For the select few dragging around plums of the required size, surfing big Nazaré demands a militant approach. Relentless training and obsessive compulsive preparation is what keeps these guys in a league of their own.
Kicking off November in Portugal this swell was met head-on by Nazaré's seasoned veterans. Waves which should be bloody scary, regardless of any caveat, are these days considered training material at Portugal's most ridiculous beachbreak. Although there must be a Winter Session in there somewhere.
"It was really fun, clean, surfable, big Nazaré. Great for training and testing kit," explains Andrew Cotton who's earned a regular spot on any given day at Nazaré. "I couldn't ask for more to be honest. Everyone was charging. It was the busiest I've ever seen Nazaré on a big day and the vibes were good with everyone pushing each other. It's a gnarly place and all about team work, even when you're paddling you need support and safety. It was great to see."
An inside triangle landed right in front of me. Those mean insiders, they're smaller but packed with a lot more power. Rafael Tapia
Seasons spent studying the lineup, learning each other's habits and going through the motions when the inevitable shit hits the fan have earned these guys a confidence in situations beyond their control.
"Of course you get nervous but the more I surf out there the more confident I get I suppose," continues Cotty. "This wasn't one of those giant, giant days. Those days I get really nervous but it was still a day where if you got it wrong you could get a serious kicking or lose a ski. You've always got to be on the ball, things can go bad very quickly out there."
And to some extent, inevitably things will go wrong each session – a case of minimising the damage rather than absolute prevention, 'cos hey, there's no gain without pain right?
With that concept in mind, João De Macedo ditched the ski for a few under the power in his arms.
"He was the only guy paddling and he took the biggest wave on the head," says German big wave charger Sebastian Steudtner who managed to lose a ski during the same session. "Absolutely legendary. He actually paddled into another wave after he got pounded, so big respect for that."
Rafael Tapia – currently on a two month big wave vacation to Portugal – repeatedly found himself on the bombs. But like João, exempt of a visit to the taxman the Chilean was not.
"It was a little bigger than predicted I think, and super gnarly as it usually is here in Nazaré," Rafael explains. "I was trying a new board that I had tested only once before and did not like. For this swell I changed my stance and the waves were a lot bigger, so I asked Sebastian to run really fast on the ski to test out how it felt and right away I knew it was magic. So finally I could relax, even on my first one I kind of tried to pull in."
In dealing with a playing-field as expansive as Nazaré, riding the waves themselves tends not to be the biggest roadblock. Navigating your way through shifting tepee peaks the size of multi story buildings, now there's a challenge.
"I got the pick-up from David Langer and was all ready to go, but David turned off the ski by mistake and we got pounded," he says. "I didn't realise what had happened until David jumped off right before we got hit. I barely had time to dive under and the ski and I got mowed. It was like 30 waves on the head. Heavy but manageable."
He was the only guy paddling and he took the biggest wave on the head. Absolutely legendary. He actually paddled into another wave after he got pounded. Sebastian Steudtner
That's 30 giant waves at Nazaré. In what way can that be conceived as manageable?
"Once on the beach, I radioed my friend Rodrigo Koxa who came and picked me up so I got a couple with him," continues Rafael. "My board was so magic that I got one big left by the rocks and faded really deep. It was all going great but when I started the vertical descent there was a little chop on the face so I couldn't put the board on its rail safely to make the shoulder. I had to straighten out to make sure I cleared the lip. That was a heavy wipeout and I had to pull my vest. Usually when I surface, I deflate a little in case there's rescue but there was no chance. An inside triangle landed right in front of me. Those mean insiders, they're smaller but packed with a lot more power. It was so heavy that although I had a lot of inflation, I pulled it once more to make it up, so lucky that Koxa was there to get me right away. High adrenalin. Glad everyone is ok and everyone surfed well."
For just another session at Nazaré, regarded by its battle-scarred hellmen and women as opportunity for training and experiment, it bodes well for a season of big wave antics ahead. A showcase of deeply interwoven camaraderie among a troupe of era defining big wave surfers.
Magicseaweed head forecaster Ben Freeston breaks down the details of the swell:
"It's probably a testament to how much large winter swell the North Atlantic produces, and how well the canyon at Nazaré delivers that size to the beach, that we can talk about this as a very average swell. While the fetch was long, stretching at one point over 1500 miles from the Labrador Sea, it was also relatively weak. Delivering swell in the 10ft@15 seconds range, what worked to it's favour, aside relatively light local winds, was the direction.
"Here a straight west swell looks much more like large, typical, beachbreak conditions. Throw a bit of north in the angle (here about 10-15 degrees) and you start to see the canyon's refraction throw together the huge cross-up peaks that make the spot famous. It's a simple case of waves combining to make much larger waves – constructive interference – and it worked to create the solid conditions we saw on the day."