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Let's Go Surfin' Now (I ain't learnin' how)

We would have been happy to spend our brief holiday in Portugal exclusively in Porto, there being ample diversions (and Port wine) to hand. But, having checked the coastal surf report, a Quixotic quest was called for.

Perhaps you’ve heard of or seen the 100 Foot Wave on HBO? If not, check it out. It’s pretty hard not to binge it a little bit. Picture, if you will, an 8-story building. Pretty big right? Now picture it as a wall of water moving at 70-mph straight toward a rocky cliff. You’re on a surfboard in this scenario, trying to ride it at 60-mph and not get crushed and drowned in the whitewater or (worse) pummeled on the rocks like a rag doll. If you have this firmly in mind, then you can visualize the Praia do Norte in Nazaré, Portugal. It’s generally considered to be the biggest surfable break in the world. It lay “undiscovered” for a long time simply because no one even remotely considered going out there on a freaking surf board. But, eventually with the advent of jet ski assisted tow-in surfing, and the fact that nowadays there is literally nothing some people won't try if Red Bull is filming it, it was not only surfed but over the past decade has become an international big wave mecca.

Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal

Here’s another video that will give you some idea of how insane this place is for a surfer. Or just go to YouTube and waste 2 or 3 hours watching surf videos like I did.

Nazaré’s break is something we would have liked to check out even on a calm day. But as the surf report was predicting the first big swell of the season for the very day we were planning to go (Nov 5, 2023) – well, it was settled.

But... I didn’t want to cut my hotel buffet time short (see previous post). Then we had to schlep back to the airport on the metro, hit the cheapo rent-a-car place, do a lot of paperwork with tiny print, hand over 2000 Euros as a damage deposit, inspect the car for damage we didn't do, load up, and then do it all over again after the agent discovered she had accidentally given us a nice car vs. the one we had reserved. By the time we drove the 200 kilometers to Nazaré, it was already mid-afternoon. The town and the cliffs over the break were packed with fans. Thousands of people were milling about in what had a real music festival vibe, except without any bands.

Alas, the truly giant swells had occurred overnight. In the morning hours, some surfers went out, but we missed them. This is what the folks there that morning got to see. We missed it by that much. So sad.

By the time we arrived, the rock show atmosphere remained, but the surf had died down (this is all relative of course, it was still absolutely massive) and we were told that the big dogs of the surf world were actually already down in Morocco at some other giant swell (Oh, to be an international big wave surf god...). We hiked down to the beach and stared at the waves for an hour. It’s astonishing to see waves of that size up close. It is one of those very unnatural feelings in your gut to see something that should be relatively small be so utterly massive.

The next day we hiked up to the cliffs again and because the crowds had thinned out, we were able to view the surf from the fabled lighthouse. And this time, we did get to see a surfer go out. We watched mesmerized as a pair of jet skis worked with him or her. It’s difficult to describe how different surfing at Nazaré is from anywhere you’ve ever seen, or surfed, or watched on television. Everything is just so immense. In this case, the surfer would get a quick ride and then fall as the break caught up to them (this is probably not on them, conditions were far from ideal). Then they would be rag dolled in the washing machine for as much as 20 or 30 seconds before reappearing in the acres of boiling sea foam.

The jet skis would urgently patrol behind the break and scan the water for the lost surfer in their brightly colored wet suit. At that point, the surfboard was already washed up on the beach (some big wave surfers don’t use leashes because the violent tumbling after a fall is so extreme that it’s too dangerous). But the beach is not a hundred meters away from the surf zone, it’s a quarter of a mile away. To retrieve the board, you have to cross a terrifying minefield of boiling surf, undertow and new waves breaking in on top of you. A single board rescue operation we witnessed took the two jet skis and the surfer about 20 exhausting and excruciating minutes before they were safely back beyond the surf zone.

Why is the surf so big at Nazaré? Excellent question. The town sits at the head of a one of the world's biggest undersea canyons that is miles deep. The canyon functions as a ripple polarizer (that's a new term for me, but one I plan to incorporate into everyday situations going forward). Lots of science and wave dynamics, probably some quantum theory as well, but the bottom line is really big-ass waves.

According to Red Bull’s records for the 10 biggest waves ever surfed, 7 of the top 10 have been ridden at Nazaré (that's 70% if you haven't done the math yet). The official record for largest wave ever ridden is held by Sebastian Steudtner of Germany who rode a 26 meters (86 feet) monster (photo below). However, since wave measurement is still pretty much gueswork, and surf judging is more political than Olympic gymnastics judging, some say the real record is held by Lucas “Chumbo” Chianca who surfed a colossus estimated at 97 feet at Nazaré.

Still others would say the real record was a wave that I rode on the beach in San Diego during my one and only surf lesson with my instructor "Pete" who said I was a natural "Jake Kook" (which I think means I'm a total badass in surf talk). But again, this is all super political, so I'm not going to quibble with the powers that be about it.

Brah, like I super don't care. I'm just totally stoked to be catching huge bombs and pig doggin barrels on my gun. Just ask Pete.


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1 Comment

Julia Bunting
Julia Bunting
Nov 26, 2023

So hilarious Tom!

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