Skyscrapers of the surf
It would be hard to design a location better suited to big wave surfing than Nazaré in Portugal. The mind-boggling huge winter waves you see here are the product of an underwater canyon extending 160 miles into the Atlantic, in places up to three miles deep, which gives the waves an almost unimpeded run as they tumble and rumble towards the shore. At the culmination of this trench is Praia do Norte (North Beach), home to a spectacular mediaeval fort and a big wave adventure experience like no other – the largest waves ever surfed on earth.
At the tail end of the summer, Andrew Cotton gazed out across an altogether calmer scene. But it was the mighty scale of the waves that first drew him to Nazaré. His life story, certainly his professional surfing career, is entwined with the rebirth of this old Portuguese fishing village – located about an hour and a half north of Lisbon – as a destination for big wave surfing. Back in 2010, Andrew’s life also revolved around water, but in a very different way – working as a plumber back home in the UK. The man brought up on the rugged coast of North Devon in England reached a point in his life where he needed an out, a way to follow his passion and simply surf. That’s when he got a call from Garrett McNamara, one of the best-known professional big wave surfers in the world. They’d never met, but he was coming to Europe to try and surf this fabled place he’d heard of called Nazaré and needed some support, hence the call to Andrew. The trip would end up shaping Andrew’s future.
A new wave hero
Andrew had been there for just three days when he encountered his first big wave adventure experience. He knew then that this needed to be his life. It was here, in Nazaré in 2012, that McNamara set the then record for surfing the world’s biggest wave – 23.77m. Andrew operated his jet-ski support that day (surfers use jet skis to catch the big wave as they are considered too big to hand paddle into). It changed the way the world viewed Nazaré, helping thrust big wave surfing into the attention of the global media. Andrew wonders, too, if that was the day that fully set him on his current path. By following his instincts, he’d discovered a corner of the surfing world where he could finally immerse himself completely.
“So much of big wave surfing is about instinct,” says Andrew. “Forget the training and conditioning and years of experience for a moment. Put aside the guts and self-confidence. Instead listen to the voice inside and make a judgement. Some days it says no. Other days you just know. Then there are the times when you tussle internal demons, face your fears, and go for it anyway.” He adds: “I think my happiest moments have been when I get to a point where I just want to pull the pin. The point where you’re ready to say, ‘I’m not gonna do it’, and the pressure and anxiety are almost at breaking point. And then you push past it, and you come out on the other side thinking ‘Thank God, I did it. Thank God I didn't give up.’ That is when I’m at my happiest.”
All swell that ends well
In 2017, he sustained a smashed vertebra. It took him seven months to recover, and even longer for him to be able to embark on a big wave adventure experience once again. But he returned. “I get asked why and how a lot,” he says. “But these weren’t really questions I asked myself. There are still times when I am content just enjoying smaller waves, and then I almost feel like I don’t need anything else.” But the draw of going big is too strong. Andrew describes it as like being on a runaway train – and even now he’s not sure that he’s ready to get off the train yet. The end goal is always to surf the biggest wave ever. “I’m still coming to terms with this,” he admits. “Often, all I want is to be on every single big swell, catching waves and enjoying my time in the ocean. Setting the biggest wave as a target is just a way to keep me pushing harder.”
Often, all I want is to be on every single big swell, catching waves and enjoying my time in the ocean
Why does the biggest wave attract him so much? To understand it, he thinks about what may be the smallest wave he’s ever caught – his first. It provides contrast, or maybe it’s the opposite. It gives him meaning. The reason he surfs big, the reason he keeps chasing the dream, the reason he doesn’t want to get off the pro surf train just yet. “I remember the first wave I ever caught so vividly, remember the buzz I got from it,” he describes. “That’s all I am ever chasing now. The same buzz as that first time.”
You can never stand still on a big wave adventure experience
Excitement, buzz, progression. These are subjects that Andrew keeps returning to. “To use an analogy,” he says, “Porsche is a company that excites me. They’re absolute pioneers – and in a way that relates to my own progression in the surfing game, moving to foiling [a form of surfing that uses a hydrofoil to raise the board to reduce friction and generate higher speeds] and always with an eye on the next big thing. And, just like surfing, I was attracted to Porsche when I was younger, too. I have fond memories of gazing at pictures of early 911s, surfboards strapped to the roof and looking so sleek and stylish – it was a dream combination. Today, the Taycan Cross Turismo is a great fit for me. Roomy, comfortable, and has that sense of excitement and progression, embracing new technologies and pushing boundaries.” The perfect car for not just a big wave adventure experience, but Andrew’s lifestyle full stop.
Big wave surfing is about testing yourself, and in the end, Andrew says it’s a mind game. To be in the middle of something that scary and find some flow, even fleetingly, is magic. It’s not as if you are conquering it – you are just getting to experience it in a way that no one else does. Seeking out what you thrive on. “So you test it, push it,” says Andrew. “Every now and then, you push it too far and you take it. We are all learning as we go along. I think that’s precisely why I love it.”
Photography by Matt Pycroft, Helio Antonio and Luis Pereira
Produced in partnership with Sidetracked • sidetracked.com/soul-hunger