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There Was More to Nazare than GMac

The story behind Garrett McNamara's 100-foot wave


By Antonio Nielsen—Ok, so the title got your attention. But, having said that, I must acknowledge that everyone in the Portuguese surf community admires and respects Garrett McNamara and what he has done. For some perspective on the whole deal here’s a little background on Nazaré’s place in Portuguese surfing.

Nazaré is your typical fishing town facing the sea but with an almost morbid relationship to it. As far as anyone can remember, most of its inhabitants and families live off the ocean. Throughout the decades, a lot of fisherman would drown due to heavy waves and storms. Families would lose their livelihood and widows would wear black for the rest of their lives. They would be constant reminder that the ocean gives—and takes.

There has never been a huge surf community in Nazaré, although it might be one of the most consistent surf areas on the whole globe. There are, of course, some bodyboarders and a few surfers. Being as consistent as it is, some surfers from the Lisbon area would drive for up to an hour and half to Nazaré on smaller days to surf some fun uncrowded waves. Some would go there when the surf got a bit bigger too, to catch some (again) uncrowded A-frames. But when it got really big, it just looked nasty—perfect, but nasty.

Sometime in 2005, when tow-in surfing made its debut in Portugal with a huge session in the Cascais area, the French and Basque surfers who came along to share some of their tow-in knowledge were blown away when they checked Nazaré, but the wind was too strong and the local crew too raw to have a safe go at it. A few months later the Portuguese crew surfed with success, even though the waves weren’t huge. Throughout the years some local and European surfers would tow at Nazaré, but nothing in the XXL category.

And then there was GMac. The residents invited him, they told him some of the biggest waves in the world were there. He believed in them, came over, studied the bathymetry, saw huge swells and agreed. The North Canyon Project was born, backed by the City Hall of Nazaré and one of the largest media holding companies in the country, Zon. Garrett McNamara was provided with means to successfully put Nazaré on the map, and that he did. With his huge ride in 2011 he earned his way into the Guinness Book of World Records, won Billabong XXL awards, and got Nazaré on the global consciousness.

But that was not enough: then there was Big Monday, January 28, 2013. The waves were expected to be gigantic, and they were.  Everybody knew, and most spectators arrive around 9 a.m. By then GMac had already ridden an amazing wave. It was a beautiful ride and Portuguese photographer Tó Mané got an epic shot. But the wave kind of …never really broke! Not while Garrett was riding it. Some say it will break all records, some say the record never really broke.

A few other surfers were out that day and the session got “viral” really fast. But most non-specialized media sort of missed a lot of what happened. 27-year-old Portuguese free surfer António Silva, caught a bomb and charged it, but most of the news was about GMac, even when they played António’s wave instead of Garrett’s. But soon enough the Portuguese surf media was on it and gave the guy some credit.

A day later, a lot was still going on at Nazaré, but Silva was looking for waves somewhere else. I caught up with him in the evening to get a little interview for onfiresurfmag.com. António was stoked and humble as always, and gave me his take on the whole situation.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

António, how was the Nazaré session yesterday?
It wasn’t a real project. I just went surfing with some Moroccan and some Basque friends who were in town for a tow-in session.

Had you surfed it before?
Not really. I had towed on a big day at my local break, but that was it. It was my first time in Nazaré.

Could you tell how big it was when you arrived?
I saw Garrett’s wave just as I arrived; it was gigantic, I’d never seen anything like it in my life, not even in videos. When I got to the dock, where they were taking off from, I saw all the preparation that a lot of the guys had, oxygen cans and special floatation vests, I got a bit scared there…

Did you at any time consider not going?
No, Garrett was out there, I was going!

How many waves did you get?
To be honest, I only got to the bottom of one wave. They were a bit fat, some of them were hardly breaking outside. But on that one I felt like I really charged, she was blowing up behind me, caught me and I made it out of there.

Modesty apart, which one would you say was bigger, yours or Garrett’s?
His was bigger. It didn’t break, but it was really big. But I don’t really care if mine was bigger or smaller. I don’t surf to ride bigger waves than other surfers, or bigger barrels or whatever. I used to do that when I was competing, but now I just want to have fun. Nowadays, I just want to have fun surfing with my friends, and that’s what we did. We also broke some limits on that spot. I think it was the biggest day ever surfed there, and it wasn’t as clean as expected so it was pretty hard to surf.

How big would you say your wave was?
I don’t know, I’m not good at measuring waves.

From what I know, you are more into finding barreling waves than huge waves…
That’s true. It’s what gives me the most pleasure in life; that’s why I surf! But unfortunately, in Portugal, if I surf some slab, like “The Cave,” it won’t get people talking and it will not give visibility to my sponsor, and that is something a need, it’s my job!

The news of this session got around really fast but at the beginning, and in most of the bigger news networks, they neglected to say your name, even when they played your wave. What do you have to say about it?
I don’t see any harm in it. It was a mistake, and bad journalism in some cases. Surfing is getting really big in Portugal and everyone wants in on it, but they should be more careful and have more respect for the surfing community!

Did that session change anything in regard to the direction you are going in your career? Are you going to go in the big wave direction?
What I really would like to do would be to travel the world chasing “mutant” waves. Barreling waves, sessions where the best surfers are. We have something really special here in Portugal (Nazaré), and we have to be on it and push our limits. But to improve and push them we need more backing and better conditions.

Is it financially viable to follow that path in Portugal right now? Or even just to be a professional free surfer?
At the moment, at least for me, it’s not! I have an amazing support from DC, who is my main sponsor. But it is not enough. To go to the next level we need more. I’m fortunate because DC helps me a lot and also one of my best friends is my jet ski driver. He doesn’t get paid, just does it out of love for it and friendship.

Last question, right now, three of the Portuguese surfers who are standing out the most in heavy wavesyou, João de Macedo and Nicolau Von Ruppare all from the same beach. Is it a coincidence, or is there something going on in “Praia Grande”?
Well, we’ve all traveled and trained a bit with João de Macedo when we were young. He is crazy, but really smart and in control when riding bigger waves. In my opinion he is one of the best in big wave riding right now. So yeah, his presence in our lives probably has a lot to do with it!
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This essay and interview originally appeared on The Inertia. Antonio Nielsen is the editor of Portuguese surf magazine ONFIRE Surf.

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