Its that time of the year again!
A few months have passed since our last sit-down at our favorite french coffee shop. Eduardo, or “Lalo” as I affectionately prefer to call him, is my best friend. And, like me, a big fan of anything that has to do with surfing and the WSL (the World Surf League).
I sit alone, half-way through my second chocolote caliente (yeah, I know, not very French). Lalo is off on a business trip to Chiapas. Last time I spoke with him was about two weeks ago. Said he was keeping busy and wouldn’s be back in time for coffee time. Shame. I miss our conversations. So I sit there and think about our last conversation in January when we last met to discuss anything and everything regarding our favorite sport…
It is the end of January of 2018. The WSL is on a break and the XXL big wave riding tournament is THE topic now.
And why not.
Our discussion revolves around big wave chargers like Andrew Cotton, Mark Haley, Garett Macnamara and a few others. Their exploits riding the world’s largest waves always resulting in lively debates.
The winter storms are their playground.
Their time is now.
And even though we continue with our friendly discussion on who is the sickest, most extreme charger, Lalo and I agree on one indisputable truth: the heaviest big wave riding spot in the world continues to be Nazare, Portugal.
We both sit there, letting the name of the legendary break sink in our minds and imagination.
Nazare. Where, in winter of 2011, the world’s largest wave was ridden by big-wave riding legend Garett Macnamara. What a moment!
As Lalo reaches for his hot cup of Chiapas coffee, he hesitates for an instant.
“How does it work?” he asks, looking at the steaming cup of coffee.
His tone serious, almost reverent, taking me by surprise. He looks at me now, probing deeper.
“I mean, this place, Nazare…it’s unnatural…a freak of nature”. he says. Lalo sits back, folding his arms. Thinking.
“I’ve read about places like Ghost Tree, Todos Santos, Mavericks…but Nazare…Christ! How does a wave get to be that size? It’s insane! Is it the location? The storms that are out in the deep Atlantic? What is going on below water…”.
“Bathymetry” I add, trying hard not to sound like a nerdy know it all.
“Yeah, that’s it. Bathymetry. I wonder what’s the bathymetry of that place. What lurks beneath the water’s surface? And at what depth? Is it a reef? Rock? Sand?”.
I sit there, taking a sip of my chocolate caliente, giving pause to think about Lalo’s questions.
“Let me show you something which may help” I say finally.
Reaching for my mobile, I open the search engine and type “Grand Canyon”. Almost instantly, my query is answered with hundreds of images of Colorado’s mighty Grand Canyon. I pass my mobile to Lalo.
“That’s the Grand Canyon. What do you see almost in every image?”.
Lalo starts finger-sliding the images from left to right. “I see contours, ledges, cliffs, ravines, and a bunch of other stuff that geologists would probably call “eye-candy!”.
I laugh. Lalo’s sense of humor is one of his qualities which I most enjoy and look forward to in our conversations.
“Exactly!” I say, taking another sip of my chocolate caliente.
Lalo continues to explore the images. Again, making an effort not to sound academic, I continue on.
“The Grand Canyon is legendary for its vast abundance of geological “eye-candy”. Now, imagine all of that below water. Add enormous storms, sending huge swells over these enormous underwater formations and contours and…boom! You have the makings of Nazare. And as essential as all this is, it’s what’s happening below the water’s surface that is even more incredible. Lalo, it’s where the unseen magic happens…”.
So how does it work?
Giant waves are not that uncommon. Their size and mass depend directly on the size and power of the storm where they originate from. These are the waves that you typically watch in National Geographic documentaries, where large exploration ships come face to face with these monsters out in the middle of the Arctic Ocean or the deep Atlantic.
The dramatic images of one of these ships battling it out with nature’s fury never cease to amaze me. They often leave me wondering what the brave crews of these mighty vessels are going through, including the crewmember expressing his experience using very colorful language!
However, surfable waves of this scale are rare beasts indeed.
Many elements must first converge to create waves of monstrous proportions while still being rideable. Large storm systems are just one part of the mix. Location, bathymetry, and local winds are essential ingredients which also weigh heavily on the rest of the big-wave formula.
Let’s take these enormous storms and scale them down to more manageable terms.
Imagine you are standing in a regular pool. Now, you start “romping” in the pool, hitting the surface of the water repeatedly with your hands. Soon, its a frenzy of splashing and white water. As the frenzied surface of the water moves away from you, it acquires a more defined shape (concentric waves speeding away from you: the center of the storm). Eventually, the waves will reach the edge of the pool and disappear altogether.
Take that on a planetary scale, and you got the basic mechanics of how waves are formed. If waves don’t travel far enough from the storm (you), they will remain contorted and without any defined shape by chaotic conditions around them (splashing).
The ocean’s floors are anything but even. They are full of contours and, more often than not, these contours closely resemble those found on dry land. Ultimately, these underwater ravines, cliffs, and canyons are a critical component of a wave’s size and shape as it approaches the coastline.
I confess that, until recently, I was unaware of the importance of the contours found in the ocean’s floors, and the impact they have on large swells.
Now I understand that large, epic surf is heavily influenced by the bathymetry of each break…this is where it all happens.
Four magical words that surfers around the world love to hear: light off-shore winds.
Wind, when it is generated locally, determines the quality of a wave. Giant waves get “combed” to perfection by good wind conditions.
If you have ever seen off-shore winds in action, you probably remember seeing the wave’s “mane” being combed and groomed away from the crest. This is one of surfing’s most spectacular visual gifts.
When you are out in the water, in the receiving end, well…it’s hard to explain. The closest thing I can relate it to is being soaked by a drizzling, light rain… it’s pretty freaking amazing!
And so we come to the mother of all convergences. Those that have created Nazare’s legend and mystique.
Picture an eight-story-high building and you begin to comprehend the dimensions of such a wave. To date, Nazare remains unchallenged as the surf spot where the world’s largest wave ever was conquered.
What lies beneath…
What is truly remarkable about Nazare is that it is a sand bottom beach break. Unlike other legendary big-wave breaks around the world, where the bathymetry is made up of underwater reefs or points, and where swell energy is dependent on their respective contours, Nazare depends on unique underwater dynamics to make it work.
If it existed without these dynamics, the majority of the swells, especially large ones like the ones arriving at its shorelines every winter, would be hopeless close-outs.
But that’s not Nazare.
In fact, the dynamics which are at play here make this sand bottom beach break a stand-alone in the world of big-wave riding.
And the great facilitator for this extraordinary distinction is the Nazare Canyon, Europe’s longest submarine canyon.
It begins about half-a-mile out, at the continental shelf, at a depth of 50 meters and then plummeting down to the Iberian Abyssal Plain, to a depth of 5,000 meters, just off-shore.
The canyon’s bathymetry allows the creation of very large, powerful surf through drastic, rapid change in ocean depth, resulting in swell amplification. This is directly attributed to the canyon head: the actual location where the canyon starts.
Check the image below from the GEBCO Gazetteer, an online index that compiles the names of underwater features.
The importance of the canyon head’s location cannot be overstated:
1. It focuses extra swells, especially on longer period swells, into the region.
2.It allows swells to greatly increase in size as they approach the coastline.
In other words, very large swells refract from deep water towards shallow water, where they transform into huge swells, packed with unparalleled oceanic energy. Welcome to Nazare.
To make things a bit more interesting…
Because it is a beach break, offshore shallow points weigh heavily on the creation of better waves with crossed-up breaks v.s. huge close-outs. This makes Nazare incredibly challenging and extraordinarily dangerous…especially when it’s big! I found a review by legendary Surfline.com forecaster and surfology expert, Sean Collins, on swell mechanics present in October 2011, during the Rip Curl Pro Portugal.
Back to the future…
The coffee shop is busy, loud, and the people sitting on other tables around me go on with their own discussions.
It’s so strange and strangely gratifying, talking about something that is so foreign, so different and so removed from the lives of the great majority of people here.
It is a privilege.
And it is also our little secret.
Sitting at my table in silent contemplation, I savor the moment. The allure and awe of Nazare is ours alone. And as I finish my last bit of chocolate caliente, I smile again because no one here understands this. Not really.
Which surf spot inspires you most? Lalo mentioned a few that still manage to stir our imaginations: Cortez Bank, Todos Santos, Ghost Tree. But there are others which are just as famous and awe-inspiring.
And hopefully, many more still remain to be found. It’s a big ocean out there.
What’s been the largest wave you have ever seen or experienced? Please share in the comment box below so other sentinels may read about your encounters and exploits! We would love to hear from you!
Thanks for reading and talk soon!