Back in 2013, Maya Gabeira drowned at Nazare and was resuscitated on the beach. It was a harrowing moment for our humble community. It was more than luck that pulled the queen of praia do norte through, it was the dedicated life savers who rushed to her aid when everything hit the fan.
Of course, Maia's since gone on to stamp her claim as one of the best female surfers out there, breaking the world record for biggest wave ever surfed by a woman. But it's not just Maya who had a close call at Nazare, last year, Alex Botelho had a brush with a ski, an extremely critical situation and once again, thanks to expertise of life savers in the water, managed to pull through.
Live cam: Nazare
It was these two events, though seven years apart, that triggered a new call for formalised safety measures at the world's biggest wave. And, back in November, a new organisation was set up in order to instil enhanced safety operations for all the surfing community at Nazare.
The Nazare Surf Rescue Organisation was put together by Sebastian Steudtner, Maya and Alex in a joint effort to prevent the worst case scenario.
“As a surfer you think about; what surfboard should I use, what equipment should I use – and then you think you're safe, that's it,” said Sebastian, who is one of Nazare's early pioneers. “But it's about what to do when things go wrong. It got us thinking like, if this thing happens; we're dead and if this other thing happens, we're dead, really a lot of opportunities to be dead – so it was time to think about safety, seriously.”
In 2014, Garrett McNamara had safety measures in place – which consisted of two skis in the water, one for safety and one for towing surfers into waves – with spotters dotted along the cliff to call out big sets or help find people in the water. It's a testament to the professionalism of this crew that no one has died at Nazare yet. But as tech, our understanding of Nazare and big wave surfing moves on, so too must the safety net.
Here, we check in with Sebastian, Maya and Alex to discuss the safety measures in place at Nazare, the aims of the organisation and how anyone who is interested can get out there, meet the surfers and under go training – when surfing isn't banned at Nazare that is.
SS: When Maya drowned, Nuno, a lifeguard on the beach resuscitated her and he's now our head of safety. It was lucky she just had water in the lungs and came back pretty quick.
Anyway, we have a trained safety doctor who has started coming on the big days. He was always flying in on his free time and was a bit of a volunteer for five years. I was happy with that, there weren't any crazy situations and we felt safe. Then came the WSL contest.
Which was when Alex went down, right?
SS: Yeah. There was a bit of a struggle to get a certain safety system in place. We didn't want to have a separate safety team that wasn't organised by us. There were three emergency doctors though, 16 people on the beach, nurses, lifeguards and it was supposed to be, by far, the safest day possible. And even with all that support around, Alex [Botelho] had that major wipeout. He floated to the beach and almost died. When that happened, I realised we're so far away from being prepared for what we're doing. We needed to be responsible for our sport, our surfers... everyone.
So, what went wrong then with Alex? All that safety...
SS: I don't think it was organised. There were lots of moving parts but we need to look at the bigger picture, which is there are no professionally trained big wave rescue crews. Everything went wrong.
Anyway, I finished that season and this really got to me. Not because I really like Alex – he's one of the greatest people in our sport from all aspects – but because we had to take some responsibility. So Alex, Maya and I met up with the city hall at Nazare and some legal people and we decided to create the Nazare Surf Rescue Association which is dedicated to providing professional service during emergencies – for the entire swell season at Nazare.
And Alex, Maya, after what happened, it's now more important then ever to have this put in place...
AB: Yeah, we need to have more safety here. Hopefully the organisation will help with common education between the people who are first assessing a rescue.
This association aims to gather anyone who is present or wishes to be present in any matter around safety in Nazare, to educate and train safety practices so we are all on the same page. I believe it’s a logical solution to increase safety and help avoid serious accidents in the biggest and most dangerous wave in the world.
MG: The performance in big wave surfing continues to evolve but little has evolved in the safety of the sport, with lack of investment and time put into it. Nazare, being the biggest and most dangerous wave in the world, has the chance to lead in that department and it should.
So what does the safety team you're planning consist of?
SS: We've got a full time emergency doctor, two guys from Nazare and we've started training with lifeguards, the beach crew, fire department and we're now rolling out training for the the athletes. We want the whole community trained and prepared.
We're also going to get a development program, how can we improve equipment? One of the issues with Alex is his vest wasn't inflated – and there was no way to inflate it. In the air bag industry, everything is sensory controlled, so we're working on creating a vest that is triggered from the outside and has different bladders. Also, little things like putting another handle on the sled so you can grab on better.
There's lots going on, like, training safety people who are on the beach to jump on a ski, get through the shorebreak and assist people who may be floating. Beach vehicles, what's the best one to use for an injured person to an ambulance as fast as possible – how many of these do we need? When people are being rescued, sometimes they can't walk due to the lactic acid build up, so how do we get them? All these things are in the development phase and hopefully we'll be able to present to the surfers, authorities and everyone a proper safety plan for Nazare. And share everything we create here for people to replicate all over the world.
Do you think the surfing community at Nazare will agree with the methods?
AB: It’s important to remember this is not an association to impose safety practices, but rather a place where we all can go to share, contribute or learn safety techniques with the goal of coming to the best possible solution.
We work with several highly trained professionals in medical, army and rescue practices, which we humbly thank for their contribution, and we are equally open to anyone's input who wishes to join. Nazare has become the centre of attention in the world has naturally created separate groups to form with some ambition to achieve, and one of our goals is to bring all these groups together to bind a stronger web of safety.
MG: The surfing community is the one creating the methods. It’s a collaboration between all of us that will establish a standard and improve methods for the safety of all.
Say someone comes to Nazare to surf a giant swell – will you be saying, 'hey, come see us', and try and instil some safety prior to, and everyone has to go through that?
SS: Yeah, we want to help people. At one point, odds are, you're going to have to rescue someone from the water. If you're paddling, on the ski, it doesn't matter, you have to know how to do this.
At the end of November, we had our first public meeting and set up our IG account to help build awareness.
It sounds like something that should have been done in the past. But there's been no formalised process. The last thing anyone wants is for someone to come over, think they can surf Nazare and then the worst happens. How are you going to regulate that?
SS: Yeah, it is all about education. Nazare is this place right now where you can show up, you can go as crazy as you want. You can wipeout so hard and be a viral hit. And that's kind of the problem. Our safety idea is not to be the police.
If someone dies, the question will be; why were they allowed to paddle out? What safety was there? All those things will be asked of the whole community, then there could be a move to shut the place down
There's a lot of great examples around the world that have similar issues. Hawaii – they had a tow wave licence to ride a ski. South Africa you had to stay for a season and then you could apply for a licence. The first phase is to assess everything and bring it all to the table and sit down with the community, the surfers – it's not our job to regulate and the police say it's not their job [laughs] but we need someone to be safe.
If someone dies, the question will be; why were they allowed to paddle out? What safety was there? All those things will be asked of the whole community, then there could be a move to shut the place down.
The whole surfing community does not want that. It has to be done in the right way. So what's next?
SS: Everyone's going to be working together. I mean, that huge swell in November, we had 12 safety crew, two doctors – loads of people and probably the best safety crew we've ever had. Now, we've got to bring the community into the organisation.
Education right now is the main thing. We've got public training sessions. Obviously, there's restrictions right now that'll stop a lot of things. But there will be weekly sessions for anyone to come along to.
We're all sharing techniques too. Rodrigo Koxa has come up with some great ideas. And then from every swell we do a recap with everyone surfing and get feedback to see what we can improve.
The weekly training sessions, how much are they?
SS: Well they're free for members of the association and anyone can join the association. The membership fee is 25 euros for the year. It's not just the big wave surfers, we have different types of membership too. One is for the surfers, surfers, could be a surfer from anywhere and they can be a full member, come down, do the training, meet everyone. As a full member you can meet the spotters, lifeguards, rescue teams, everyone the surfers.
The second is a support membership, which might be for the person who sees the vids on magicseaweed and thinks, that's rad, I can't get there but I want to support these guys and girls. Same amount, 25 euros. They'll get exclusive content and surfers send vids to them. Get the newsletter, notifications, things like that.
The third one is partners. It could be brands or any business that wants to contribute to our safety.
These things always take time to launch. It's evolved since 2014, really. With Maya and Alex, those were nearly worst case scenarios. It feels like this is the right time for this to be launched as Nazare becomes more and more popular.
SS: Oh for sure, we either do it or someone dies. That's it. It feels like a horrible race. The trigger point was Maya then Alex, all that safety and it still went wrong.
Think it goes someway to saying, 'we're not just a bunch of surfers' and puts processes first.
SS: Yeah, we just have to. There's no question about it.
At the heart of it, this is just about making Nazare safer – for people travelling to surf Nazare, what would be your advice?
AB: The advice I’d give is the same for any traveller arriving at any place. Be respectful for the surroundings you have arrived to, observe it before you intervene, understand who and what (people, wildlife, landscape) integrates a place and respect them, and come with a humble and respectable approach, attempt to learn and integrate, and all doors will slowly open.
MG: Reach out to the association and learn about the ways to be safer in Nazare. Get as much knowledge as they want from it for their benefit. There is power in knowledge and by having an association to share it with everyone athletes should be able to make better decisions about safety out there.