Just over an hour drive north from where I live, the biggest waves in the world are breaking. The quint fishing town of Nazaré has been put on the surfing world’s map as the capital of big wave surfing in the recent years. The world record of the biggest wave ever surfed, by the Hawaiian Garret McNamara, is set in Nazaré. Since then many brave men and women have braced the giant waves on their surfboards.
Mid-October the rumors started. It looked like there was a chance for the storm Epsilon to merge with another depression on its way east from the United States. And that would send the swell of the Century towards western Europe, so also to Nazaré. The big wave surfing world started buzzing and despite the Corona-craziness and travel restrictions most of the big wave surfers started to prepare their journey to Portugal. This was the swell to set the new world records if it would deliver like the forecast said was possible.
Nazaré in January of 2018, would it be better now?
Closer to the date it seemed that what everybody was hoping for was going to happen. Epsilon merged with the depression in front of Greenland and the swell was on its way! The biggest day was expected to be on Thursday 29th of October. The conditions looked historical, 7-meter clean, long distance swell combined with non-existing winds. Day like this promised to go down in history of big wave surfing and oh boy, it also did!
I started my trip to Nazaré in the dark of the early hours of morning, to be there when the first waves would ridden at dawn and also to avoid crowds (it was said to be historically busy with crowds too, despite the Corona). I was on time for the waves and the lineup was swarming with jet skis and surfers when I arrived. The likes of Garret McNamara, Lucas Chianca, Carlos Burle, Justine Dupont, Maya Gabeira and Kai Lenny were all there, ready to ride the giant waves rolling in from the Atlantic.
It is such an impressive sight to see and the setting in Nazaré is very unique. Due to the geographical formation of the sea bottom there, the waves break 2-3 times bigger than anywhere else on the coast. But you also get to be very close to the action. When standing next to the iconic Farrol de Nazaré lighthouse, you can literally feel the ground tremble from the waves crashing on the cliffs under you. I scouted a spot to stand on bit higher above the lighthouse so that I would get the best angle to the surfers on the waves.
The iconic Farrol de Nazaré with big wave surfers charging on the background
The conditions were picture perfect and the big wave surfers were riding some epic waves. Until for an hour or so, when a thick fog rolled in and completely took the visibility away. So taking pictures was basically impossible. But also due to safety reasons none of the surfers took off on waves. The big wave surfers work in teams, each surfer has a jetski with a driver to tow them in the waves. Each team also has a spotter on cliff in case the surfer wipes out on the wave. The spotter will tell via walkie-talkie the ski driver where to look for the surfer because in the massive waves it is very hard for the driver to see the surfer in the water. But this mist also took their visibility away, so it was a break for everybody for a while.
The perspective. Nazaré 2020
Luckily after half an hour or so the mist drifted away and the visibility was awesome. And directly also the action continued with massive sets of waves over 20 meters high rolling in. I kept my lens focused and my camera shooting every time a big wave surfer would take off on a wave. And managed to get some epic shots. The Canon EF L 100-400mm mk II lens was perfect to be able to come close to the action but also have bit wider shots where the perspective of the waves is better visible. Unfortunately after some hours the crowds grew too big wand the national police had to intervene and spread the everybody. By that time, I was already quite happy with the photos I had and since the swell was expected to drop throughout the day, started to head back home to edit and get some footage out.
It was a day of big wave surfing never to forget and the photos definitely tell the story!
Mason Hyce Barnes on one of the bombs of the day