Nazare, Portugal was hardly on anyone’s radar back in 1991 when Johnny Utah (That’s Keanu, not Luke Bracey) asked a question that consistently pops up among surfers chasing the biggest waves on Earth.

What’s the biggest?”, he asks, in the original Point Break.

Some names are mentioned. Waimea in Hawaii gets thrown into the conversation, before Bodhi (That’s Patrick Swayze, folks) predicts Bells Beach, in Australia, will be site to the biggest waves on the planet during the ’50 Year Storm’ – kind of a precursor to the Ozaki 8.

Oh how wrong they were…

A Beautiful Beast Since 2011

Nazare has always had a rather big secret. It just wasn’t really well-known until about 2011, when American surfer Garrett McNamara set a then-record here for the biggest wave surfed at 78 feet high.

Ask pretty much any surfer on Earth, or spend 5 minutes watching YouTube big wave surfing videos, and you’ll quickly see why Nazare now gets that rather imposing title.

It’s the biggest, heaviest, and most dangerous ride on the planet, with waves that can top 100 feet. And while Shipstern, Teahupoo and Cortes Bank are all contenders, Nazare is clearly the biggest and baddest dude on a very rough block.

You don’t want to get on Nazare’s bad side.

Why Nazare Makes Monsters

Nazare has always been known as a place of death. Locals use to fear the waves here because, well, they’re monsters.

In 2012, a 5 year-old girl and her grandfather were killed by a rogue wave at Nazare as they walked along Selgado Beach.

Granted, there are other big wave surfing spots. Yet the waves are bigger at Nazare. Why is that? Well, it’s a matter of geography. Nazare is part of a large underwater canyon called the Nazare Canyon – go figure.

With a depth of at least 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) and at roughly 230km (140 Miles) long, it’s believed to be the biggest canyon in Europe.

That’s when Nature takes over. Winter storms in the North Atlantic push massive swells to the European Coast. Normally, swells like this would ease off near shore as the depth gets shallow.

But at Nazare, the submarine canyon channels that energy into a very deep, focussed swell. Consider the Grand Canyon’s greatest depth is just 6,000 feet. Channel an Atlantic Storm in a narrow chasm that’s 16,000 feet deep and you begin to see why Nazare waves are the biggest on Earth.

Where Records Are Broken

As of 2019, the biggest verified waves ever surfed have all been at Nazare. This is an ongoing debate, as there are different ways to measure wave size, and whether the surfer rides it out. The biggest waves ever surfed (Nazare or otherwise), include:

2011 – American Garrett McNamara (GMac)surfs a verified 78 foot wave. This record stands for 7 years as the biggest wave ever surfed.

2013 – GMac surfs another believed 100 foot wave, but this is not confirmed.

2013 – Brazilian surfer Carlos Burle surfs an ‘estimated’ 100 footer.

2017 – On November 8, Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa surfs a verified 80 foot wave at Nazare. This sets a new record for the biggest verified wave ever surfed as of this writing – not German Sebastian Steudtner as was originally reported.

6 Big Wave Surfers You’ll See At Nazare

Nazare is a different beast. For that reason, it attracts different surfers. You generally won’t find famous surfers like Kelly Slater or Mick Fanning at Nazare. Instead, you’ll find surfers that specialize in big wave surfing, who specialize in waves at least 20 feet high. Famous Nazare surfers include:

Andrew Cotton – A British surfer who cut his teeth here and broke his back at Nazare riding a 60 foot wave. Ouch!

Sebastian Steudtner – A German rider who regularly surfs Nazare monsters. He was mistakenly attributed to Koxa’s current world record wave back in 2017. The whole mix up distracted from the fact that Steudtner is a beast and very accomplished big wave surfer in his own right.

Rodrigo Koxa – The current record holder.

Maya Gabeira – A female Brazilian big wave surfer who rode a verified 68 foot wave in January 2018 – and who almost drowned their 5 years earlier.

Francisco Porcella – Not a record holder, but Italian-American surfer Francisco Porcella rode an absolutely beautiful wave at Nazare in February 2017. He’s also living proof that when life knocks you over, fall on your ass and ride it like a boss.

Garrett McNamara – GMac arguably put Nazare on the map back in 2011 with his-then record breaking 78 foot wave. No longer the record holder, but definitely belongs in the Nazare Hall of Fame as its founding member.

Look at these surfers and you’ll notice an interesting pattern. Not one of them is under 30. GMac is 51 and so is Carlos Burle. Andrew Cotton is pushing 40. Any ideas why this happens? In a word: experience. You don’t surf Nazare without decades of experience as a big wave surfer – and without accepting that, catch the wrong wave, it might be the end of you.

I Wanna Surf Nazare!

I’d love to have a Ferrari. But for a variety of reasons, it’s not gonna happen.

Nazare is the biggest, baddest and hardest ride on the planet. It’s the end of the line – a place where experienced big wave surfers with a slight death wish are ‘towed out’ on a jet ski to ask the Universe, politely, if the Ocean Gods will smile on them.

You respect Nazare. When it says ‘jump’, you fucking leap. Get on its bad side and it may break your back – or worse. If it can happen to Andrew Cotton, you get the idea.

Walk Before You Run

Nazare is a long-term goal. Start with the basics of surfing. Get out as much as possible and hone your craft. As you get better, and with consistency, you can gradually work your way up to more difficult spots.

Still, be realistic. Probably 20 of the world’s millions of surfers are good enough to try Nazare. To be honest, it’s pretty much out of everyone’s league.

A better approach to learn more about this special place is to stay in the loop. Check in with Quicksilver and the World Surf League – both of which hold big wave surfing tournaments here in winter, when the swells tend to be at their biggest.

Look, but don’t touch. That seems to be the best way to take in and appreciate Nazare, Portugal: the beautiful beast of big wave surfing.

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