Alex Botelho started off 2018 on a good note. After rolling the dice and paddling out into shifty, textured conditions at Nazaré last week, then waiting over an hour without catching a wave, the Portuguese big-wave charger doubled down and lucked into a monster right-hander, skillfully (and maybe fortuitously) navigating the famed spot's notorious warble, before twice air-dropping down the face of a the wave.
Indeed, after his serendipitous session at Nazaré, in which Botelho secured the wave of the year (thus far) and stuck one of the most critical drops in the history of big-wave paddle surfing, the 27-year-old may want to scoop a few power-ball tickets the next time he visits California to surf Mavs.
Botelho, Hugo Vau (Botelho’s man on the ski) and a handful of others have been pushing the limits of paddle surfing at Nazaré over the last few years, stroking into waves that were previously only believed to be accessible via tow rope. As we're likely to see more of Botelho in 2018, we jumped at the opportunity to catch up with him and ask about his recent session, the meteoric progression of paddle surfing at Nazaré, and his plans for the year ahead.
Let's start with the right you caught the other day out there. How about that thing? That had to be one of the sketchiest drops made at Nazaré! Walk me through it.
We went out a little later in the morning. There was no wind in the morning, but by the time we got out there, the winds started to pick up. I must have waited for over an hour before I caught my first wave. It's so shifty out there. You really have to be right on the peak to catch it, or it'll just swing past you.
That one right started to come in. It came a little to the north of where I was sitting. I just tried to paddle as far underneath it as I could. Right when I turned around to paddle into it, it did that kind of warble thing that it does here at Nazaré —the waves kind of grow and then go up and down. Then once I stood up the wind lifted up my board. For a moment I felt like I was hovering over the water. I could feel the board being pushed up against my toes. I was like, ‘Oh, what the hell is going to happen here?’ But, at the same time, it kind of helped me because the wind blew the board up against my feet, rather than blowing it away from me. I stayed connected and then when I came down, I was like, ‘OK, cool.’ Then my board got lifted up again [laughs]—more slightly the second time. I knew I wasn't quite down the face just yet. But after that, it was a pretty smooth drop. I was really stoked. Then Hugo Vau, who was doing safety for me on the ski, swung around and picked me up.
Was there a point in which you thought you might not stick the drop? Were you at any point planning an exit strategy?
What was going through my head, more or less, was, ‘Well, I'm in it now. I can feel the board sticking to my feet. I might as well try and hold on.’ To fall out there is guaranteed, so you might as well just go.
It looked so windy and challenging out there. How'd you decide to make the call to surf that day?
After the wind started picking up, we considered leaving. I wanted to stay and catch a wave. Hugo also encouraged me to stick it out and catch at least one. At that point, everybody else had left. Typically, nowadays, everybody who is paddling has a safety team with them because, once you catch a wave, you can't really paddle back out. So when everybody went in, it got kind of eerie because usually you want a couple of skis out there in case something goes wrong with your safety equipment—rope gets caught in the motor or something. But we stayed for a little longer. I caught three waves toward the end of the session, including that right. I stayed out until I broke my leash.
We’ve seen some groundbreaking year surfing Nazaré in the last couple of years–especially paddle surfing. What's changed? What has led the level of surfing out there to progress so quickly?
I think the improved safety protocols have helped people push it harder out there. I used to paddle out there years ago—a lot of people used to—with no safety team. We'd paddle around from the south side of the village, and around the fort, and try and catch as many waves as we could before getting washed in. Sometimes it'd be one, sometimes five, other times none because a big set would wash through and just sweep you in [laughs]. It depended on how lucky you were.
Now everybody has a safety team—usually somebody on a ski and a spotter on land. You don't have to worry as much about wiping out, especially close to the rocks. I think that's what has really pushed the progression and has helped surfers push the limits out there. For me, I know it's made me way more comfortable. Especially that day, I wouldn't have been catching the waves I caught—especially lefts close to the rock—if I was out there without a safety team.
Will Nazaré be your main focus in 2018? Do you plan on paddling in at some other big-wave spots?
Nazaré is where I'm focused on when I'm in Portugal. I've got plans to get to California this year to surf Mavs. I want to go back to Jaws. I got to surf there around when they had the big-wave contest and we got really lucky with some good windows of waves. The plan is to stick around for the first part of the year and then make my way around to the other spots when the season kicks into gear.
[Top image: Alex Botelho on a Nazare monster. Photo: Pedro Miranda]