A Day at the World’s Biggest Surfing Spot
In October, as a winter swell began to form in the east Atlantic, the best big-wave surfers in the world descended upon the small, quiet fishing town of Nazaré, in Portugal. It’s here where, each year, hard- chargers like Andrew Cotton, Hugo Vau, and Garrett McNamara—who, in 2013, surfed a record-setting 100-foot wave in Nazaré—come to ride the biggest and some of the most dangerous waves in the world.
This year, Portugal-born, London-based photographer André Silva went to Nazaré to shoot these brave watermen doing what they do best. But unlike the hundreds of other photographers who shoot the athletes from the vantage of the town’s famous lighthouse, Silva, who is old friends with many of these surfers, followed them for weeks. The result: a tense, intimate look at world-class athletes—before, during, and after their death-defying rides.
These photos were originally published on Wonders.
Photo: Most of the waves in Nazaré move in from the northwest, towards this rocky point. One of the biggest concerns among surfers is falling too close to the lighthouse, as doing so would likely force them into the currents smashing up against the rocks. “All the surfers are mindful of it,” contends Silva, “but the biggest waves actually break pretty close to the lighthouse.”
Kohl Christensen, of Hawaii, unloads one of his longer paddleboards. Each surfer brings a few boards out on the water every day, along with some food and water, which they store in the adjacent harbor south of the lighthouse.
Each morning, the surfers gather in a warehouse on the harbor to prepare their vests, wetsuits, and boards. The mood is generally quite jovial, Silva says, but British surfer Andrew Cotton is not like the rest. “Cotton’s one of the most fearless, if not the most fearless, person that I know,” says Silva. “Every morning, he visualizes what he wants to do in advance.” A few years ago, Cotton badly injured his shoulder and knee while surfing in Nazaré, and now must wear a supportive brace to “prevent his knee from disintegrating, I suppose,” half-jokes Silva.
McNamara waxes his board in the warehouse. Silva says he can sometimes sense nervousness among the surfers just beneath the surface of their cool demeanors. “I like to think the camera is quite revealing,” he says.
While waiting for the fog to clear, Hugo Vau, who works as a fisherman on Portugal’s Azores, loads the jet ski. There were several mornings where the fog was so thick that Silva says he couldn’t see the lighthouse from the harbor. “Surfing in those conditions isn’t even an option.”
Hawaii’s Kealii Mamala catches a relatively small wave in Nazaré. No matter how big the wave is, Silva says that many of these surfers have a tendency to knock at least ten feet off their estimate. That modesty “can be a bit ridiculous, to be honest,” says Silva.
The waves at Nazare are among the most powerful on earth, and Silva has seen countless surfers wipe out and get pummeled. “I see them disappear with my long lens—you try to follow them around and see if they pop up in the whitewater,” he says. All surfers at Nazaré wear inflatable vests, yet wipeouts will sometimes keep them under for minutes at a time. “It’s terrifying,” Silva says.
Eric Akiskalian—a native of Santa Barbara, California, a Billabong XXL Big Wave Award-nominee, and “a true waterman,” as Silva puts it—preps his jet ski for the day. The jet skis are supplied by the local government and stored in a nearby warehouse. Silva contends that the town of Nazaré does everything in its power to support the surfers. The government also provides tractors to move equipment, medical ATVs on the beach, and on-call volunteer firefighters.
McNamara, Nazaré’s most well-known surfer, gets towed out to sea. Because of the sheer force and size of the waves and the knowledge required to navigate those conditions, jet skis at Nazaré are piloted by other surfers. “It’s almost a game of chess,” Silva says of operating jet skis in these waves. “They try to feel for an opening, but if they can’t pass through, they’ll have to turn around and try again. It’s hard work.”
As Andrew Cotton catches a wave that he was towed into, Portuguese surfer João de Macedo goes without the support of a jet ski and paddles out to sea. It may be pride, or a desire for a new challenge, but in recent years, big-wave surfers at Nazaré have made it a point to paddle out to waves that, in the very recent past, were considered exclusively towable.