Nazaré, Portugal hosted a Big Wave World Tour event for the first time this week and blew the surf world’s collective mind.
As the live stream brought the full ferocity of Praia do Norte’s infamous A-frames onto screens across the planet, 24 of the world’s leading big wave chargers went into battle.
And some of them only barely lived to tell the tale. Here’s what we learned.
1. Big Wave Surfing Makes For Compelling Viewing
In terms of fan appeal, big wave surfing strikes an unmistakable chord whatever the level of involvement of the spectator.
You don’t necessarily need to have invested decades as a die hard surf fan to get a handle on what’s going on: tiny spec of a human, teetering atop a mountain of water making a split second, potentially life or death decision.
It’s a sporting risk/reward scenario at its most awe-inspiringly beautiful.
With a packed crowd lining the iconic cliff top since dawn, the atmosphere at Nazaré went through a palpable change throughout the day, almost a kind of danger fatigue.
Whereas spectacular wipeouts were met with whoops, whistles and hoots in the earning morning, by early afternoon the assembled masses were pretty much watching through their fingers.
You could sense a kind of collective nervousness, an understanding of the gravity of the situation. The fact that the crowd had a grandstand view from above, watching the drama play out beneath them in a colosseum-like arena only added to the effect.
By the time the second semi was drawing to a close, it felt less like partisan support for their chosen winners and more of a communal hope that everyone would make it out more less in one piece and back to their families for Christmas.
Mercifully, they all did.
2. PWC’s Can Be A Double-Edged Sword
Nobody will ever doubt the utility of personal water craft to big wave surfing, without them events like the Nazaré Challenge wouldn’t even be thinkable, let alone feasible.
Aside from their paramount importance as life saving devices, they provide a logistical solution that avoids the scenario of watching surfers caught inside and paddling for entire heats.
But that very function in recycling surfers back to the lineup also comes at a price, in the form of multiple beatings in short space of time.
At times, what we saw at Nazaré was surfers falling, getting pummelled, jumping on the sled and being back in the lineup and stroking into another giant wave a minute later.
If that cycle was then repeated and re-repeated, competitors were taking more breathless underwater punishment in five minutes than the human body was designed to endure in an entire lifetime.
Joao de Macedo, Christian Morello and Nic Lamb come to mind for getting multiple horrific drubbings with sickening rapidity, like North Atlantic nuclear rabbit punches.
Even the ski itself can be dangerous, turn from rescuer to aggressor in a heartbeat, especially at a spot like Nazaré that has nothing even resembling a permanent navigable channel.
When Garrett McNamara flipped his PWC with Damien Hobgood clinging to the sled, the resulting wipeout left the Floridian unfit to take his place in the lineup to contest his semi final.
It also sent G-Mac’s back to terra firma to watch the rest of the day from the cliffs.
3. Throw the Oceanography Text Book overboard
Willard Bascom famously wrote in his seminal 1962 text Waves and Beaches “the shifting battleground is the surf zone, and two combatants, waves and beaches are the heroes.” True enough.
But anyone with even a couple of physical oceanography classes under their belt understands the basic governing premise that an open ocean swell will generally produce a coastal hero slightly more modest in stature than his full size pelagic counterpart.
Sure, certain spots ‘photograph bigger’, certain reefs will amplify the swell but the numbers at Nazaré defy all logic — and sinusoidal wave theory. The crucial numbers for Tuesday’s swell? Significant wave height of 8-12ft at 15 seconds.
The resulting surf? 30-40ft.
4. There’s No Substitute For Experience
It’s something of a sporting cliché, dished out from ballparks to beachbreaks but never would the importance of experience ring more true than at Praia da Norte.
For while at the essence of surfing’s — and especially big wave riding’s — skill set is core of transferrable methods and techniques, it’s hard to think of a situation where previous intimate knowledge can be more valuable than at arguably the most obstinate, capricious big wave break in the known universe.
If it’s not the most tricky lineup in surfing, it’s because it kinda doesn’t have a lineup.
Take the inaugural Nazaré Challenge final, featuring two Portuguese locals, a pair not unheard of outside the global big wave brotherhood, but hardly household names either.
Then there’s runner up Carlos Burle, who’ll turn 50 soon and pretty much lives at Nazaré half the year. The Brazilian has been on hand, either driving a safety ski, surfing or both at almost every major swell here in recent memory.
Event winner Jamie Mitchell came and made his study of Praia da Norte almost exactly a year ago, a swell that served as an ideal dress rehearsal in near identical swell conditions, winds, water temperatures and weather.
Mitchell learned the kind of lineups, figured out the waves he wants, and more importantly the waves he doesn’t want. And didn’t it show.
5. Nazaré is Legit
There are big wave spots and big wave spots, and conservatism, a kind of radical orthodoxy traditionally reigns.
The Atlantic can produce big waves, and Continental Europe has big wave breaks, sure, but they’ve often been seen (perhaps more by armchair experts than those that actually tackle them) as more slopey, less radical than some of their celebrated Pacific counterparts.
Even Nazaré has had its share of detractors, who chiefly accuse it of not throwing top to bottom, or even of not fully breaking. Moreover the coastal geography can at times further such doubts, with the typical angle it’s shot from, above, tending to flatten the wave face.
If anyone had any such doubts, and for any reason missed the live broadcast, let them refer themselves to the highlights packages, to the casualty list, and in particular to the testimonies of some of the most respected watermen to have ever graced the sport.