Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world…
We finally got to see the Big Wave Tow-In Surfing Competition in Nazaré. I’m going to try my best to not over-sell this experience, but be forewarned, I’m going to fail miserably. It was AMAZING!!!! Ever since I learned about it, I have wanted to see it. We missed it last year because I wasn’t keyed into the right sources to learn when it would take place. There is typically only about a 48-hour notice prior to the event. The reason? It all depends on the wave forecast. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start by helping you understand what this is and why it’s such a big deal. And, even if surfing isn’t your thing, I guarantee you will find it fascinating.
So, what the heck is “tow” surfing? Surfers usually paddle out to catch waves, however, the waves in Nazaré are so big there is no way someone can paddle beyond the breaking waves. They need to be towed out by a jet ski, after which the jet ski becomes a critical resource to get the surfer on to the wave and then to pick them up afterwards. The jet skis become even more crucial if the surfer gets into trouble and needs to be rescued. I have links embedded in this post with video of this happening. And, there are times when the jet ski itself gets into trouble and ends up being flipped – not a great situation.
So, you might be thinking “big waves,” hmmm, how big do they get? This is the mind-blowing part. Nazaré produces some of the biggest waves in the world. The largest wave ever surfed was in Nazare on November 8, 2017. That wave measured 24.4m (80 feet). Oh, and just in case you were wondering, you pronounce Nazaré, naa-zah-ray.
There is a belief, that at some point, someone is going to surf a 100 foot wave. [Mind officially blown.] HBO has a series called The 100 Foot Wave. If you have access to HBO, I highly recommend watching it. It provides the history on how this surfing phenomenon and annual event came to be. As a matter of fact HBO was there filming this year too. I encourage you to stop here and click on that link I just shared and watch the two minute trailer. It will help give you some understanding of what this is all about.
OK…why are the waves so big in Nazaré? And, how is that they don’t wipe the town of Nazaré right off the face of the map when they hit land? Good question! It has to do with the topography of the ocean floor just off the coastline. I’ve embedded a map below to show you where Nazaré is located. The point marked on the map is where the famous lighthouse is situated. The surfing competition happens right there and on the beach to the north.
There is a 25-mile long, 3-mile deep canyon situated just off the point where the lighthouse is located. That canyon plays an integral part in the mechanics of how these waves are generated. Watch this short video that explains how it happens.
Now that you have a good understanding of how the waves are formed you can see why they are the focus of the world tow surfing competition. This annual event, hosted by the World Surf League (WSL), took place this past Monday, December 13. BIG WAVE season in Nazaré takes place between September and March each year. Swells in the Atlantic ocean are monitored constantly and updated on this website. Be sure to to check it out. When the WSL determines the conditions are optimal to create massive waves, they announce the event 48 hours in advance. The last couple of years it has taken place in mid-November. I was on edge for weeks fearing that it would be the same this year because we were going to be in Madeira celebrating my birthday (Nov 13) at that time. As it turns out, I didn’t have anything to stress over. The big wave action didn’t happen until a month later.
I had been monitoring my social media sources daily so that I wouldn’t miss the announcement. Then, the word came! It was going to take place on Sunday, December 12th with the competition getting underway at 8:30AM. We reached out to our good friends, Mark and Juliana, and asked them if they wanted to join us. They did. We all agreed to get on the road early and Won, Sweet Pea and I picked them up at 7AM Sunday morning for the 2-hour drive up to Nazaré.
The first hour of the drive was really pleasant. It was a beautiful morning and the countryside was pretty to look at as we made our way north. We could see mist sitting in the glens and valleys in the distance. It was so picturesque. Then, wham! That mist was right in front of us. Groan…we hit fog. Won slowed down as visibility lessened. The further we drove, the more dense the fog became. We were hoping that by the time we got to the coastline it would dissipate. Unfortunately, it was even thicker once we got to Nazaré! Undeterred and perennially hopeful, we pressed on. Police had been positioned to prevent people from driving into the little town, but because we got there at 9AM we were able to find parking just outside the old town. It was about a 20 minute walk to get to the entry gate of the competition. Everyone’s vaccine status was being checked before being allowed to pass through the gate.
As we made our way toward the cliffs, the fog was so thick we could barely see more than 50 yards in front of us. We found a spot to sit down and hoped that, once the fog lifted, we’d be able to see something (none of us had been there before so we had no idea if that location was good or bad). We kept checking our weather apps constantly. They promised it would clear up by 10AM, then 10:30, then 11AM, then 11:30.
THREE. HOURS. LATER. it was still insanely foggy.
Won and Mark went in search of warm food. Juliana, Sweet Pea and I stayed put to ensure our spot wouldn’t be taken. There were thousands of people there. We were listening to updates being shared on loud speakers and everyone was hoping for the best, but the fog was stubbornly persistent.
Won messaged me that the generators had gone out for the food trucks, which meant there was no warm food. I looked at Juliana and said, “We’re done. If Won can’t find warm food, it’s all over.” There was no way I was going to convince him to stay; hot mint tea and a few small energy bars just wasn’t going cut it. We begrudgingly all trudged back to the car and drove the two hours back home. What a disappointment!! In hindsight though, it was a good thing we abandoned ship when we did. They officially canceled the event at 2:30PM that afternoon and rescheduled it for the next day when the weather promised to be better.
We all talked about whether or not to go back. I was still struggling with that crappy case of bronchitis and Mark had work to do (he’s an editor for the NY Times Magazine and has deadlines to meet). Juliana didn’t feel comfortable leaving Mark at home so they decided to pass. We totally understood.
On Monday morning, the first thing Won and I did was check our weather apps. It looked very promising, but our faith in meteorology had been severely shaken. Rather than risk another foggy day we didn’t leave until we knew it was clear (we checked the live webcams at the site) and had read that the event had gotten underway at 8:30AM. We hit the road at 9AM. Naturally, the crowds were thinner on Monday. This allowed Won to drive into the old town to drop me off (he’s so thoughtful and considerate), but parking was nonexistent. He ended up parking the car in the same place as the day before and walked back to meet up with me.
After being dropped off, Sweet Pea and I headed off toward the cliffs. What a difference a day makes!!! The sky was clear and the temps were comfortable. I had dressed in layers just in case, and it’s a good thing I did. About an hour later I had stripped down to my t-shirt.
For those with inquiring minds, according to the Legend of Nazaré, the town derives its name from a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, brought from Nazareth in the Holy Land, to a monastery near the city of Mérida, Spain, by a monk in the 4th century. The statue was brought to its current location in 711 by another monk, Romano, accompanied by Roderic, the last Visigoth king of today’s Portugal. After their arrival at the seaside they decided to become hermits. Romano lived and died in a small natural grotto, on top of a cliff above the sea. After his death and according to his wishes, the king buried him in the grotto. Roderic left the statue of the Black Madonna in the grotto on an altar.
The town has some interesting landmarks including the 14th century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazaré church and the Ermida da Memória / Capela de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré, a memorial shrine dedicated to the hermits who brought the statue of the Virgin Mary from Nazareth.
Over the course of the 20th century, Nazaré has progressively evolved from a fishing village to a point of interest for Portuguese and international tourists. The big wave surfing competition and its long sandy beaches, considered by some to be among the best in Portugal, have become big draws.
As Sweet Pea and I made our way through the town, we saw plenty of places to shop and took note that the food trucks were back in action.
I was gob smacked at the views of the south beach! The day before was so socked in, I had no idea it was even there.
Sweet Pea and I passed through the vaccination check point and headed down toward the cliffs to find a spot and wait for Won. My first view of the north beach was breathtaking!
The loud speakers were providing running commentary (in Portuguese and English) on what was happening at any given time. They kept the crowds informed on which team was in the lead, when each heat was beginning, how much time was left in each heat, who was surfing, and how the judges were scoring each ride.
There were nine 2-person teams competing during six 50-minute heats. The two-person teams are comprised of competitive surfers. One surfer drives the jet ski and the other surfs. They switch these roles throughout the day so both compete in the competition.
One team that day was 100% Portuguese (João de Macedo and António Silva). Another Portuguese, Nic von Rupp, was paired with Brazilian Pedro Scooby. Also competing that day were Brazilians Rodrigo Koxa and Maya Gabeira, holders of world records for the biggest waves surfed in Nazaré. They were paired up respectively with Eric Rebiere (France) and Sebastian Steudtner (Germany). There were also two other women competing in addition to Maya, Justine Dupont (France) and Michelle des Bouillons (Brazil). To see a full list of the competitors, click here.
We got settled and began to watch the action. This was the view from our vantage point.
We were quite close to the lighthouse and the VIP tent, which made it a little easier for Won to find us. Of course, only official media, judges and VIPs were allowed to be on the lighthouse structure and in the reception tent. The event was free to watch.
I can’t explain how big these waves are. It’s one of those things you might just have to experience in person, but here’s a quick video that will hopefully give you a sense of what it was like to be there. Toward the end of the video you will see two jet skis coming to get a surfer who had been caught in the whitewash. The jet skis are equipped with a board attached to the back that the surfers grab on to very quickly to get towed away from the waves and wave turbulence. As mentioned earlier, sometimes the jet ski can’t get away fast enough, or attempts to crest a wave at the wrong angle causes the jet ski to flip. That is why there are always two jet skis that become a part of any surfer rescue/pick up attempt. There are also people with binoculars stationed on the cliffs, on top of the lighthouse, and on the beach with communication devices to help guide the jet ski drivers to where the surfers are located. Safety is paramount and everyone takes this event very seriously.
The waves that day were averaging 12m to 15.25m high (40′ to 50′). Think about being towed to the top of a 5-story building, then sliding down the side and hoping it doesn’t land on top of you as it collapses. It’s insane.
Each surfer is equipped with not only a wet suit (the average water temp in December is about 16.2C or 61.2F), but also have several CO2 cannisters built into their wetsuits that they can instantly activate in order to get back to the surface quickly. The waves are so big they can easily hold a person down, incapacitate, or disorient them so these cannisters are life-saving devices. Their wetsuits also have multiple layers of chest, neck, and back padding to mitigate the force of the impacts they are experiencing (a surfer broke his back last year).
Immediately in front and to the sides of the lighthouse are large rock formations that jut up and out of the ocean. They call this area the “death zone.” If a surfer gets caught here they need to find a way to get themselves out of the water, typically by climbing up the face of the cliff, because a jet ski can’t get in there to rescue them. To say this sport is dangerous is an understatement. The following is a series of shots to show how deceptive a wave can be. It looks like it’s going to head toward the beach which is to the right, but breaks left, over those rock outcroppings, aka the Death Zone.
Won and I decided to explore the cliffs and see if there were better spots to view the action. We plan to come back and see it again next year, so some reconnaissance was in order. We popped Sweet Pea into her backpack and off we went. She creates quite a sensation whenever we do this. People laugh, point, and take pictures of her. We just smile. We find it is safer and easier to carry her, especially when we are scaling muddy, uneven ground. Of course, we would take her out frequently to stretch her legs, sniff around and do her business. She even played with an adorable 5-month old Australian Shepherd (three times her size) who kept rolling on his back in an effort to get Sweet Pea to play. She responded by hopping around like a gazelle. 🙄
As we wandered around, we saw loads of very impressive photographic equipment. I was beginning to feel slightly inadequate and silly with my Google Pixel 3.
Not surprisingly, the crowds were much thinner on Monday, but there were still a lot of people there. A weekday combined with the pandemic is most likely the culprit. I have read that it can draw up to 80,000 people! We learned a lot by walking around. Even though we brought something we could sit on the ground with and two blankets, our next purchase is going to be two lightweight camping chairs. The event lasts all day so you want to be comfortable.
Even when I used the zoom feature on my phone, it’s shocking to see how tiny the surfers are on these waves. Can you imagine a wave two or three times that big??? 😲
Won was good enough to capture and share this video of a surfer catching and successfully surfing one of the waves.
While we were out reconnoitering, and to Won’s displeasure and clear disapproval, I went beyond a clearly marked area that I should not have been in so I could get a better view and grab a few good shots. Won caught me on camera. Uh oh. In my defense, it was worth it! Afterwards, I convinced Won to go beyond the ropes and take a look too, which he did. I’m such a bad influence. As you can see, we weren’t the only ones. Not that that is an excuse, but still…
Our amateur efforts to capture this event pales in comparison to the professionals. Please click here and see a compilation of highlights from the day. The angles and close ups provided in this video are way better than anything we could get. It will get your heart pumping for sure! It also includes a clip of when Kai Lenny loses it on one of his rides and how he and his jet ski driver get toppled in the whitewash. Yikes!! Don’t skip it.
The fact that we got to see this event is a special Christmas present. I loved every minute of it. Was it the best decision to go given the fact that I wasn’t 100% healthy? Maybe not, but I’m still glad we went. I can’t wait to see it again!! Hopefully, we’ll be there when someone catches that elusive 100 foot wave. And, if they do, I promise to tell you all about it!
Until next time, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch. Happy holidays!!
From Portugal with love,