You ready?” shouts Andrew Cotton, raising his voice over the sound of the Atlantic Ocean slapping our jet ski. “Ready!” I yell back, my voice dissolved instantly by the wind as it whips towards Nazaré’s jagged headland. He twists the accelerator and we lunge forward, carving through the surf before scaling a 3m wave with precision. Suddenly, we’re riding the crest sideways, like a motorbike on a high wire. “This is when the surfer lets go of the rope!” he shouts, his voice muffled by spray.
These are the biggest, most powerful waves I’ve ever seen, but they’re tranquil by the standards of Nazaré, a Portuguese coastal town famed for its “big wave” surfing culture. Due to the effect of a gargantuan undersea canyon located less than 2km from the shore – around 5km deep at its lowest point; 3km deeper than the Grand Canyon – its waves reach more than 10 storys high in peak season. However, Nazaré’s legendary status among surfers is a relatively recent phenomenon. Within a single decade, this stretch of coast has established itself as one of the sport’s most formidable spots.
The otherwise sleepy seaside town has a handful of daredevil surfers to thank for that, including Cotton. Back in 2011, Cotton towed Garrett McNamara into a 24m wave that secured the American surfer’s place in the history books. Six years later, he broke his back in a wipeout so devastating that it was described as a “liquid catapult into space” by the
World Surf League. Despite the wipeout, no one knows this coastline better than Cotton – which is a relief, since he is now coaching me to master the fundamentals of big wave surfing. And here’s the kicker: I’ve only got 48 hours.
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Two weeks earlier, I’d barely seen a surfboard, let alone ridden one. With the intention of nailing the basics, I went to the Wave, an artificial wave pool in Bristol. The inland lagoon creates up to 1,000 waves an hour that range in height from 50cm to 2m. Stepping out in my wetsuit, I scanned the other surfers and didn’t feel too out of place. My ego bubbled. “I’m fairly fit,” I thought. “This’ll be easy…” Seconds later, I felt a tap on my shoulder from a man with an embarrassed look on his face. “Sorry, someone should tell you,” he said. “You’ve got your wetsuit on backwards.”
After a wrestle with my rubber suit and a 30-minute masterclass in board basics, I was unleashed on the cove to practice catching (and riding, ideally) the machine-generated waves. It was hard, like learning to ride a bike on horseback while being waterboarded. I remembered to bend my knees, but my feet would be off-centre. Or I’d nail my positioning, only to forget to look forward, lose balance and plummet into the surf. After an hour, I emerged from the water, frozen with doubt as the gravity of the challenge settled in. If I can’t handle artificial surf in south-west England, how was I going to overcome the colossal swells of Nazaré?
Coming Up for Air
Big-wave surfing is a unique sport in many ways, but the most striking thing about it is that it’s impossible to simulate in training. Unpredictable factors such as wind, tides and local weather mean you can’t even guarantee the quality of the surf from one week to the next. Before heading down to Nazaré’s lighthouse to observe the swell, I meet Cotton and Andrew Blake, his personal trainer, to find out how they prepare his body for the unpreparable.
We work our way around the room, tackling a few exercises from each training protocol to get a snapshot of his typical pre-season preparations: we use resistance bands to mobilize our bodies and fire up our core; we tune up our proprioception with single-leg Bosu ball drills; we tackle plyometric circuits to build power. There’s a huge focus on unilateral exercises such as single-leg presses and cable rows, plus isometric exercises such as goblet squat holds and weighted tabletop crawls. It’s tough going, but Cotton doesn’t train this way all year.
“I work hard in September and October. Then, as I come into the season, I focus on mobility,” Cotton says. “Surfing is so demanding that you can’t be hammering the leg press at the same time. Remaining injury-free is the priority. You do bits of strength and stability here and there; the activation and isometric stuff is important to keep protecting your body. But you don’t want to be fatigued by the gym.”
Fitness is just one aspect of his training. When you’ve been swallowed by a breaking wave, effective breath work can make the difference between life and death. Once you finally stop spinning out, you might be 15m below the surface with a 20-second countdown before the next wave hits. Your heart rate is already through the roof and your stress levels are off the scale. “It’s the equivalent of running a 100m sprint and then holding your breath,” Cotton says.
To get a handle on such a high-octane situation, the trick is to breathe out audibly, expelling all of the carbon dioxide from your diaphragm before sucking in fresh oxygen. The moment you’re submerged, focus on conserving oxygen. Every stroke must be streamlined and efficient. Your legs are the least economical – as the largest muscles in your body, they require the most oxygen – so your arms become your engine.
Practicing in the relative safety of the local swimming pool, I start to be able to hold my breath for longer and swim further. But when I try to push past a certain point, my body starts convulsing and I’m desperate for air. Put simply, I panic. After the initial frustration subsides, I realize my error. In aiming for a milestone, I’ve missed the point. “It’s not about ‘failing’ or ‘not good enough’,” says Cotton. “It’s about building confidence. It’s technique.”
There’s more to breath work than staying oxygenated underwater. Cotton frequently deploys the 3:10 technique – a three-second inhale and a 10-second exhale – to quieten the mind and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Controlling your fight-or-flight stress response is crucial in such a hostile environment, where a small error can snowball. “In sports psychology, that’s called a downward spiral. One negative thing can lead to another,” Cotton says. “And that’s because of the mind.”
The waves at Nazaré are so powerful and fast that you need a jet ski to catch them, so we stop off at the Red Bull warehouse to practice wakeboarding and catching crests in the harbor. To get up on the board, you grip the tow rope handle, pop your feet in the board straps and lie in a squat position. As the jet ski accelerates, the tension on the rope launches you up and out of the water.
Everything I learned at the Wave is going to be tested here, so I need to focus. “It’s about believing,” says Cotton. “It’s also about letting go.” In the throes of a big wave, he says, time slows down, and your brain is able to focus on the present moment. It’s this “flow state”, rather than the adrenalin rush, that Cotton finds so compelling.
Despite this Yoda-like pep talk, I return to Praia do Norte full of dread and my morning muesli. It’s time for the grand finale. Could I, a novice, ride a wave on one of the world’s most dangerous coastlines, after just two days’ training?
No. Quite simply, the churning surf proves too unpredictable. Despite Cotton’s constant encouragement, balance eludes me. I try repeatedly to stay low and steady, bracing my core for stability, only to be thrown off into the sea. It’s exhausting, and the water is unforgiving. The more I battle to regain my composure, the less able I am to stay upright on the board. There are only so many times Cotton can watch me face-plant the water. I eventually resurface to see an outstretched arm from his jet ski.
I clamber on and ride pillion back to Praia do Norte but, despite the amount of North Atlantic that went up my nose, I can’t stop grinning. So, I’m no big wave rider, not even close. But I’ve mastered the basics of surfing and become entirely intoxicated by crashing water, sea air and salt on my skin. Like Cotton, I plan to come back to face these immense waves – and one day conquer them.
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