The Nazaré Challenge moves the wave further into the big-wave consciousness
“Nazaré is so scary, but it has everything. It’s super intense, super technical, big, gnarly, spooky; you know all things we love about big wave surfing,” Shane Dorian told Tracks after the first, and only, time he paddled the Portuguese hyper wedge back in 2013. “There’s every chance of someone paddling into a 100 foot wave out there.”
With the WSL green lighting the Nazaré Challenge for this Saturday, it’s debatable whether we will see 100 foot waves. The current forecast calls for surf in the 25-35' range, with some larger waves possible in the afternoon. The winds too, at this stage, are being labeled as “manageable”. That might not equate to 100-foot waves, but it does signify a shedload of carnage and another dramatic installment in the Big Wave Tour title race.
It also will, yet again, push the wave to the forefront of the surfing world. Not bad, considering the wave wasn’t even on the radar until this decade. It all started in 2010 when Garrett McNamara received an email from a Nazaré local asking him to come and check out the big wave potential of the break. McNamara did that and, blown away by the potential, moved there in 2011. In his first winter there McNamara was towed into a wave that was later to be judged 78 feet high, a new world record. Suddenly Nazaré was very much on the surfing radar.
Yet even for the first few years the wave was seen by surfers as some type of big-wave hoax. While the sheer scale of the wave was never disputed, its pyramid peaks meant that many labeled the wave as a massive fat burger that didn’t really break in the first place. Garrett, however, was undeterred. “The swells travel down a deep canyon and then are met from the side by waves coming off the sand shelf,” McNamara explained in a recent documentary. “They create these wedges and when everything comes together, magic happens.”
McNamara’s efforts in the maxing magic alongside Andrew Cotton, Hugo Vau, Tom Butler, Sebastian Steudnter and Eric Rebiere, to name a few pioneers, however kept the wave fully in the spotlight. “Look I understand the comments about the wave and how fat it is,” the UK’s Cotton tells Tracks. “However when you get to know the wave and understand its moods and what it is capable of, the legitimacy can’t be questioned. I’ve seen the biggest barrels imaginable out there. Over time any big wave surfer who has come here and surfed it at real size has come away with nothing but respect for the wave.”
And since Dorian highlighted the paddle in potential of the wave, surfers have come, initially in a flood and then in a consistent surge. Nazaré now operates as a global research and development hub for big wave surfers with dozens of elite athletes decamping to the Portuguese fishing village to share their experience of training, equipment and safety and surf a wave that is easily the most consistent big-wave surf spot on the planet.
Jamie Mitchell was one of those surfers, first coming for a stint late in 2015. Mitchell brought his family over and stayed with the McNamara’s for two weeks and was an immediate convert. “That wave is crazy, I think it could be the heaviest wave in the world,” he told Tracks just after that first taster. “It’s a real scary place and a lot of people think it’s a mushburger, but if they come and surf it they would think a lot differently.”
Mitchell came back when the first Nazaré Challenge ran in December 16, using his knowledge to win the inaugural event. Right now Mitchell will be saddling up to defend his title, traveling from his home in Oahu along with a clutch of the BWT ratings leaders like Kai Lenny, Billy Kemper and Makua Rothman. On Saturday the second Nazaré Challenge will run and should further cement the wave in the big-wave consciousness.