About an hour and a half north of Lisbon, Portugal, lies the small coastal town of Nazare. While it may be unfamiliar to many, surfers are well aware of this hidden gem. Nazare is renowned for consistently producing the biggest waves in the world, with heights reaching up to 100 feet during the peak season from October through March.
In 2011, Hawaiian surfer Garrett McNamara gained worldwide attention after riding a 78-foot-high wave at Nazare, capturing photo and video that went viral. His record stood for six years until it was broken by Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa in 2017 with an 80-foot wave. Then, in 2020, German surfer Sebastian Steudtner set the current record at Nazare with an astonishing 86-foot wave.
So, what makes the waves at Nazare so extraordinary? The secret lies in a unique underwater channel that feeds Praia do Norte, the north beach of Nazare. This channel allows deep swells generated by powerful storms in the Atlantic Ocean to travel long distances before reaching the coastline. The topography of the seabed near the shore amplifies and refracts these swells, resulting in waves that double or even triple in size when they break.
Although I’m not a surfer myself, I've always been intrigued by the sheer magnitude of these waves. Recently, I had the incredible opportunity to interview Garrett McNamara about his HBO series, "The 100 Foot Wave." After the interview, I impulsively asked him if he would take me to Nazare and experience the giant waves firsthand. To my surprise, he agreed, and that’s where this story begins.
After months of planning, I joined McNamara and filmmaker Carlos Toro in Nazare. The wave forecast for the first few days was not promising, but we made the most of our time by exploring the charming town and indulging in both traditional Portuguese cuisine and a taste of American fast food at McDonald’s, which surprisingly has a presence there.
As the week progressed, the wave forecast improved, and a decision was made to embark on our jet-ski wave pilgrimage on the 28th, when the biggest swells were expected. With Cotton's assistance, Toro would capture the thrilling visuals while riding with me on McNamara's jet ski.
On the fateful morning of the 28th, the booming crashes of waves could be heard from miles away. It was a clear sign that the forecasters were right. The anticipation grew as we gathered at the harbor, donning our wet suits and life jackets. The water was unseasonably warm, but the waves near the famous lighthouse were already large, measuring 15 feet or more.
Holding onto the jet ski as we rode alongside the towering waves, I marveled at the awe-inspiring sight. McNamara skillfully navigated the surges, taking me close to a 50-foot wave that was about to break. The power and intensity were unlike anything I had ever experienced – a pulsating five-story apartment building in motion.
Surrounded by waves of all sizes, I urged McNamara to find a 60-footer, and then jokingly asked if any 70-footers were out there. To my astonishment, we discovered one. McNamara fearlessly rode on top of it, and with a sense of both fear and wonder, I gazed down at the 70-foot vertical drop to the wave's bottom. It was an indescribable sight, etched into my memory forever.
Suddenly, the unexpected happened. The jet ski capsized, throwing McNamara and me into the churning ocean. Miraculously, we managed to stay near the machine as McNamara desperately tried to flip it upright. After a few tense moments, we succeeded, and with a renewed sense of urgency, McNamara restarted the jet ski, instructing me to hold onto the sled at the back. We raced away, narrowly escaping the next set of colossal swells.
Back on shore, the relief in McNamara's voice was evident as he acknowledged the narrow escape we had just experienced. It was a stark reminder of the immense power of the ocean and the need to respect it, especially in Nazare. I couldn't help but feel grateful for our safe return.
As we showered off the saltwater and sipped espressos, we shared laughter and congratulatory high-fives. However, the underlying knowledge of how easily our adventure could have turned tragic remained. The ocean demands respect, and those like Cotton and McNamara who challenge its towering waves deserve our utmost admiration.
This unforgettable experience in Nazare is now etched in my mind as one of the most incredible and awe-inspiring adventures I have ever embarked upon. The encounter with the colossal power of Mother Nature served as a humbling reminder of our own insignificance in the face of her might.
(Stay tuned for our upcoming interview with surf pros Andrew "Cotty" Cotton and Hugo Vau, as we delve deeper into the world of surfing in Nazare. Only on News Readers.)