The Giants of Nazaré: A Surf Like No Other

Silhouetted against a backdrop of slate coloured water, Nic von Rupp looks tiny. The 32-year old Portuguese–German–Swiss surfer lets go of the tow bar and dials in his path across the face of a monstrous wave as his Jet Ski driver disappears over the foaming crest. The wave dwarfs von Rupp as it crashes down, an avalanche of foaming water rising behind him as he attempts to outrun it. Something goes wrong. Either he’s miscalculated the velocity of the wave or he started at the wrong spot, or maybe he’s misjudged one of the countless factors that separate a trophy-worthy ride from a head-over-heels plunge into the icy ocean water. The wave overtakes von Rupp, swallowing him in a cloud of white foam, and he disappears.

Nic von Rupp

In the parlance of competitive surfers, the best breaks in the world are notorious enough to be known by a single name. Jaws. Mavericks. Sultans. Pipeline. Supertube. What these destinations have in common, aside from azure waters and picturesque sandy beaches, are massive waves worthy of the most skilled surfers on the planet. One name, however, stands apart. That name is Nazaré.

Unlike famed spots in California, Hawaii, South Africa, and the Maldives, Nazaré isn’t a destination known for sun, sand, and palm trees. Instead, this is where surfers come to do battle with a frigid grey ocean and risk their lives to ride some of the biggest, gnarliest waves on the planet. Each year in February, when winter storms churn the Atlantic into an angry frenzy, the world’s best surfers converge on this quiet Portuguese beach town in search of bragging rights and world records at the World Surfing League’s Tudor Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge.

giants of nazare portugal
Credit: Peter Walter Turansky

Like most great breaks, Nazaré owes its fame to a unique confluence of geological factors, among them an immense underwater canyon that channels the full power of the ocean along a smooth, sandy bottom directly into the shore. With no rocks or reefs to slow it down, this results in waves of massive size and almost unimaginable power, rising up to 30 metres above the spume. Twelve years ago, however, almost nobody in the surfing world had heard of Nazaré. That was when American surfer Garrett McNamara rode a 24-metre wave, earning himself a world record for the largest wave ever surfed, and Nazaré a spot on every pro surfer’s bucket list.

To ride one of the massive waves rolling into Nazaré’s north beach, you can’t simply paddle out past the breakers — the surf is far too big. Instead, surfers at Nazaré, working closely with Jet Ski drivers and wave spotters on the cliffs above, are towed to the peak of a wave, launched onto it, and picked up again before they’re swallowed by the pounding surf. Surfing Nazaré requires serious skill from both drivers and riders, but even the most skilled surfers must bring their A-game. One such rider is von Rupp, who has recently partnered with Swiss watch brand Tudor. Awarded “European Surfer of the Year” in 2013, von Rupp has spent the past five years proving himself as one of the leading figures in big-wave surfing at Nazaré, as well as the other big-wave hotspots Mavericks and Jaws.

Following his wipeout, von Rupp is, fortunately, unharmed. He eventually reappears on the sea’s foaming surface as the safety drivers converge toward him on their Jet Skis, plucking him from the water and towing him back into position for his next ride. The fall, one of many during the Tudor Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge, is just a minor setback, and von Rupp’s performance improves as the day goes on despite a rib injury from a previous fall earlier in the week.

tudor pelagos

Later that day, von Rupp will be awarded Men’s Best Performance and Best Team Performance, both honours shared with his teammate, Lucas “Chumbo” Chianca. He didn’t break any records at Nazaré this year, but his performance nonetheless upholds his reputation as one of the world’s most talented big-wave surfers. At the world’s most challenging surf break, where the line between glory and serious injury is tenuous and in constant motion, any successful ride is a major accomplishment.

Photos courtesy of Tudor Watches