“We gonna eat something around my hotel, and then we will go back home. Because we don’t want to paddle anymore this…this wave. It’s fucking crazy.”
That was the Spanish-accented message awaiting me when I recharged my phone this afternoon at the Car Surf (Surf Performance Center) in Nazare, Portugal. I’d already come to terms with the fact that I’d opted out of the morning session—the combination of a borrowed board, an untested, oversized vest, and 40- to 60-foot waves on a chaotic, 500-meter-wide playing field was enough of an excuse for me to stay on the cliff. Sometimes you feel it, and sometimes you don’t, and there’s no shame in saying no. But it still felt good to know I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t interested.
The crew watching from the farol was possibly heavier than the crew in the water today. Twiggy Baker and Nic Lamb were both injured and sitting it out. Greg Long and Gary Linden were happy to watch. Jamie Mitchell was satisfied with his recent win and decided to drive water safety. Billy Kemper and Koa Rothman were on their way to the airport, Tom Butler was still in the hospital, and Adrian Fernandez De Valderrama and Naxto Gonzalez, two of Spain’s best big wave surfers, were busy leaving adioses on my phone after dodging bombs in the early morning twilight. When a couple dozen of the world’s hardest chargers are in town and half of them don’t want to surf, you know you have reached the outermost limits of progression. If Portugal is Europe’s wild west, then Nazare is fricking Westworld—a nightmare for everyone but the ultra-deranged.
But for those who were keen, Praia do Norte was ready to put on a show. It wasn’t the biggest paddle session ever, but it was pretty damned close—bigger than the contest two days ago, and certainly the most crowded the lineup has been. Around 15 chargers from all over the world were spread out across surfing’s newest and heaviest arena, some of them rinsing off the post-contest jitters, others anxious to prove themselves while the WSL was still in town and potentially earn a wildcard into next year’s event.
Big Wave Commissioner Peter Mel figured he ought to know what he was making the boys compete in, and went out hunting a bomb. Tom Lowe was in the water and sending it as hard as ever, despite nearly dying at Mullaghmore in Ireland two days ago. Francisco Porcella spent all Tuesday gleefully watching the carnage from the cliff, then laughed his way straight into the lineup this morning, while Kai Lenny, Yuri Soldade, Cliff Skudin, and Kealii Mamala were heading up the tow movement, whipping and chucking on anything that moved.
At a venue where literally every moment is rife with drama, it’s difficult to pinpoint the most dramatic events, but two stand out from the day’s session. The first was an “outside insider” ridden by Lucas Chumbo on the wave they call first peak. Lucas has arguably been sending it harder than anyone this year—he’s either incredibly confident or has a screw loose, or maybe it’s both, because you have to be equally crazy and committed to paddle first peak at Nazare, where a mistake could mean getting washed into the cliff. But the reward is there if you are willing to take the risk, and Lucas somehow managed to fade himself into a gaping barrel on the left side of the peak—if not the first legitimate XXL paddle barrel at Praia do Norte, then certainly one of only a handful to be successfully navigated. Big Wave Tour pioneer Gary Linden was on the cliff watching, and made no qualms about it: “That was a 10-point ride for sure.”
A few minutes later, a monster of a set swept through the second peak, blowing apart the lineup, landing on the heads of half a dozen surfers, and flipping Axi Muniain’s ski. As boards and bodies washed up on shore, Jamie Mitchell saved Axi, then dropped him in the shorebreak, where the Spanish charger proceeded to body surf his way into a cave in the cliff to fetch his battered ski—to the horror of everyone watching, including his girlfriend, who was frantically shouting from above.
Twenty minutes later, Axi somehow managed to get the ski started and drive it out of the cave, zipping around the shorebreak to drain water from the drowned watercraft before beaching it in the sand and falling to his knees. As crew attended to his injuries and loaded him onto a four-wheeler, a tractor materialised seemingly out of thin air and began to tow his wrecked ski up the beach. The entire scene seemed about as surreal as the oversized wedges detonating half a mile out to sea.
Glory, carnage, and a well-executed rescue plan, all within half an hour—Nazare is either the future of big wave surfing, or its eventual demise. Maybe both. Whatever the case, it certainly puts on a show.
Thanks to the legendary Helio Antonio for the shots. Keep scrolling for more...