How a Portuguese fishing village tamed a 100ft wave
Nazare used to be a beach resort that emptied in winter. Now it's the epicentre of big wave surfing due to the skyscraper-sized waves generated by Europe's largest underwater canyon.It was a clear day in September in the Portuguese beach resort of Nazare. The sun sparkled off the cornflower blue ocean, which broke gently against the foot of the rugged cliffs of its North Beach. The 16th Century fort that sits atop the cliffs was dotted with a handful of tourists posing for pictures in front of its bright red lighthouse. It couldn't have been a greater contrast to the scene that would unfold in just a month's time. When the first swell of the big wave surfing season, which generally runs from October to March, rolls in, the road to the fort and the cliffs surrounding it fill with thousands of people. All of them are hoping to catch a glimpse of the world's best big wave surfers attempting their profession's ultimate feat: risking everything to ride the monstrous, skyscraper sized waves generated by Europe's largest underwater canyon. Nazare locals always knew their waves were big, although for generations they had no idea of their dimensions. On stormy winter days, they would drive to the lighthouse to soak up their power. The whole area would feel like it was shaking, the thunderous sound reaching the mountains. While local surfers would surf at Nazare up to a point, they knew when it was time to get out. They certainly wouldn't dream of tackling the monsters that came in with the big swells. In fact, until recently, surfing professionals didn't believe it was possible. In 2004, a group of big wave surfers came to recce the waves but aborted their mission after just 90 minutes. At that time, there was no funding in Nazare to buy the jet skis that are needed to tackle waves of this size, which are too big to paddle surf. Even if they had them, they thought, the prospect of falling in these conditions, with huge waves coming from all directions, was too dangerous. A year later, local surf club member Dino Casimiro contacted another surfer known for his daredevil nature, American Garrett McNamara, but he wouldn't even make the trip. In 2008, higher ups in the local government agreed for the first time that their best chance of extending the town's tourism season was by capitalising on the geological anomaly on their doorstep, which the Portuguese Hydrographic Institute had been studying since 1960. Nazare had been a popular summer holiday spot for the Portuguese for centuries, but once August 31st came around, it became a ghost town overnight. After two more years of begging for funding, the project started to gain momentum. McNamara landed in Portugal in 2010 and, in a few days, proved that with the right equipment Nazare's biggest waves could be surfed. Just a year later, McNamara broke the world record by riding a 78ft wave. The question was: was anyone else brave or crazy enough to try? Even by big wave surfing standards, the waves at Nazare are especially menacing. "A wave like Jaws in Hawaii is attractive to surfers because it's a perfect wave and there's less risk involved," said Portugal born big wave surfer Nic Von Rupp, who was part of the group of surfers who came to Nazare in 2004 when he was 14. "This is a monster, a freakshow. It's like looking up at a skyscraper or a mountain; the difference is it's coming in your direction and it's there to eat you alive."