Just offshore of Nazaré's bustling beachside promenade of bars, souvenir shops and restaurants, there swirls a feared patch of ocean known to locals as the Widow's Rip. In the years before the town's harbor was built, fishermen used oxen to pull their brightly colored boats across the beach before rowing bravely into the surf. When seas were rough, as they almost always are in the winter, the small vessels would sometimes flip in the angry shorebreak. Any fisherman tossed from their boat would inevitably be carried out to sea by the Widow's Rip, where they would sometimes drown in full view of their horrified wives. If you visit Nazaré today, you'll see dozens of old women shuffling through the streets and along the beach, wearing black frocks in mourning for husbands lost at sea.
"When I was little, everybody always said, 'Don't go in the water over there or you will die,'" local bodyboarder Dino Casimiro told me last April as we shared beers at a small restaurant above Nazaré's golden-sand beach. "Over there" meant Praia do Norte, a windswept crescent of sand on the other side of a towering rocky headland that separates the wild, raw North Atlantic from the more protected seas to the south.
"But ever since I was able to leave the house as a child," Casimiro said, "I would walk to the cliff to look at the big waves. I always hoped that one day someone would surf them."
That just about sums up the small town of Nazaré's complicated relationship with the ocean. The centuries-old fishing community has always depended on the sea while at the same time greatly fearing and respecting its tremendous power. Nazaré sits about as far west into the Atlantic as you can get while still being part of the European continent. It's positioned to absorb the brunt of any North Atlantic swells, and the massive Nazaré Canyon just offshore funnels, strengthens and shapes the enormous waves that unload on Praia do Norte's shifting sandbars.
Until 2011, if you'd heard of Nazaré at all, it was probably because you're a big fan of religious tourism and knew that the town's imposing church, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré, features a celebrated black Madonna statue, which has been in Nazaré since the eighth century. Or perhaps you'd taken a day trip up from the far more renowned surf destination of Peniche, some 25 miles to the south, chasing rumors of a quaint fishing village with incredible seafood nestled at the foot of towering cliffs. In recent years, however, the small town has grown an oversized reputation for enormous surf.
"You'll love Nazaré," said an elderly American man on my flight to Lisbon when I told him where I was headed. "You're going to look at the huge waves, I imagine? I went last winter to see them." Hearing this, a Midwestern woman in the seat in front of us perked up. "Oh, Nazaré?" she said. "I'm going there too! That's where the biggest waves in the world are, right? I'm hoping to see them." She explained that she'd watched videos of Garrett McNamara streaking down the dark green faces of monstrous waves on television. It was enough to put the small town on her Portuguese itinerary.
Strangely, surfers around the world and landlocked Midwesterners seemed to have learned about Nazaré's world-class big-wave potential at the same time: in 2011, when McNamara set a world record there for the largest wave ever surfed and began appearing on CNN and the BBC. Nevertheless, I was astounded that people who lived hundreds of miles from the ocean were fascinated by this wave and were drawn to this tiny town in the middle of Portugal in hopes of glimpsing it.
Of course, I, too, was heading to Nazaré because of the giant surf. But more than witnessing waves, I wanted to meet the local surfers who called Nazaré home long before McNamara had ever heard of it, and find out what it means for the small Portuguese fishing town to become famous for holding what could be the largest surfable waves on the planet.
Driving into Nazaré from bustling, cosmopolitan Lisbon is a little like drifting backward through time. After flying along the A8 freeway in a modern rental, streaming music via Bluetooth, passing newly built gas stations and convenience stores, I exited and immediately drove right into the time capsule of Old Europe. Small farmsteads. Women and men wearing frayed wool caps, tending little gardens. Oxcarts piled high with hay. A castle in the distance.
Eventually, rural, old-world Portugal gives way to occasional modern houses, then a subdivision or two, before a winding road deposits you right into the center of Nazaré. Driving through the narrow streets, you find old men sitting on curbs smoking cigarettes and women in black shouting "Need hotel?" Soon you emerge at a wide-open beachside boardwalk facing the Atlantic. The beach is shaped like a big fishhook: a long, straight section with the massive, curving headland to the north. Around the corner, the fearsome peaks of Praia do Norte clash and churn in big winter storms. When the surf is large enough, it will often wash over the beach and through the street fronting the sea, swirling at the foot of seaside buildings as if to remind the town of who exactly is in charge.
Nazaré is essentially one town divided in two. There's Praia, the larger, beachside district full of hotels and restaurants, and Sítio, the old town perched 100 meters above, along the promontory that leads to the famous lighthouse and fort from which nearly every photo of the surf at Nazaré is taken. A charming funicular ferries visitors up the steep cliffside between the two sections of town, while locals typically take the walking path that ascends the cliffs in a series of switchbacks.
On the surface, there's very little about the town that suggests Nazaré has become synonymous with big-wave surfing. A single surf shop sits just off the main beach promenade; otherwise you'll find little overt evidence of surf culture. Yet the tourists are coming, drawn to the spectacle of the massive waves. As I approached the counter to check out of my hotel at the end of my stay, I had to wait while a literal busload of tourists checked in, many of them asking the receptionist where they could witness the notoriously large surf.
Only six years ago, the waves here were largely unknown to surfers outside Portugal. Traveling surfers did occasionally pass through, even as far back as the '60s. (The 1968 American surf film Follow Me has a brief Nazaré sequence, though the surfers appear to be riding the mellower waves to the south of Praia do Norte.) Bodyboarders, however, have long known the powerful surf in and around Nazaré. The town has produced a handful of world-class pros, including Dino Carmo and Antonio Cardoso, both of whom finished in the top 20 of the pro bodyboarding tour last year. The pounding, experts-only shorebreak around these parts of Portugal has limited the amount of standup surfers in the region.
On my first day in town, I met up with 36-year-old Nuno Santos, a handsome, beret- and sports-coat-wearing musician and sports science professor who is also one of the few local surfers who challenge Nazaré at its fiercest. Despite learning to surf only when he was 20 years old, Santos is pretty at ease in Nazaré's snarling winter conditions. This comfort is particularly obvious when he brings a violin with him into the surf, calmly drawing the bow across the strings while coming off the bottom of a 20-foot wave. (You can find evidence of his criminally underappreciated feats on YouTube.)
Santos becoming a talented enough surfer to take on maxing Nazaré is almost as impressive as his playing a stringed instrument in massive surf. He began his surf life as a bodyboarder, as many do in Nazaré, not just because the heavy shore-pound makes learning to standup surf difficult, but because of the prohibitive cost of a surfboard. The Portuguese economy has begun to rebound in recent years after the '08 recession, but it's never been nearly as prosperous as its Western European neighbors, especially in rural areas like Nazaré. Expensive gear like surfboards and wetsuits puts surfing out of reach for many locals.
"Guys start bodyboarding here because it's so much cheaper," Santos told me. "I couldn't afford a surfboard until I was 20 years old. And I definitely couldn't afford a wetsuit for the wintertime."
Santos picked me up in a dusty SUV to check out the beachbreak setups north of town that he frequently surfs. I climbed into the passenger seat amid a stack of self-produced CDs Santos had made of his classical music. He plays a full range of stringed instruments and the piano (he plays the violin only in massive surf — for now, anyway), and we listened to his recordings on the drive to Praia do Norte with Santos weaving quickly through narrow streets.
Over the small, twisting road that leads to Praia do Norte, the town has erected an arch that reads, "WELCOME TO THE BIGGEST WAVES IN THE WORLD." The fort perched above the surf hosts an impressive display of surfboards left behind by many of the surfers who have challenged Praia do Norte at its most defiantly large. There's a small space devoted to the impressive history of the fort itself, built in the 16th century, but it's relegated to a dimly lit corner, overshadowed by video monitors running loops of surfing footage, models of the Nazaré Canyon and stunning photos of unimaginably large waves. There's an appreciation of the old here, but the town is clearly aware of what's fueling its tourist economy these days.
Though the surf report for that morning listed a barely perceptible 1- to 2-foot swell, the shorebreak at Praia do Norte was unlike anything I've seen before. The flow of sand down the coast had altered the beach so it extended at a nearly 45-degree angle in relation to the cliffs, forming a long sandbar that almost could have passed for a reverse Skeleton Bay. Except the only waves were grotesque shorebreak monsters surging onto the beach in about 2 inches of water, where you could potentially stand on nearly dry sand and be enveloped by a well-overhead barrel.
"That sandbar is pretty new," Santos told me when I pointed out the potential for a phenomenal right churning below us. "It actually didn't look like that at all a couple weeks back. The sand in this whole zone shifts so much."
The surf zone at Praia do Norte is a complex medley of crossed-up swells and ever-moving sandbars. The bathymetry of the area suggests the handiwork of an omnipotent obsessed with creating the world's largest A-frame waves. Nazaré Canyon, just offshore, is nearly 125 miles long and more than 16,000 feet deep. It points directly at Praia do Norte like a severe, craggy finger. The end of the canyon forms an abrupt headwall that shoves approaching swells straight up just a few hundred feet from the shoreline. When standing on the fort above the wave, you can actually see the line of much darker, bluer water that delineates the canyon from the shallower waters around it.
The canyon supercharges long-distance swells churning out of the North Atlantic and also coaxes them to wrap into the canyon and take aim directly at the coast of Nazaré. The canyon's shallow sections bend and refract swells into ugly, wedging peaks that maintain nearly the same shape at 6 feet as they do at 60. It's that wedging formation that provides all of Praia do Norte's drama. When nearly every other beachbreak on Earth would be overwhelmed by 50-foot surf and reduced to shapeless closeouts and seemingly endless fields of whitewater, Praia do Norte focuses all the energy of a given swell into a single point, turning the surf into unearthly big tepees. This is also what causes so much consternation in the surf world about how large these waves truly are.
Greg Long once called the spot a "novelty wave" because it formed a huge peak, but then usually backed off in underwhelming fashion. Surfers and journalists around the world criticized Nazaré for the apparent lack of a crest and trough. The angle at which photos are typically taken of Praia do Norte — from above, near the fort — tends to distort the size of the waves, stretching them out and making the waves appear cartoonishly large — though that doesn't mean that the waves aren't colossally big.
The surfers who've seen Praia do Norte at its meanest don't hem and haw. They agree that it's a freaky, massive wave, as dangerous as any big-wave break on the planet. Andrew Cotton, a U.K.-based charger who's been surfing there almost as long as McNamara, told me that sure, sometimes it's just a peak, but it can also be a heaving 50 feet from top to bottom. "You could absolutely get the wave of your life out there, but you never really know what the place is going to do, and that's part of the draw and the danger," he says. "At most big waves, when shit goes down you can head to the channel and get out of trouble." But at chaotic, channel-less Nazaré, with peaks exploding seemingly everywhere, Cotton explains, "when shit goes down, the danger has really just begun."
On the rocky promontory that leads from Sítio to the fort overlooking the surf at Praia do Norte, a 20-foot-tall man with the head of a deer stands guard, holding a surfboard and perpetually staring at the sea. This is a statue commemorating the Legend of Nazaré, a 12th-century tale of a nobleman who was hunting a deer from horseback along the sheer precipice over the beach. Just as he closed in on the deer, a fog obscured the nobleman's view and he became disoriented. In the seconds before his horse careened off the cliff, the nobleman cried out to the Virgin Mary to save him, and his mount's hooves sunk fast in the soil, locking both horse and rider in place.
Had the nobleman and his horse continued off the cliff, they would have met their grisly end right where Casimiro and I sat drinking Sagres, the most popular beer in Nazaré, at a small lunchtime restaurant just below Sítio. Casimiro, 39, is a fireplug of a man with an easy, disarming smile. He isn't technically the mayor of Nazaré, but he may as well be. Nearly everybody who passed by — kids on skateboards, old men smoking cigarettes, delivery drivers leaning out of truck windows — stopped for a friendly chat with Casimiro.
McNamara gets most of the press for "discovering" the wave at Nazaré, but if it weren't for Casimiro, you'd never have heard of the place.
A lifelong bodyboarder, Casimiro has run the town's bodyboarding club — which produced talents like Cardoso and Carmo — for years. He's also put on a series of pro bodyboarding events to showcase the serious surf at Praia do Norte. He showed me footage on his phone of the inaugural event, in 2003, in solid 12- to 15-foot surf. Many of the competitors looked mortally terrified before they paddled out, but everybody survived, and the event was praised by the bodyboarding community. Mike Stewart won the event a few years later in similar conditions and was intrigued by the potential for even bigger surf.
According to Casimiro, Kelly Slater started poking around Nazaré in 2010 when the WSL World Tour was in nearby Peniche. "You'd show up to look at the surf, and you'd see a surfer on the beach running to the water by himself, and you'd realize, 'Oh, it's Slater,'" Casimiro said. "He wouldn't even tell anybody he'd be coming; he'd just show up."
At the time, Nazaré had the reputation as the place you'd go if Peniche was flat — an exposed beachbreak that got plenty of swell, but was otherwise nothing special. But Casimiro had busily been trying to change that.
In 2005, with the city council's blessing, Casimiro decided to expand beyond bodyboarding contests to spread the word about Nazaré's huge surf. He emailed the most famous big-wave riders he could think of, trying to lure them to his obscure fishing village. He first tried Laird Hamilton, but got no response. Thinking that the shared Portuguese language might be an icebreaker, he tried Brazilian big-wave hero Carlos Burle next. Nothing. Soon after, Casimiro saw footage of Garrett McNamara riding massive waves in Tahiti. He tracked down McNamara's email address and sent him a photo of a giant peak at Praia do Norte, lip heaving forward into a massive barrel. McNamara responded less than 30 minutes later.
"Dino emailed me out of the blue, sent me a photo of this huge wave and asked, 'Can you come to my town to tell me if this wave is good?'" McNamara says. "I'd been surfing Jaws a lot that year and all I could think was that this looked just like Jaws, but with nobody out."
McNamara peppered Casimiro with questions: Are there Jet Skis nearby? A harbor to launch them? What's the wind like? How often does it break like that? Casimiro did his best to assure McNamara that everything was in place. The town was eager for any attention that would draw much-needed tourism dollars, so whatever McNamara required, he would have.
But the emails continued back and forth for the next five years without McNamara making the flight over. "We'd email each other like crazy about swells," McNamara remembers. "We'd call at all hours … One of us would pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, it's 4 a.m. here, why are you calling me?'"
Finally, in the fall of 2010, during yet another marathon of email exchanges and phone calls, McNamara's wife, Nicole, convinced him to fly out and give the place a shot. "If it wasn't for Nicole, me and Dino would probably still just be emailing each other," McNamara says. The two of them packed up and headed for Portugal. He still remembers his first view of the surf from the cliff above.
"I went down to the beach and stared right at the biggest waves I'd ever seen in my entire life. I felt like I'd found the Holy Grail."
But McNamara didn't have anybody to surf with. The local bodyboarders are courageous in their approach to Praia do Norte, but even they bowed out once wave heights approached 25 to 30 feet. They weren't sure if the heaving peaks were even rideable at that size.
Santos remembers the first time he saw McNamara at Nazaré. Santos was surfing a smaller right that breaks around the headland from Praia do Norte, and McNamara came stroking by on a SUP, headed around the corner to try his luck in the massive, unsurfed peaks.
"Garrett was paddling by and he yelled over to me, 'Hey, let's go get a couple of the big ones,'" Santos said. "I wanted to, but I hadn't yet started surfing big waves. I'd never seen anybody surf over there, either. That side of the beach seemed way too big for me."
Eventually, McNamara convinced two big-wave hellmen from the U.K. to join him: Cotton and his tow partner, Al Mennie. The two bailed on a promising swell at Ireland's Mullaghmore Head to try out this new Portuguese behemoth. Cotton was hooked instantly.
"For the first few years we were there, nobody else really surfed when it was big," Cotton says. "We'd drive the ski up and down the beach all day with nobody else in the water. It was heaven."
Meanwhile, Nazaré's city council had teamed up with ZON, a mobile phone company, to produce a video about the big-wave surfers' attempts to ride the place, all in an effort to boost tourism. Portuguese surfers José Gregório and Ruben Gonzalez joined the crew that McNamara had assembled, and the group made the first in a series of videos called "The North Canyon Project."
Still, word didn't reach the surf world about the massive waves at Praia do Norte until the following November, when video surfaced of McNamara towing into a massive left peak that, at 78 feet, set a new world record for the largest wave ever surfed. Images of the ride seemed to appear everywhere, all at once: social media, surf websites, television spots, newspaper articles and more. It was also probably the last big wave ridden there without scores of cameras trained on the place.
"Even when Garrett got his record wave in 2011, there was nobody on the cliff watching," Cotton explained. "Nazaré was still empty in the winter."
The media blitz later that fall didn't happen by accident. "We focused on getting footage to CNN and the BBC," McNamara told me. "The point was getting a ton of exposure to help boost tourism in the area."
For the next few years, every winter at Nazaré produced a "biggest wave ever surfed," with some touting a 2013 wave that Burle briefly rode before being consumed by a whitewater avalanche as being the first wave to break the mythical 100-foot barrier. Six years later, McNamara's 2011 ride still stands — according to the Guinness Book of World Records, anyway — as the biggest wave ever ridden.
In the span of only two years, Nazaré went from a beloved bodyboarding wave that most Portuguese surfers outside of the area weren't even aware of to an internationally known destination boasting the world's largest waves each winter, regularly featured on the nightly news.
"Nazaré has become a global name now whether you surf or not," Cotton says. "The town was forward-thinking and invested in its wave's fame and has made the most of it."
Despite all the work he put into bringing McNamara out to Portugal, and the time he's spent organizing prime-time bodyboarding events there, Casimiro is still genuinely surprised at how quickly Nazaré has become a household name. "We really didn't expect that the wave would become as famous as it has," he says. "Especially not in the mainstream media."
He's also quick to point out that while McNamara has the respect of the local surf community, if he hadn't come to Praia do Norte, some other big-wave seeker surely would have. While it seems like a situation ripe for conflict — foreign surf star swoops into town, conquers giant wave, media gives him the glory — the locals I spoke with credit McNamara with opening their eyes to what is possible at Praia do Norte when it's roaring.
Cardoso, who's one of Nazaré's brightest and most respected wave-riders in the bodyboarding-centric community, likes seeing foreign surfers at Praia do Norte. "I want to learn from these guys when they come here," he says. "I want to draw from their knowledge of big waves." McNamara has even started towing him into big Praia do Norte on a surfboard. Cardoso showed me photos on his phone of him at the bottom of a 15-foot wave, strapped onto a surfboard, even though he's just learning to standup surf. "I don't know how to turn, so I just ride these waves straight," he laughed.
Originally, Casimiro just wanted surfers from all over Portugal to see how good — and how massive — the waves can be at Nazaré. After McNamara showed up, followed by the rest of the big-wave community, and then the flood of tourists, Casimiro felt vindicated. "We used to have two months of the year when we'd get tourists — just the summer. Now the hotels and restaurants are full five months of the year."
As he told me this, I wondered how many of those hotel and restaurant patrons were there to surf rather than simply watch the oversized waves. Each winter, the lineups at places like Mavericks and Jaws become increasingly crowded, despite the obvious risks of pursuing such massive, powerful surf. Could Nazaré be close behind?
For many of the locals, it seems that the financial benefits of increased surf tourism outweigh the potential negatives of increasing crowds down the line. And as strange as it sounds coming from surfers, some locals said they believed it would be selfish to want to reduce tourism, which benefits the entire community, just to keep crowds down, which benefits only the very small group of local Nazaré chargers.
Casimiro points out that there are proposals in place that will regulate who can drive a ski at Praia do Norte and who can't, which he hopes will serve as a cap to the amount of tow teams that show up on a given swell. Casimiro also posits that there simply aren't enough people willing to surf maxed-out Nazaré for it to become a problem. But the same was surely said about Mavericks and Jaws a few years ago, before they started boasting crowds of over 50 people when the conditions are prime. It's hard to imagine how Nazaré will be any different. In the meantime, however, Casimiro and the rest of the local community will relish Nazaré's new place among the world's most iconic big-wave breaks.
"There are maybe 100 people on Earth who can surf these waves," Casimiro said, finishing his beer. "But everybody on Earth deserves to see them. They're a natural wonder of the world."
[This feature originally appeared in SURFER 58.4, “Life & Death of Waves,” on newsstands and available for download now.]