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Nazare Surfing Portugal: Everything You Should Know
Surfing Nazare is the definition of an extreme sport, attracting the world’s best surfers focussed on catching the biggest waves ever ridden. Very few surf spots grab the surfing world’s attention and capture the imagination of the non-surfing public alike. Several of the past decade’s most famous and awe-inspiring surfing images have captured the thrill of riding the largest waves in Portugal, at Praia do Norte, Nazaré.
The modern era has seen a paradigm shift in surf exploration with dedicated big wave surfers seeking out the largest possible swells and the ocean floor topography that transforms the swell into mind-blowing giant breaking waves. Surfers are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is considered rideable. The passion for riding big waves has been further driven by the opportunity for international fame and fortune in front of the world’s media and the wealthiest of sponsors.
There are few places on Earth where surfing has been projected to unimaginable new heights, and perhaps the most impressive is this Portugal big wave spot, Nazaré. This incredible location offers the ultimate blend of massive paddle sessions and giant tow surfing waves.
Where is Nazare?
Nazare is located in the west of Portugal within an area known as the Costa de Prata or the Silver Coast.
Growing from a small fishing town into a famous surf and tourist destination, Nazare has retained its heritage and classic Portuguese character.
The town is famous for its long sandy beaches and the imposing “Sitio” headland, pointing towards the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. The imposing 16th-century Forte de Sao Arcanjo and lighthouse sit atop the cliffs.
While previously acting as a point of defence against unwelcome invaders and guidance for weary sailors, it has now become the grandstand for one the most incredible natural shows on Earth. The nosebleed section of the Nazare arena, with each big swell seeing thousands of clifftop spectators enjoying the thrills and spills of surfing gladiators attempting the ride of a lifetime.
The History of Nazare Surfing
The surfing archives indicate that surfers were riding waves at Nazare as far back as the 1960s. Greg Macgillvrays 1968 surf film “Follow Me” showcased a group of travelling American surfers enjoying some beautiful small waves at the main beach in 1968. A far cry from the jet ski assisted craziness the area is now famous for.
Locals and the odd visiting surf nomad continued to ride waves at beaches around the town, but the area was renowned for becoming “un-surfable” as soon as the ocean displayed a bit of power. While the north beach was on the radar of a handful of diehard bodyboarders in the early 00s, it wasn’t until several years later that the true potential of Nazare surf was unveiled.
A few early strike missions to the giant outer peak, while brave and impressive, cannot be considered successful in terms of riding the Nazare waves. However, they did enable the local crew to witness first-hand the raw power and pure size the break had to offer.
This prompted Dino Casimiro, a renowned local bodyboard charger, to reach out to Garrett McNamara, the legendary Hawaiian waterman and big wave surfing expert, in 2010. Garrett travelled to Portugal with limited expectations, only to experience a life-changing shift in focus after experience.
THE FOLLOWING SEASON MCNAMARA WAS TOWED INTO NOT ONLY THE BIGGEST WAVE OF HIS LIFE BUT A WAVE LISTED IN THE GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS AS THE LARGEST EVER RIDDEN AT 78 FEET.
Garrett’s feat of riding the largest wave ever recorded stood for six years, broken in 2017 by Rodrigo Koxa (80ft) and by Sebastien Steudner in 2022 (86ft), both riding waves at Nazare.
Nazare waves have dominated the world record books for over a decade and will continue to do so. The small Portuguese fishing town is the epicentre of the mission to ride a 100 foot wave, with domestic and international surfers pushing the limits every winter.
Why are Nazare Waves so Big?
The Nazare Canyon
Just off the coast of Nazare lies one of the largest submarine canyons in Europe. At 227km in length and dropping to around 5000m in depth, it significantly disrupts an otherwise uniform seabed and creates some exciting ocean dynamics.
The canyon acts as what is known as a ripple polariser, accelerating swells towards the coast with above-average speeds and minimal reduction in intensity, most notably straight into Praia do Norte (North Beach).
On big days you can witness the classic double-up effect as the canyon-directed swells meet slower waves, growing in height and forming the famous peaks. Every so often, one of these giant peaks perfectly (or hideously, depending on your mindset) interacts with the rebounding energy of an earlier wave “backwashing” off the cliffs creating a classic wedge, further amplifying the already enormous size of the waves.
Check out this great video below showing a 3D model of the Nazare canyon.
How Hard is it to Surf Nazare?
On small days, the waves at Nazare are easily ridden by intermediate surfers. However, as the swell size increases, it becomes far more challenging. Only the world’s best surfers can tackle the biggest days, and even they suffer the consequences when things go wrong at Praia do Norte.
“Nazare is the most challenging, dangerous wave I’ve ever surfed. It is the only place in the world in which a giant canyon reaches all the way to the beach.”
The incredible work of the professional water safety crew has ensured that no one has died riding the Nazare surf. However, for a jaw-dropping account of how challenging the place can be, have a listen to Maya Gabeira, the current world record holder for the largest wave surfed by a female.
Can Anyone Surf at Nazare?
Nazare is a unique big wave spot in that you can ride a two-foot wave in the middle of summer and witness the biggest waves on the planet just a few months later.
If surfing Nazare is high on your bucket list, a chilled out summer session or surfing lesson will get you in the water at the fabled break. As soon as the waves pick up, however, take a walk to the Forte de Sao Arcanjo and watch the world’s best in action!
What Type of Surfboards are Ridden at Nazare?
“You are doing these big lines at supersonic speed. The only comparison is to imagine straight-lining a triple black run on a snowboard, but with giant moguls.”
We chatted to big wave surfer Glyn Ovens (shown in the photo above) to get the lowdown of surfboards for Nazare.
We asked him what boards are the guys riding out there now? Paddle, tow, and foil.
“Paddle boards are in the 8 to 10ft range, heavy, and as strong as can be.
Tow boards are typically between 4kg and 9kg for different wave sizes and amounts of chop, with a mixture of quad fins or a big back/small side thruster setup. The tow boards most of the guys ride are typically around 5’10” in length.
Foil boards are also heavy, 4-6kg, with high speed wings, less that 100cm, tall masts, over 90cm long made from carbon. Just to give you an idea, the speeds we reach on a foil can be over 50kmph!”
To read the full interview with Glyn, click here
A perfect example of the unique conditions a tow board has to contend with at Nazare is the following wave ridden by Lucas ‘Chumbo’ Chianca the 2022 Nazaré tow surfing challenge winner.
If you ever get to Portugal, Nazare is a must see phenomenon. To feel the power this spot has is absolutely incredible. And if you can’t get there when the waves are massive, maybe it will be small enough for you to claim you’ve surfed the World-famous spot!
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