One day at Nazare – the big wave tow surf challenge 2020

Words and images: Matt Strathern, Northcore

Low pressure weather systems are like catnip to surfers. As soon as we see the isobars tighten on local  charts we get twitchy, jumpy and excited. WhatsApp lights up and plans are made to go swell chasing.  But when low pressure systems are forecast to break records and the Wave Amplitude Model looks like it did below on 11th Feb 2020 the whole big wave surfing world goes into overdrive.

When Storm Dennis developed during Feb 2020 into one of the most intense extratropical cyclones ever recorded in the North Atlantic all eyes switched to Europe’s big wave spots. The most intense focus was on Nazare, Portugal, probably the biggest wave on the planet.  The WSL put the 2020 Nazare tow surf challenge on Amber alert. Hand picked invitees from around the world watched as a 17ft 18 sec swell was predicted to hit Nazare, Praia Do Norte, accompanied by light offshore winds.  It promised to be the perfect big wave storm.

Storm Dennis WAM chart

Storm Dennis super swell

Being able to witness the wave at Nazare in full effect has long been on my bucket list. So as the chart developed conversations began with Northcore team riders Grant Twiggy Baker and Peter Conroy to discuss their plans and potentially meet at Praia Do Norte. Twig was in Hawaii and Pete had already booked flights to Northern Spain for a big wave invitee comp that had called the green light early. This comp was later called off. So Pete along with tow partner for the event, Conor Maguire, stayed in the Basque region and made the most of the huge swell.

I took a chance that the WSL would call on the 2020 Nazare Challenge event so I booked flights from Luton airport and drove down south. A mad dash of driving, flights, car hire and hotels followed and I found myself on Monday 11th Feb in warm Portuguese winter sunshine walking down the headland towards the fort overlooking Praia Do Norte. Perfect, glassy 20ft sets were rolling up the Nazare canyon and exploding against the cliffs. It was on!

Headland overlooking Praia Do Norte

Cliff top view

The community in the small town of Nazare has been quick to embrace big wave culture, recognising the value of the wave on their doorstep which throws a bright spotlight on their home. Local big wave riders have been supported by the town mayor and council, funding surfing infrastructure with small warehouse spaces and a permanent jet ski pontoon at the town’s port.

So later that day, after meeting with Twiggy (who’d landed in from Hawaii) and his tow partner, Portuguese legend Joao De Macedo, we headed to the port at Nazare which is now the hub for the big wave community. The event pre-competition meeting took place in the port’s surf club house and was attended by the world’s elite big wave surfers.

Hosted by long standing XXL/WSL event organiser Bill Sharp and event commentator Peter Mel. Team colours and heat slots were drawn, speeches were made and then as night drew in everyone headed off to prepare for the following day.

WSL 2020 Nazare Challenge

Nazare surf club house. A who’s who of worldwide big wave riders in attendance.

It was an early start on the morning of Tuesday 12th Feb as crews and competitors gathered in the pre-dawn to eat, suit up, select boards and check over skis.

Twig getting suited up

Grant Twiggy Baker and tow partner Joao De Macedo. Team Brown!

The jet ski pontoon at Nazare port

Back up boards on the support boats

Twig and Joao setting off from port on the morning of the comp

As the teams left the foggy harbour I made the drive up to Praia Do Norte to find a spot to park. It was heaving with people already even though it was early morning. Later in the day the crowd numbers grew to become the biggest I’ve ever witnessed at any surf comp including WCT events at places like Hossegor and Supertubes. The headland and cliffs at Nazare offer a perfect natural amphitheatre for spectators to watch surfers take on the biggest waves in the world.

Packed cliff tops

Iconic view from the headland

The day of competition was timed perfectly for the peak of the swell. The post -dawn skies were overcast, the air thick with sea spray created by exploding waves and monster sets rolled in. The scene was set for what was to become one of the most amazing surfing events ever witnessed.

The swell was absolutely pumping so the action from the first heat on was relentless. The teams buzzed over the huge oceanic playing field chasing down peaks that were constantly shifting. The waves at Praia Do Norte detonate onto what is essentially a beach break so predicting each shifting set, the take-off and exit require a set of skills that only a few people on earth possess.  It really is one of the sketchiest set ups I’ve ever seen. The line between the wave of a life time and a wave that costs a life is incredibly fine. This is where training and ability on jetskis is essential. The tow and PWC rescue teams showed equal courage and skills on a day where sets, 10 times overhead were charging in from all angles.

Maya Gabeira on a bomb

The swell and action never let up with Justine Dupont and Maya Gabeira pushing the limits, riding some of the biggest waves of the day and Kai Lenny was blowing minds with his new school moves on huge waves. Boards were lost, ski’s were rolled and lives were saved. Alex Botelho and Hugo Vau got smashed by massive converging waves with Alex taking an enormous beating. Thankfully he’s now on the mend but did spend two weeks in hospital including some time in intensive care. The competition on the day lasted six hours with each team surfing three hour long heats.

The awards ceremony was held later that evening in a marquee near the lighthouse. Winners were announced in what was the first ever event format of it’s kind. The Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge not only included male and female athletes competing together (Props to the women who charged and were shown huge respect from the men) but winners were voted on and decided by the competitors themselves. The judging concept was great in theory however on the night it lost it’s way a little as there was some confusion on the voting – but it all worked out in the end!

The winners were:

Team Champions: Team Young Bulls – Kai Lenny (HAW) / Lucas Chianca (BRA)
Men’s Wave of the Day: Kai Lenny (HAW)
Women’s Wave of the Day: Justine Dupont (FRA)
Commitment Award: Water Safety Team

It was an incredible few days I’ll never forget. A huge amount of respect goes out to the riders and rescue teams plus a big thanks Twiggy, Joao and the WSL.

Nazare Challenge 2020

The shifting peaks of Nazare

Kai Lenny Nazare

Kai Lenny’s winning wave

Nazare lighthouse

The iconic Nazare Lighthouse

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