« I got this present from God, » said Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa, describing the 80 foot mountain of water that saw him inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records. Last November, Koxa surfed the world’s biggest wave. The remarkable feat took place in the seas that batter Nazare, Portugal, a location famed for its huge swells that draw big wave surfers from around the world.
Even more impressive is that Koxa, 38, narrowly escaped death a few years previously in the same location, also attempting to ride one of nature’s most powerful phenomena. Suffering from PTSD after his accident, it took him a long time to build the confidence before he could return to the world’s tallest waves.
Big wave surfing – typically regarded as any wave over 20 feet in height – can be incredibly dangerous, and while it is drawing more daring athletes each year, it’s still only a very small number of surfers that attempt to match themselves against the huge swells that sweep in from the Atlantic Ocean.
The epicenter of the big wave world
Nazare is a small fishing village just 80 miles from Lisbon, one of the most westerly points of Europe. Along with the storms that frequently occur off the coast, there is another feature that makes this region particularly subject to such dramatic seas: the Nazare Canyon, a huge ravine that funnels water towards the Portuguese coast. When currents in the canyon combine with strong ocean winds, huge waves can occur. When conditions are just right – sometimes for only an hour or two – these enormous walls of water offer the perfect conditions for big wave surfing.
The consequences can be serious; surfers check weather data meticulously to ensure that they know what to expect. « The impact is like being hit by a truck, » explains big wave surfer Andy Cotton. You can be pushed 50 feet under the surface with only 20 seconds before the next wave arrives, and very little idea of which way to swim in order to reach the surface. Even then, swimming might be wasting precious oxygen reserves; staying limp and relying on an ability to hold one’s breath for five minutes can often be a better option. With such rapid and violent changes in depth, ruptured ear drums are not unusual.
Big wave surfers are not reckless adrenaline junkies, however. Following developments in technology, many are now equipping themselves with vests that can be inflated in the event that they are held underwater for too long, supporting the head and bringing them to the surface. One manufacturer requires you to take a course before you can purchase this life-saving piece of equipment.
With surfing appearing in the 2020 Olympics for the first time, interest in the sport is growing. The previous holder of the world record for the biggest wave, legendary surfer Garrett McNamara, is the subject of a recent documentary – Shredding Monsters: Mavericks. Available for viewing on OlympicChannel.com, it follows his return to Half Moon Bay, California, where he narrowly escaped death two years ago surfing more of the world’s biggest waves.