Before Nazare was unveiled to the world, a hardcore crew of bodyboarders would surf that Portuguese behemoth with barely anyone around. And even before that, the mountainous peaks of 'the world's biggest wave' had captured the attention of photographers for hundreds of years. Just look at the below shot above of Nazare, taken in 1930 – with the wave standing a daunting 50ft tall at least.
Anyway, prior to 2011 and Gmac blowing the doors open for big wave surfing at Nazare, those colossal waves were outright downplayed at unrideable, the locals opting for the beachie instead– which, if you don't already know, is no joke, a hefty, bus sized barrel that's all grunt and chaos.
Live cam: Nazare
Only frothing surfers and a handful of gawking bystanders would gather on the now saturated headland for a glimpse of the sheer power of Nazare, the opposite to the throngs that make up today's crowds.
Our man on the ground Helio Antonio has been a regular at Nazare since 2006. And over those past 14 years, he's seen the progression in watercraft, safety, the small fishing village's financial boom, almost every wipeout and every XXL session to have gone down during that time. So as the swell season gets under way, we tapped up Helio for a chat about what Nazare was like before the crowds descended. Here's how the convo went.
Nazare has become the spotlight for big wave surfing when it blew up almost a decade ago, but what was it like before that?
Local crew surfed it a lot but no one would go on the big days, it was considered impossible. And definitely not a lot of people ever surfed it bigger than 15ft.
Was it mostly bodyboarders? Was there ever the feeling that Nazare had this potential for ‘the biggest wave in the world’?
Yes, local crew was mostly bodyboarders, and the first competition events were also for bodyboard.
I don't think anyone really thought about it as being the biggest wave in the world
In 2001 the European Tour of Bodyboard was held at Praia do Norte and waves were big and perfect. Everyone got a glimpse of how good this place was and the hardcore bodyboard community from Portugal started surfing it more and more on bigger days.
I don't think anyone really thought about it as being the biggest wave in the world. We knew it was huge but just watching it from the cliff with no one inside, it was impossible to determine the size.
What about the infrastructure in Nazare? Are all those little businesses suddenly inundated with people and restaurants full of tourists?
A lot has changed for sure. Tourism grew a lot so restaurants and accommodation businesses now have many more clients, especially on low season which is when the big waves happen.
On big days thousands of people from all over the world head to Nazare to watch the big waves. These people need a place to stay and somewhere to eat. A lot of people are also buying houses in Nazare so the prices have gone up a lot, as well as rents.
What was the local crew like before their spot got blown up?
Not a lot was going on because we didn't have a lot of visitors. We would surf amazing perfect days and welcome some of the most hardcore Portuguese bodyboarders.
And what are they like now? Do they hate that Nazare gets so much exposure or embrace it?
I guess there's some division about it. Some would rather have it like before, pretty much empty, others enjoy the company on bigger days. One thing is certain, everyone gets pissed off when there's someone towing around on a paddle day.
What for you, as a photographer, has changed over those years?
Nowadays there's always someone surfing no matter the size and being a photographer that's a positive thing. Also, both bodyboarders and surfers are improving their performances. That means more amazing moments to capture.
As with all these things, there’s always some discussion around the measurement of the biggest wave ever. As the main man on the ground there, what, in your opinion was the biggest wave ever surfed that you witnessed?
It's hard for me to say which one is bigger, I would rather talk about the one that impressed me the most which was Hugo Vau's wave in 2018. That's the wave everyone is after. Also, Benjamin Sanchis' wipeout in 2014 was a monster wave.
I remember in 2017, when you were shooting for us during the session of Cotty’s wipeout and Koxa’s biggest wave, at the time, I believe we were both thinking, ‘that’s the heaviest session we’ve seen’. Or at least one of them. But do you think since then, athletes have calmed it down a bit? Taken a few less risks, or do you think it’s ramping up?
I'm sure some surfers are taking it slower and I think that's related to the growing crowd on big days.
There's skis all over the place, everyone wants to surf the biggest wave and it can get really dangerous. On the other hand, there's a lot of new surfers going harder maybe cause they feel they have to prove themselves.
Then, Kai Damn Lenny comes over and makes a joke of it all anyway – did you get to see him surf? How was his approach?
Yes, [laughs] I think i witnessed all of his surf sessions in Nazare this past season and it was very impressive.
He seemed super confident and did things we never saw before. It usually takes a while for a surfer to adapt to Nazare but he was really quick. I hope he comes back again this season and would love to watch him paddle.
Comparing Nazare to back in the day, say, 2006 – which feels more recent history than back in the day – to now, in terms of the progression of surfing, what do you think has been the biggest shift in progression – boards? Lines people draw? Safety?
All of those improved I believe. I'm certainly no expert regarding boards but i witnessed a lot of experienced surfers having to adjust their boards to this kind of waves.
To ride the biggest waves in the world with the biggest bumps you definitely need a specific board. It needs to be faster and heavier. The way they're surfing is also changing, going deeper and top to bottom, drawing beautiful lines in the most critical section as opposed to riding on the shoulder.
Regarding safety, everyone is now aware of how important it is to have the best equipment but also a good team for support. Almost every team now has a spotter on the cliff with a radio, not only to get the best waves also but for rescue. Lifeguards and ambulance are also on standby on the beach. Still, there's a lot more to do and people are taking steps to it.
And, in your opinion, has Nazare had her golden era, or is she just getting warmed up?
I don't think this will ever go away. On a regular season, Nazare will always have the biggest waves and that's what everyone's after. This is one of the best shows on earth and everyone wants to see it or be a part of it.