaws,” McNamara said. “But I’ve never really seen bigger waves than I’ve seen here.”
McNamara returned the next winter and promptly charged down a 78-foot mountain of water and into the record books. Big-wave surfing’s next causes célèbre — both man and town — had just been born. The man burnished his already sterling big-wave résumé — numerous surf awards, plus daredevil stunts like riding tsunamis from 300-foot calving glaciers in Alaska — into even greater fame. A photo of him midway down the 78-footer appeared practically everywhere shortly after his epic ride, showing him a speck leaving a faint contrail on a glassy wall of water as tons of foam chased him into surfing history. Just last year HBO featured McNamara in a six-part series entitled The 100-Foot Wave. He has lived in Nazaré for years and is the seaside town’s No. 1 surf ambassador.
The uptick in the town’s fortunes took a little longer. Nazaré was considered for years an outsider in the giant-wave fraternity, a group composed of legendary spots on Oahu’s North Shore with names like the Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach, or the cold killer in Monterey Bay, Mavericks. Nazaré boasted but a canyon-driven “novelty wave,” all crest and no trough, and it was ridiculed by the old-guard surf cognoscenti. But one thing it is not is small, and, in the big-wave surfing game, big still trumps all.
In time the regular names in big-wave surfing started showing up, and, spurred by its addition to the Big Wave Tour in 2016, the place took off. All manner of longboarders arrive at the Portuguese town for the winter season now — generally from October to March. And not only do surfers swarm the town but tourists, looky-loos wanting to watch the world’s boldest — or craziest — streak down the mountains of water before they crash onto the beach (the waves, not the surfers — at least, not usually). Crowds in the thousands cram the promontory and beach on big days, clustering around the elevated lighthouse to cheer the ones who escape the monsters’ roar and gasp in fear for the ones who don’t.
What is it about this place? And why has it become Europe’s big-wave capital, if not the world’s? Unlike at many other surf spots, an underwater canyon miles wide and reaching depths of 16,000 feet at its beginning — McNamara likens it to a submerged Grand Canyon — angles toward the shore from the southwest. It remains relatively deep almost until it gets to the beach. The swell moves steadily through this canyon and, when it approaches the shore, the rapidly building wave meets a slow-moving swell coming toward it from the north at a 90-degree angle, which has an amplifying effect on the wave, turning a 30- or 40-foot wave into a 60- or 70-foot monster that, peaking in a wedge just in front of the lighthouse, comes barreling ashore.
Big days at Nazaré come with big and sometimes gnarly consequences. The principal victim on January 8 was C. J. Macias, a well-known big-wave surfer who bit it on a 60-plus-footer, “a big peak, big A-frame,” and stayed under. Said Andrew Cotton, who helped rescue Macias: “He went down, no one could see him, he just disappeared.” Macias said he stayed under as multiple subsequent waves — 20-foot walls of whitewater — came roaring toward shore, throwing him about, disorienting him to the point he didn’t know up from down. Cotton and others were helming the safety jet ski, and when finally Macias popped to the surface, he said, “We went to him and he couldn’t swim, he’d snapped his arm above the elbow, it was just hanging there.” He damaged an eardrum as well and was attended to by first responders on the beach before being shuttled to a hospital.
A near-victim was Justine Dupont, a French veteran of big-wave riding, who, she said, “took a huge wipeout which brought me right in front of the cliff. The place where no one wants to be.” Veterans of the Portuguese shore break call it the Nazaré “death zone,” an outcropping of rocks situated under the cliff that endangers safety skis as much as downed surfers. Dupont was rescued by a jet ski before becoming atomized on the rocks, and was grateful for the help.
Safety skis — no, make that safety teams — are de rigueur in big-wave surfing. The waves are so big that the water moving up the face of the wave prevents the surfer from gaining enough speed to “catch” the wave if he or she paddles in, the conventional entry method on smaller waves. The big ones require a jet ski, helmed by a trusted fellow waterman (as surfers are called) who pulls the surfer into the wave with a tow rope. The surfer, once in the wave, drops the rope and races across or down the face while the ski driver exits the wave and chases it toward the beach, staying close to rescue the surfer who fails to complete the ride and wipes out. The rescue is frequently more harrowing than the ride. This is the danger zone, as a surfer may not immediately bob to the top while, in the meantime, another big wave is breaking and, carrying a 20-foot wall of wild whitewater on its own, surges toward shore. Inflatable vests, first worn in 2010, were invented to help surfers escape these frightful, two-wave, even three-wave, hold-downs. Pull the ripcord and shoot up and out of the gnarly foam.
Big-wave surfers talk about “the 100-foot wave” with awe. It’s like the holy grail of surfing, the sport’s white whale, a force of nature allegedly seen and allegedly ridden but whose height remains an allegation. No official body has ratified a ride on a wave that big.
The official world record, according to the World Surfing League and Guinness World Records, currently is 80 feet, a wave surfed in 2017, at Nazaré, by Rodrigo Koxa of Brazil. McNamara’s 2011 wave, 78 feet, is second — also at Nazaré. In fact, the three major world records — for biggest wave, biggest wave surfed by a woman, and biggest wave kite-surfed — and five of the seven officially recorded 70-foot-plus rides have all happened at the Portuguese spot.
Unofficially, McNamara and Brazilian Carlos Burle claimed to have hit the century mark, both in 2013. But in October 2020 a Portuguese, António Laureano, caught the last wave of a session at Nazaré. “As soon as I started to go down the wave,” the 18-year-old said, “I gained a lot of speed, as I had never gained.” He surmounted bumps in the wave created by earlier jet skis and, when he kicked out, he says, “I looked back and saw a giant wave behind me. I heard people screaming and applauding.” A team of scientists from the University of Lisbon measured the wave. They decided it had been 101.4 feet in height.
Now, that’s big (and gnarly).