Nazaré is Europe’s big wave Mecca and we are here on pilgrimage. We are not the only ones either, a wave of this notoriety pulls a crowd. Firstly you spot the life-or-death hardcore surf crew with their deep tans and bleached eyes. Then there are the others, softer, like us, who seek vicarious thrills from the sidelines. Around all this is the periphery: the tour operators, guides, rickshaws, buskers and falafel vans.
For your surfing to qualify as ‘big wave’ you have to be paddling into monsters that are 20 foot high or greater. As a family we watched Riding Giants, the seminal big wave documentary, when we were staying in Croyde – some decades ago it seems now. It tells the story of a wild renegade scene, a group of guys who had dropped wilfully, out of straight fifties society and set themselves up on the undeveloped North Shore of Hawaii. They slept wild on the beach, lived off the land and discovered and surfed the largest waves that had ever been ridden. This scene then grew over subsequent decades as boards developed, bigger spots were found and new generations of surfers pushed the boundaries ever further. As surfing became commercialised, the big wave hunters remained splintered from the mainstream in their own secret club, a circuit without sponsors, a cabal of riders with their own mystique – until films like Riding Giants brought exposure. Now the XXL and other big wave competition are worldwide; Arthur and Matilda can recite the roll-call of largest waves ever surfed. They drop those exotic names casually into conversation: Waimea Bay, Pipeline, Mavericks, Jaws, Teahupo’o, Cloudbreak, Nazaré.
They know the big wave legends too, the stories of mythical waves were hidden in plain sight, or thought impossible, crazy, chimeric until some hero stepped forwards. Mavericks, one of the biggest, ugliest, heaviest waves in the world, was surfed alone by Jeff Clark for 15 years because he couldn’t convince anyone else it was worth the long dangerous paddle out. It was said impossible for such a wave to exist in California. Greg Knoll paddled for three hours in a unique storm swell to be the first to surf the third reef at Pipeline. Jaws was thought too fast, and heavy to surf until Laird Hamilton got a jetski to slingshot him right into the heart of the tube. And Nazaré is a deep water dragon who awakes only when the wind is right and direction of the swell merges with cold funnelled up through a 130 mile underwater canyon. This is a wave that is commemorated in shrines and for hundreds of years meant only death in this little fishing village. Until someone persuaded Garrett McNamara to come over from Hawaii to take a look at it. The picture of him riding an 80 foot smoking black mountain put the town right on the surf map.
Nazaré itself is built on legend. A twelfth-century lord hunting up on the cliffs; a white hart; a sea mist. Our Lady of Nazareth reached down from the skies to miraculously suspend his horse as it reared out over the void, she brought him back to safety. Now the old town that bears her name, with its churches and shrines, sits proudly up on that clifftop. It is connected by a funicular railway to the lower part of town, which, seen from above, is a labyrinthine swirl of of red roof tiles, white walls and narrow streets that extends down the South beach. Old ladies salt their fish in the traditional way out on the sands. A surf school runs lessons in the mild waves in the bay. A veneer of wave-generated tourism sits uncomfortably over the traditional fishing village, ‘Rooms for Rent’ say the handwritten placards that women in traditional dress wave at you. Surfer Paradise! Nazaré Monster Wave Tour! American Burger Bar! At the other end of town, Praia do Norte, where the big wave breaks, is still wild and undeveloped.
We stay in a place belonging to Tim Bonython, a veteran wave-chaser, photographer and filmmaker. It is a stylish apartment in the old town. There are moody prints of giant waves on the wall and a DVD copy of Tim’s latest film The Big Wave Project has been left casually on the coffee table.
We watch it of course and we are immediately plunged into the gladiatorial world of big wave surfing. A spectator sport quickly becomes compulsive when the penalty for poor performance is death. When your adversary is as implacable and relentless as the ocean then you are deep in a classic myth archetype: man – small and flawed but big of heart – doing battle with the gods. In high definition slo-mo. We find this sense of poetic heroism throughout the Big Wave Museum within Forte San Miguel, housed right under the iconic red lighthouse that features in all those famous Nazaré surf shots. The gallery of hero’s weapons is laid out for us here, in this case the wall of ‘big wave guns’, huge elongated surfboards that can achieve the necessary paddle speed to catch a ten storey wave that is moving at 20mph. The padded wetsuit, with it’s impact protection and buoyancy aids, is up-lit in the shadows, glowing like armour. There are elegies to those who have fallen, messages to the wave. “Nazaré, you gave me the best and the worst time of my life” says one marker-pen homage, scribbled on a broken surfboard.
We go down to Praia do Norte but it is deceptively, quiet. There are some fairly mushy waves breaking late on the shore. You can see the water is seething though in heavy roiling surges, churning up behind the break, sucking back from the beach in dark angry rips. We watch some surfers paddle out and they get pulled around, dunked under the water for long times. They don’t catch much.
We shiver and remember the graphic descriptions of the wipeouts that we heard on the Big Wave Project. The ability of a wave to smash you down 50 foot under the surface in seconds, rupturing your eardrums, twisting limbs, breaking vertebrae. Then to hold you down there, rolling and spinning in your dark-water prison for long minutes. We’ve all experienced enough miniature versions of this scenario to understand the world of panic and limp helplessness that waits down there under the waves. We won’t be surfing Nazaré. The wave is hypnotic though and we sit for a long time up on the beach, just watching the suck and pull of its waves.