A salty veil of mist lies in the air above the light- house of Nazaré. Already before sunrise the first spectators slowly appear on the cliffs. Sleepy people greet each other with a slight nod of the head and look for their place on the rocky cliffs next to the broken road that leads down to the lighthouse. The darkness and the spray in the air still hide why so many photographers, tourists and surf fans came so early to the steep cliffs above the small Portuguese fishing town.
Only the deafeningly loud thunder lets one guess in which extent the monster in the sea will show itself today.
The small coastal town of Nazaré is about an hour and a half’s drive north of the Portuguese capital Lisbon. The hydrographic nature of the seabed makes this surf spot unique: the world‘s biggest surfable waves are created here.
The quiet little town of about 10,000 inhabitants has been experiencing a paradigm shift since its discovery as a Big Wave spot by surf legend Garrett McNamara in 2008. The surf pioneer from the USA was the first to surf one of the gigantic waves on the beach of Praia do Norte, which attracted the attention of the international surf scene.
Not only in winter, when the big waves hit the Portuguese coast, Nazaré is now on the „bucket list“ of many surfers and tourists.
A 230 kilometre long and 5000 metre deep underwater canyon (Nazaré Canyon) off the coast allows the giant waves to almost reach the mainland from October to May.
The Nazaré Canyon is a sudden obstacle to the enormous kinetic energy of the sea, which is generated by great storms far out on the ocean. Various currents in turn cause the water masses to pile up into giant waves at this point.
The Nazaré lighthouse, which stands at the furthest end of a 110-meter-high rock cliff leading into the sea, is the city’s most famous landmark and the most popular place for spectators of the Big Wave spectacle. In photos it is often used as a supposed size reference to the waves. With a long focal length and the right perspective, the waves look as if they were rolling over the lighthouse. In fact, the west wind from the main- land pushes the waves right past the lighthouse so that they roll onto the beach „Praia do Norte“.
While the TV teams and photographers take their places on the coast, there is already a lot of activity in the fishing harbour.
29-year-old Nic von Rupp already arrived the day before from his home town Sintra, an hour and a half away, in order to be in the water as early as possible. Actually Nic is what most of us would typically understand by a Portuguese surf professional: He has medium-length hair, sun-tanned skin and an apparently unwavering calmness.
But now, so close to a „big day“, you can feel Nic‘s tension. His movements become faster, the conversations with the people around him become shorter. But it doesn‘t seem to be the fear of what to expect, but rather the worry that he might miss something of the upcoming spectacle. The effort to surf in Nazaré is enormous.
Nic has prepared himself all year long. Training in the water and on land were on the daily agenda. Therefore everything has to be perfect now. „Every time we put a jetski in the water, it costs us about 1000 euros“, says the Portuguese with German roots, while he screws new footstraps onto his specially made tow board. Choosing the right board is crucial for surfing big waves. In contrast to conventional boards, Nic‘s boards are extremely heavy at around 13 kilograms, so that they lie safely on the water surface even at high speeds.
Nic‘s warehouse is an old converted working hall of the local fishermen. The beton wall around the entrance gate is covered with black cardboard and sponsor logos. Inside Nic keeps his surf equipment and jetskis. There is a bathroom and a gallery with an old sofa on it.
While Nic prepares his equipment, he tries to find out who will be his team partner on the jetski today. Again and again prominent surfers, often followed by camera and social media teams, come to his hall for a chat.
Once everything is prepared, everything happens very quickly. Nic puts on his customized wetsuit. Padding on the front and back are to protect him from hard impacts on the water surface. Underneath he wears an inflatable vest, which he can fill with compressed air in case of emergency. „If I feel I am going to faint underwater, I pull the trigger and the thing brings me up to the surface,“ he explains as he pulls the hood of the wetsuit over his head.
Then Nic and his teampartner take the 250 HP jetski into the water, which is then quickly loaded with drinking water and snacks before departure.
Already before sunrise the surfers are in the line up and check the conditions. Those who can afford it have a spotter at the top of the cliffs between the TV teams announcing big approaching wave sets via radiocommunication. The wind, the right swell direction and many other factors influence the waves. If everything is right, which happens only a few times during the season, you can surf. The constantly changing weather makes predictions very difficult, with the result that many surfers from all over the world arrive only a few hours before the session.
WAVES ARE TRANSMITTED ENERGY.
WATER IS SIMPLY THE MEDIUM.
There are already lots of spectators when the first sunrays hit the cliffs. The light wind blows the fog away and gives a view of the monster that is roaring off the coast. A red-golden light is now refracted in the whitecaps of the huge waves. The sight of this spectacle is always awe-inspiring, even for the locals. There are few places where people can experience a force of nature of this magnitude. The sound of the breaking waves is unforgettable.
Due to their size, the masses of water appear sluggish and slow. But at the same time these water masses are frightening, when they pile up to a huge „tube“ that buries everything underneath, while in the background dark shadows on the water already announce the next approaching set.
Long grey-brown traces on the beach of Paria do Norte are evidence of the force with which the waves are pressed onto the sandbanks. No surfers have died in Nazaré yet, the mayor of the city emphasises in an interview with international media representatives, but every year, onlookers are drawn into the sea by the enormous masses of water. „When the waves are small, people don‘t leave the safe path on the beach. But when the waves are big, they want to take a photo up close,“ reports one of the local lifeguards.
As if to prove this statement, a few seconds later a whitewater wave washes over the entire beach. The lifeguards, doctors and paramedics, positioned there for emergencies, get to safety with their beach buggies and tractors.
As soon as the sun is high enough above the cliffs, the show begins. The spotter notifies the jetski- teams in the water as soon as a larger set can be seen on the horizon. The surfers start to pull themselves into position with long dews on their jetskis. Above a certain wave size, the classic paddle-in surfing is no longer possible, so that the surfers have to be brought into the wave at
a basic speed. In the best case the driver brings his surfer directly to the highest point of the wave, just before it starts to break.
From this point on the surfers are on their own. The heavy boards make sure that they don‘t lose grip during this high speed. The goal is to ride the biggest possible wave cleanly from top to bottom and over the entire length.
Almost every surfer has his own video-team on the beach to capture the session for the surfing community. The footage is usually edited the same evening and made available to the public via Youtube and Instagram. Without the worldwide interest, there would probably be very few surfers out there. In the meantime, many sponsors have discovered the big wave sport as a marketing platform and thus made the development financially possible in the first place.
The spectators follow the events on the sea spellbound. The scene is reminiscent of a epic battle in which brave seamen fight against an overpowering monster – Sound effects included.
The audience is thrilled. When a particularly big wave is surfed to the end, euphoric applause and loud shouts break out on the cliffs, but the teams on the sea do not hear them. When a surfer falls and is buried under the masses of water, the audience holds its breath as if it were under water itself. The spotter does not always succeed in guiding the jetskis to the helpless surfers floating in the water before the following waves roll over them again.
Around noon the wind is very strong and the waves seem unpredictable. On three peaks they pile up again and again in different shapes. Partly the spray hides the view of the event. There are about ten teams on the waves. In the air above the water surface, the seasmell mixes with exhaust fumes of the jetskis. Every 16 seconds a curling wall of water lifts the jetskis up into the air.
Nic stays calm. He and his team partner know exactly when a wave reaches the point where it breaks. Then suddenly a short instruction comes over the radiocommunication. Nic lets himself slide into the water and puts on the footstraps of the board. His team partner accelerates and Nic lifts himself out of the water, pulled by the rope on the jetski. They make two more big circles until the wave is there. Nic‘s partner takes him straight to the top of the piling up mountain until Nic lets go of the rope.
While Nic is riding down the wave, his partner brings himself to the safe side of the wave at the last second. Shortly thereafter, Nic appears two hundred meters further on his board on the back of the outgoing wave.
With a broad grin he pulls himself onto the rescue sled, which is attached to the jetski, before his team partner takes him out of the danger zone. Towards evening the wind dies down again and the sun shines through the wave crests from behind, so that only the outlines of the surfers can be seen. Only when the sun is no longer visible on the horizon, the ranks at the lighthouse clear up and the jetskis return to the harbour in semi-darkness.
After the jetskis have been parked and the wet- suits were hung out to dry, the surf-teams meet in a small restaurant called „Maria do Mar“ near the Nazaré beach promenade.
At a big table they talk about the session in many languages and check the best waves on the camera of the film crew. Before everyone leaves the restaurant again, the owner quickly takes a selfie with one of the surf pros for her collection.
It is still early in the evening, but the surfers hurry to their accommodation to get enough sleep. Because the following morning the next session is already coming up.