What It Takes to Ride Europe’s Bigger and Faster Waves
The waves in the Portuguese beach of Nazare reach up to 78 feet.
Photo: Pedro Miranda
The crowd turns away from the waves, hearing the underside of our car crash to a halt against the rocky break. The thin road leading up to Nazaré’s lighthouse hasn’t got much use historically; mythologised by locals as terra pericolosa, it’s been the last point of land to be seen by many unfortunate fishermen – so parking is difficult.
In recent years the lighthouse has become the site of a media frenzy, since Garrett McNamara rode a 78-foot record-breaking wave in 2011. The surf industry is now firmly embedded in this small town just north of Lisbon, Portugal, thanks to the 100 foot waves that batter the coastline each month.
After leaving the Rip Curl Pro competition site at nearby beach Peniche Supertubos, where long tubular waves meet white sand dunes and beach-goers sunbathe, the uneven cliffs and warning signs in Nazaré seem a lot more foreboding. A 16,000 feet deep canyon is responsible for the enormous size of the waves here; this unique ocean floor topography is attracting surfers, fans and photographers from across the world.
“I’ve travelled a lot since I was 12 and have always told people about Portugal,” professional surfer Nic von Rupp says. “I used to have to explain to Americans that the country is in fact in Europe for some reason, and that it has these enormous waves. But now everyone knows about the scene here, and wants to come to visit.”
From the vantage point of the lighthouse, South African photographer Alan van Gysen is poised on a rocky outcrop, long lens trained on Grant “Twiggy” Baker. “Standing on the cliffs of Nazaré, overlooking the mighty North Atlantic, it is obvious why Praia do Norte is fast becoming one of the world’s premier big wave spots and a true testing ground for the world’s big wave elite,” van Gysen says. “With this gigantic playing field and uniquely focused bathymetry, the waves that break here are bigger and faster than any in Europe.”
Heading down from the lighthouse to the adjacent boatyard we meet the world record holder Garrett McNamara, the man who surfed the biggest wave ever recorded at Nazaré. The 50-year-old clearly has a lot of respect for the younger von Rupp, who first came here aged 14 with his dad, determined to surf the waves. A look into von Rupp’s boatyard warehouse reveals that at this level you need more than just your dad – there’s an entire crew of people helping him tackle these waves, with at least two jet skis and an expensive safety team to take you out into them. (Back in 2015 von Rupp paddled out into his first 50-foot wave, leaving the jet skis behind. At that “man versus nature” session there were only five surfers out on the waves).
“Surfing is the second most popular sport in Portugal, after soccer,” von Rupp tells me. Unfortunately the sport’s popularity has brought “adrenaline junkies” to Nazaré; surfers who are not ready for the big waves and who come without the proper safety team and end up getting themselves into perilous situations. As the surf industry takes root on the West coast of Portugal, and more people visit each year, safety will increase and the necessary infrastructure will be built (perhaps even the road up to Nazaré’s lighthouse will be closed off to cars). But whatever happens, the waves here will always remain exclusive to the few brave enough to enter the water.