It was a day with clear skies, in September, in the Portuguese resort of Nazaré.
The sun shone on the sea, which gently broke at the foot of the steep cliffs of Praia do Norte.
In the 16th century fort that sits on top of the cliffs, there was a small group of tourists posing for photos in front of its red light.
It couldn’t be a greater contrast to the scene that would be seen in just a month.
When the big wave surfing season, which usually runs from October to March, begins, the road to the fort and the surrounding cliffs are packed with thousands of people.
All hoping to catch a glimpse of the world’s best big wave surfers trying the ultimate feat of their profession: risking it all to ride the monstrous, skyscraper-sized waves generated by Europe’s largest underwater canyon.
The inhabitants of Nazareth have always known that its waves were big, although for generations they had no idea of its size.
On blustery winter days, they drove to the lighthouse to soak up its power. The entire area would seem to tremble, the thunderous sound reaching the mountains.
Although local surfers surfed in Nazaré to some extent, they knew when it was time to stop. And they certainly didn’t dream of facing the monsters that came with the big swells.
In fact, until recently, surfing professionals didn’t believe this was possible.
In 2004, a group of big wave surfers went there to do wave recon, but aborted the mission after just 90 minutes.
At the time, there was no financing in Nazaré to buy the jet skis needed to face waves of this size, too big to be surfed in the paddle.
Even if they had, they thought, the prospect of falling in these conditions, with huge waves coming from all directions, was too dangerous.
A year later, Dino Casimiro, a member of a local surf club, came into contact with another surfer known for his fearless nature, American Garrett McNamara, but he didn’t even make the trip.
In 2008, the local government agreed for the first time that the best way to prolong the city’s tourist season was to capitalize on the geological anomaly on its doorstep, which the Portuguese Hydrographic Institute had been studying since the 1960s.
Nazare has been a popular summer holiday destination for the Portuguese for centuries, but when winter came, it became a ghost town overnight. Its other main industry, fishing, was also rapidly declining.
“Never was [sobre] to be respected by the big wave surfing community,” says Paulo “Pitbull” Salvador, a Physical Education teacher and lifeguard who attended the first meeting at City Hall. “It was about bringing people to Nazaré outside of the summer months.”
After more than two years of begging for funding, the project began to gain traction. McNamara arrived in Portugal in 2010 and, in a few days, proved that with the right equipment, the biggest waves in Nazaré could be surfed.
Just a year later, McNamara broke the world record by catching a nearly 24 meter wave. The question was, would anyone else be brave—or crazy—enough to try?
Even by big wave surfing standards, the waves at Nazaré are especially threatening.
“A wave like the one in Jaws, Hawaii, attracts surfers because it’s a perfect wave and there’s less risk involved,” explains Portuguese-born big wave surfer Nic Von Rupp, who was part of the group of surfers who went to Nazaré in 2004, when he was 14 years old.
“This is a monster, a freak show. It’s like looking at a skyscraper or a mountain; the difference is it’s coming your way and it’s there to eat you alive. It has no mercy.”
The size and unpredictability of the waves at Nazaré are caused by an underwater canyon 200 km long and 5 km deep.
The difference in depth between the canyon floor and the continental shelf splits the waves in two.
In the shallowest part, the wave’s speed slows down, but inside the canyon it maintains the speed at which it traveled on the ocean floor.
The two collide, creating a larger wave, which then impacts currents near the shore, leading to a second amplification.
When there is a big swell, waves that were 30 feet offshore can reach 60 feet or closer to shore.
In 2017, Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa broke McNamara’s record when he surfed a wave of more than 24 meters.
Maya Gabeira, also Brazilian, broke the female world record in Nazaré, the following year, with a wave of almost 21 meters.
Measurements have yet to be made official for the 2020 season, but 18-year-old Portuguese surfer António Laureano claims to have reached the Holy Grail, catching a giant wave measuring almost 31 meters in October.
As the waves in Nazaré are more dangerous than any other surfing spot in the world, according to Von Rupp, these feats were only possible thanks to the establishment of the strictest safety regime in the history of big wave surfing.
In addition to the jet ski, which puts the surfer on the wave, teams authorized to surf in Nazaré during a big swell must include a radio spotter that informs the rider of the surfer’s location.
“When you’re in the water, you don’t know where anything is, you just try to survive,” explains Salvador, who was in charge of security when McNamara landed in Portugal in 2010.
There is also a second rescuer on a jet ski and, on great days, a third.
Even so, the reality is that you can die, says Joana Andrade, the only Portuguese woman to surf the big waves in Nazaré.
She prepared for eight months before her first attempt in 2013, a process that involved physical and spiritual training such as visualization and breathing techniques.
“You may have a super well-prepared physical body, but it’s your mind that will save you if things go wrong,” she says.
According to Von Rupp, some surfers meditate on their own drowning.
“You have to be prepared not to panic if you’re about to pass out, because that’s when you open your mouth and let all the oxygen out. Your best chance of survival is to stay calm.”
If the worst happens, the responsibility passes to the first jet ski rider.
For Von Rupp and Andrade, this is Sergio Cosme, who became known as “the guardian angel of Nazaré”. “If you practice something a hundred times, it becomes automatic,” he tells me.
“At that moment, there are so many worries in your head and, in security cases, you have to be able to do things automatically and minimize the time of all the procedures because you only have seconds to do them”.
But years of training do not guarantee a successful rescue, something Cosimo has difficulty talking about.
Last year, his friend, Portuguese big wave surfer Alex Botelho, became unconscious among the waves and stopped breathing for ten minutes before being rescued by partner Hugo Vau and resurrected on the beach.
“One day, the worst could happen and it will be very difficult to deal with it”, says Cosme.
Andrade believes the risks are worth it.
“When the jet ski rider says, ‘I’m going to put you on this wave,’ there are so many monkeys in my head. I feel like I can’t do that, it’s a mix of fear and adrenaline,” she says.
“But when he releases the cable, it’s a feeling of freedom, understanding and peace. Even though it’s super fast, it feels like forever. You learn what it’s like to really be in the present, which is very important especially in these times.”
Before Nazaré tamed its giant waves, Von Rupp’s generation of Portuguese surfers had to travel halfway around the world — mostly to Hawaii — to get closer to that feeling.
Now the epicenter of big wave surfing is an hour from your home.
“Being part of the construction of this story is amazing,” he says enthusiastically.
“It has also become a much safer sport, which has attracted talented young Portuguese surfers to pursue a career in big wave surfing.”
The residents of Nazareth now talk about surfing big waves like Christ — there is a before and an after.
Before 2010, the population barely exceeded its 15,000 inhabitants during the winter.
Since the fort was transformed into a museum about the waves, in 2014, around 1 million tourists have visited it, with 350,000 of them in 2019 alone.
Winters are sometimes busier than summers, and businesspeople often approach Salvador to thank him for everything he and his colleagues have done for the city.
He is now working with City Hall on a project to amplify that impact, which will help students pursue careers in big wave surfing industries, including photography, jet skiing and being an observer.
Unlike other big wave surfing spots, there have been no deaths in Nazaré so far.
Cosimo hopes that as the site grows in popularity, security measures will continue to tighten.
As the fog approached and the colors of the sea and the lighthouse were fading, a light wind blew on the sand and it became easier to imagine Nazareth with a big swell on the horizon.
The bravest surfers in the world will be back this year to try their luck tackling the biggest wave in the world.