Going toe-to-toe with Nazare, home of the world's biggest wave, is no joke. Home of the world's biggest wave, those wipeouts will shake you to your core – try and push you to the death zone on the rocks that protrude under the cliffs beneath the lookout, or send you kilometres up the beach. If you make one though, it is the perpetual drop, a warp-speed blitz to the channel, all while avoiding being chewed up and hurled out.
Surfing if for the first time then is a whirlwind of emotions, as you'd expect. Heck, even some of the most experienced big wave addicts still get the heebee jeebees when all that grunt and power runs to shore.
During this last run of sizey swell though, Californian Nate Zoller; 16-year-old Scottish surfer Ben Larg and England's Rob Fowlie all went out there for the first time. Each with different experiences, and each with a couple of memories they'll never forget. Rob even paddled from the harbour...
Here's how it went down.
Day one at Nazare, how were the nerves?
We showed up to the harbour a little late so there wasn’t much time to get nervous. We saw Twiggy and he was calling it proper 30 foot sets out there, and he even admitted to being a little nervous before the session, which made me a bit worried. At this point I had never even seen the lineup in person, so I took the no look approach to handling the nerves.
How'd you get out there? Ski?
I was fortunate enough to be able to follow Nic out from the harbour on another one of his Jetski’s with a new friend, 16-year-old Scottish surfer Ben Larg. It was both of our first days at Nazare so once we got into the lineup we spent a few hours watching the action unfold around us. Big mountains of water coming from all sides, it was surreal to say the least.
OK, so you're out there, it's going off, when do you decide 'it's time to surf?'
After a few hours on the ski, and with Nic taking a water break, I asked if I could paddle around on his 10’5” Pyzel just to feel it out.
I wasn’t planning on catching a wave, at least not right away. But five minutes into being in the water a big set appeared on the horizon. I started paddling out to not get caught inside and Nic yelled from the ski, “Stay, stay!” I passed up the first wave to see the second one looking like it was going to crest. Nic said, “Go! Go!!” and without much time to think I put my head down and paddled into the right.
It felt like I was dropping into it forever. I had a split second when I started to bottom turn where I could have lost it on the bumps, for sure the most critical position I had ever put myself in
It felt like I was dropping into it forever. I had a split second when I started to bottom turn where I could have lost it on the bumps, for sure the most critical position I had ever put myself in, if I would have fallen off the bottom it wouldn’t have been good. I was stoked on how the board handled the bump, especially since it was my first time riding a board and wave that size.
And how many times have you been out at Nazare now, one session, two? Does the headspace get better with each time?
We stayed in Nazare for four days and were out in the lineup most of those days. Between paddling and tow, I probably had about five different sessions out there.
Each time was mind-blowing. It’s an interesting place where it seems like the more you see the more gnarly it feels. I was paddling without a leash the last day and had to get into the beach twice and both times were insane.
I have never experienced shorebreak with that much water moving from all angles. The headspace gets better with each session, but the fear doesn’t go away. Everyone knows what these waves can do, and I think that’s what makes successfully riding them so rewarding.
Hey Ben! You may just be the first ever Scottish surfer at Nazare, what brought you there?
I’ve always wanted to surf Nazare it was a goal of mine, after Nic came to Scotland, he Invited me out to stay with him in Portugal to go and surf there, so I hopped on a plane from Scotland and headed out. To be honest, I was actually super calm leading up to it, I have a good mindset for surfing big waves, I think.
But when we where out there and about to catch my first waves, I was definitely a bit nervous. After the first one I calmed down a bit.
And you were with Nate and Nic too, we've heard some people paddled from the harbour but that sounds crazy...
Paddling from the harbour looks like a mission, I saw a couple guys do it [laughs].
How was the first wave?
I think my first one was a right that I got towd into. I was told the rights were a bit more dangerous but I felt more comfortable on my forehand for the first wave, when I got on it it felt like going down a mountain it was pretty cool, really quick and the chop was massive, but I managed to ride out of it which was good.
I was probably watching for about 30 minutes before Nic asked if I wanted to take the rope, was great to watch him for a bit and see what he was doing, pretty insane.
How does Nazare stack up to back home in Scotland?
Nazare is a completely different wave from anything I’ve ever surfed, not like our cold water dry reef slabs back home. Much bigger, heavier [laughs].
Everyone was complaining that Portugal was freezing, they all had hooded suits and boots on but I had a 4mm suit and jumped in the water I thought it was roasting!
And what board was your weapon of choice?
I was riding one of Nic's Pyzel tow boards which was 9kg I think and when I was paddling, I rode a 10'5” Pyzel Padillac. We went out from Friday 'til Tuesday so it was five days in the water.
Overall Nazare impressions? And how did it compare to surfing Cave?
I’m not gonna lie, Nazare is crazy and felt like you could drown there but Cave... that thing was almost unsurfable it was that shallow, it was crazy. I think Cave was probably more dangerous, Nic said they had never had a session there without someone ending up in hospital.
Rob! You've been going hard at home in England this season already, what brings you to the fine shores of Nazare?
Well, I actually came here for the first time in December, last year. Drove down from home, just to watch it. Decided to paddle from the beach at Praia do Norte. Got a violent beating, pulled my vest, sent a kilometre up the beach, back to shore. I decided I would learn to visualise the violence of it all and train as hard as I could to simulate the same experience.
How was that whole experience?
I'd rented an old type 25 VW camper van and made my way down to Nazare. So had come too far not to give it a go.
I saw lines on the horizon and the jet skis scrambling, I turned and pushed hard to get myself directly in the way to make my attempt. As I dug deep I could feel the updraft pushing me back as I clawed back trying to catch it but I was unsuccessful and blown off the back. As I turned around I could see the biggest wave of my life (at that time) begin to pitch and break directly in front of me. I composed myself and awaited one of the biggest impacts I have ever encountered.
My thought as I was swallowed up was the violence of it all; I could feel my vest inflating from the impact then deflate as I was sucked into the canyon.
And yet we god back! How'd it go this time around?
For that last swell, I found myself paddling around the headland in the dark at first light.
I found myself paddling around the headland in the dark to catch the first light, Once the light rose enough I would make my way around the headland from the safety of the bay towards where the set waves were breaking.
I was greeted with 20-to-30ft waves and normally after an hour or two of the sun rising it would become like a swarming ants nest of tow surfing and impossible to attempt to paddle in safely, I’m always thankful for the jet ski support when caught on the inside but would quite often find myself there because of loosing priority to someone towing in from afar.
Luckily towards the end of the week, I noticed some of the best big wave paddlers in the world turning up for what was some of the best conditions I have ever seen at praia do Norte. It was deemed a paddle session priority. It was an incredible experience. Truly humbling. I pushed my mind, body and soul to its absolute limits to prepare for the rawest and purest feeling.
How'd that first wave feel?
It was a massive right hander that ran from the third peak all the way along to the inside of the first peak. I distinctly remember catching the rail successfully from a late air drop take off and travelling at warp speed.
The whole wave walled up linking together all three peaks. Hands down the fastest I have ever been on foam and fibre glass. I rode the beast the whole way in not looking back once at it, only forward towards the golden sand and a warm coffee.