Inside the killer sport of big wave surfing, where swells can reach 100ft and each wave is life or death

SURFING literally reaches new heights as surfers race to catch the biggest wave in the world and ready to risk it all.

Some claim they’ve already found it at Praia do Norte, a beach near a small Portuguese fishing village called Nazaré that has become the new ‘Everest’ of the surfing community and has killer swells.

Garrett rode a wave estimated to be 78 feet and shocked the worldPhoto Credit: AP:Associated Press
Chasing the big waves has become a way of life for many in the sportPhoto credit: Instagram
Garrett is credited with pioneering Nazaré’s big wave surf spotPhoto credit: Getty

When American surfer Garrett McNamara received a photo of a monster wave off the coast of Portugal in 2007, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

In this place, the power of the Atlantic unfolded in full force, huge waves broke wildly on the rocky cliffs of the village.

Nazaré is a very different ride as Europe’s largest underwater canyon nearly doubles the size of each wave and the water rages in two directions.

The frenzy of hydroelectric power means surfers are never quite sure where or how it will break.

Garrett traveled to the small fishing village to see the swell for himself, where he tamed a wave that shocked the world in 2011.

Footage of him surfing the world-record-breaking 78-foot wave “Big Mama” went viral, and Nazaré would take his rightful place as the promised land of the big wave surfing community.

A guide to surfing terms

surfing 101

Run: the ripple of the wave when it breaks, one of the most coveted things in surfing

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Break: where the wave breaks, the white water on top

To carve: a sharp maneuver on the face of the wave

Drops: the first part of the surf ride where the surfer enters the wave

duck diving: Dive your board under an oncoming or breaking wave

cook: a newbie to surfing, someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs

summit: the highest point of a breaking wave

spit: Seawater spouted out of a barrel

Pipe: like a barrel, the trough of the wave

obliterate: Falling off a wave while surfing

Catch a Wave

Bianca Valenti competes in the Pe’ahi Challenge at JawsPhoto credit: Getty

At the beginning of Bianca Valenti’s big wave surfing career in 2006, she and a friend were paddling into a growing swell at Ocean Beach, San Francisco.

“The waves were perfect, nobody was out and we couldn’t see how big they were,” she told The Sun Online.

“We were disembarking in a rip tide that took us right out when a wave broke in front of me on the side of a two story house – heavy, square, hollow – I had never seen anything like it in my life.

“I tried to duck but my board got ripped out of my hands, I was thrown around, dragged, twisted and I opened my eyes but it was all dark and I had no idea what was going on.”

As she was sucked under another wave, Bianca didn’t think she had enough energy left to swim and began to accept that she could die.

The Californian surfer somehow managed to escape onto land, where she gasped for air.

Looking back at the waves that nearly killed her, she thought, “I want to surf these big waves, and I knew I could.

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“I’ve never looked back,” she said.

However, her friend gave up surfing that day.

dangerous waves

Big wave surfing locations are scattered around the world
Even smaller waves in Nazare can be dangerous

For all the heights of big wave surfing, one death in the tight-knit community can bring this world crashing down.

In January, veteran Brazilian surfer Márcio Freire, affectionately known as “Mad Dog”, died tragically at the age of 47 after being wiped out by a huge wave in Nazaré.

British big wave surfer Andrew Cotton has surfed Nazaré every year since he helped Garrett McNamara pave the site.

He told The Sun Online: “We don’t see it as a dangerous sport. Anyone who surfs big ways will be charged. They take a lot of safety precautions, they train a lot.

“The sea is dangerous,” he added. “Marcio was extremely talented and the waves that drowned him weren’t too big for him. It was a normal day for him.”

In 2017, Andrew was thrown by a wave in Nazaré with such force that he broke his back before being hit by a second large wave.

It took him a year to recover and then he was right back surfing in Nazaré.

“You often toy with the idea of ​​retiring, especially after a major injury. But for me, the amount of joy and happiness that surfing brings me definitely outweighs any dangers.”

Nazaré, Garrett said, is where it’s most unpredictable. “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 on the barrel and get a good turn.

“But when it’s turbulent, and it’s usually turbulent in Nazaré, it’s about survival.”

Aim high

Andrew walks under a wavePhoto credit: Andrew Cotton Instagram

According to Bianca, preparing for a big wave is no easy ordeal. It takes years of experience on the giants to really understand “when to hold and when to fold”.

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“You have to be 95 percent confident that you can do it or you’ll get badly hurt and die,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Once you decide on a wave, you can’t wait a nanosecond because that’s when you’re in trouble.

“But the second I step into it, everything goes still and the focus is on the wave and the line you choose – there’s something beautiful about that, it’s like a moving meditation.”

She’s not the only one who believes a calm mind is conducive to a perfect ride.

Dominican big wave surfer Andres Flores said, “My head is blank, I can’t think when you think you might have doubts, and that little doubt can lead to an obliteration.”

He recently broke the world record for surfing the biggest wave by paddling in – it measured an estimated 60 feet.

Andres pushed the boundaries of what was considered safe for paddle surfers – an added advantage in an already dangerous sport and another feat to overcome to be the best.

Most big wavers opt for the method of tow-in surfing, in which the surfer is pulled into the waves on a rope attached to a jet ski.

However, purists prefer paddling in. Without the jet ski, Andres explains: “In the impact zone it’s just you and the board.”

But that also means: “You risk being swept up by a big wave without rescue.”

Despite the dangers, the waves seem to have an unrelenting pull on these athletes, with many giving up their lives on a whim to chase winter waves around the world.

“Big wave surfing is like a high, like an adrenaline rush and very addictive,” explained Andres.

“The danger is always there, but your body gets used to that feeling. It’s like your body is acting on its own.”

His goal is simple. “Of course, keep chasing big waves.”

“I always want to get better, I compete with myself because you can’t compete with anyone but the ocean.”

In Nazaré, the search continues to tame that always elusive 100ft wave.

Andrew’s famous wipe out in Nazaré could have ended his career, but he got back in the water and has been surfing ever since
The 100ft wave may have been surfed but not documented
The Big Waves Awards Ceremonies are held every year
Big wave spots like Nazaré, Jaws, Mavericks and Pipeline attract surfers
Despite the injuries these insane waves cause, surfers keep going backPhoto credit: Getty – Contributor

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