I’ve always been a believer in stepping out of your comfort zone in order to grow as an individual. As a surfer my life has been dedicated to the moments that make me feel most alive, and that usually means tracking down a perfect wave somewhere across the world. With restrictions on travel finally opening up I began to plot my end of 2021 travel schedule. My stepping off point would be the Neon Wave Fall Bash in Rochester, New York. I arrived in early November to a chilly, sunny upstate New York. It was long overdue connecting with Fred, Dennis, Justin, Holland and the rest of the Neon Wave crew for the weekend. The store and community Neon has created in Rochester is awesome, I was blown away.
Heavy Water: Portugal
Before I arrived in New York I reached out to my Portuguese friend Nic Von Rupp to see if he would be around for November. I figured I was already halfway to Europe from California so I might as well take another flight across the Atlantic to see Europe for the first time. Nic gave me the green light to come stay with him so I boarded a flight at the end of the weekend from Rochester to Lisbon.
I landed in Lisbon but soon would find out that my boards would not. After filing a claim with the baggage department at the airport I exited to the airport walls to see Nic waiting for me at the curb with a smile. Something about getting picked up in a foreign country by a friend that makes everything feel alright. On the way back to Nic’s house we would stop at Pyzel Portugal to pick up his new Nazare guns, all in the 10 foot plus range. Not even an hour into the country and I was reminded that the waves get terrifyingly big in this part of the world. The swell was small that first day and the forecast didn’t look too great right away. But as I settled in the first few days so too did the upcoming swell track. Reading the forecast in the Atlantic is a lot more challenging than the Pacific, it seems as though everyday it changes drastically. I eventually stopped trying to read into it and let Nic tell me his thoughts.
“Woah, dude. I think this next week is going to be incredible.”
Nic shouted from his dining room table as he stared down his computer screen. I ran over to check it out and from what Nic explained two big swells were on the way with really clean conditions. Reality hit me at that moment. Nic’s focus is on the big wave spot Nazare, as he has proven himself in the last few seasons as one of the best big wave surfers in the world. “I’m going to Nazare Monday morning, you can come or you can stay here, it’s up to you,” Nic told me. I thought about it for a second before saying ‘I’m in,’ thinking at the very least I can go watch and take some photos.
Monday morning we woke up at dark and packed Nic’s car full of new big wave guns and heavily weighted tow boards. It’s an hour and a half drive to Nazare from Nic’s house in Sintra, giving us a lot of time to think about what the next few hours would present us.
"There’s something that happens to waves when they get to a certain size, they start resembling mountains. Mountains that move. Avalanches of water. "
We arrived at the Nazare harbor around 8:30am to some of the best big wave surfers in the world outside Nic’s jetski/board warehouse on the harbor. Grant “Twiggy” Baker was already in his wetsuit getting interviewed by the “100-foot wave” HBO crew. Nic was scrambling to get his gear together and looks at me and goes, “Are you coming?” I didn’t realize that was an option and Nic throws me a CO2 inflation vest and an old wetsuit to borrow since my boardbag still hadn’t arrived. Turns out I would get on another ski with 16-year-old Scottish charger Ben Larg, both of us having never been to Nazare before. It was beautiful and sunny as we followed Nic out of the harbor towards the headland at Nazare, where the famous 3-mile-deep canyon creates this natural wonder of the world. The waves were huge on arrival to the lineup, with tow in teams jockeying for the big sets as brave souls attempted to paddle into these waves with their bare hands. There’s something that happens to waves when they get to a certain size, they start resembling mountains. Mountains that move. Avalanches of water.
"It felt like I was dropping into it forever."
It felt like I was dropping into it forever. I had a split second when I started to bottom turn where I could have lost it on the bumps, for sure the most critical position I had ever put myself in, if I would have fallen off the bottom it wouldn’t have been good. I was stoked on how the board handled the bump, especially since it was my first time riding a board and wave that size. I kicked out of the wave elated with what I had just accomplished, Nic was shouting “Get the F#$% on the ski!” There was an even bigger wave behind us getting ready to land right where we were. I got on the sled and Nic pointed straight for the beach, just skirting out of the way of this 40-foot wall of water. At this point it felt like I was mainlining adrenaline, fully absorbed in the moment. I had successfully paddled into my first wave at Nazare, and it was a bomb.
We stayed in Nazare for four days and were out in the lineup most of those days. Between paddling and tow, I probably had about 5 different sessions out there. Each time was mind-blowing. It’s an interesting place where it seems like the more you see the more gnarly it feels. I was paddling without a leash the last day and had to get into the beach twice and both times were insane. I have never experienced shorebreak with that much water moving from all angles. The headspace gets better with each session, but the fear doesn’t go away. Everyone knows what these waves can do, and I think that’s what makes successfully riding them so rewarding. Oh, and after a week of phone calls back and forth with the airline my boardbag would show up in Nazare. Better late than never.
Like I said earlier, there were two back-to-back swells forecasted within a few days of each other. We had just successfully ridden Nazare and outside of my board hitting me in the calve underwater and causing a painful contusion, we made it out ok. We had one “down” day after Nazare, which still consisted of surfing a well overhead wave down the coast. The next day Nic would make the call for us to surf one of the most dangerous waves in the world; “The Cave.” The wave comes from deep water straight onto a dry slab of volcanic reef. The rock reef sticks out of the water halfway through the barrel, making it extremely dangerous and challenging not to get thrown off at the wrong time. I wore a padded vest underneath my wetsuit just in case I fell in a bad spot.
Nic would tow in on the jetski with Ben to begin the session. I decided to study the wave before attempting to surf it by watching from the rocky shore. It paid off as I realized it was not the big set waves that I wanted, they had no entry to paddle. It was the mid-size set waves that would allow me the best opportunity to successfully ride one of these double black diamond waves. I approached the lineup, paddling past the multiple water photographers and sitting next to English charger Tom Lowe. He helped lighten the situation by joking in between heavy walls of water. After 30 minutes of no rideable waves a lump popped up and I had to make my move. I paddled four strokes and kept my head down as Tom yelled “Go!!” I committed and made the vertical drop, setting my line and sliding under the lip and into the barrel. Before I knew it the spit had created a whiteout inside the wave and I came flying into the channel right over the water photographers. I had effectively paddled into and completed my first wave at The Cave, no small feat. We would surf two sessions at the Cave that day, but no wave compared to that first paddle wave I got. I did tow into a couple bigger waves, but nothing comes close to tackling a scary wave with your own two arms. Between the sessions at Nazare and the Cave, this week in Portugal would prove to be the single most progressive heavy water experience of my surfing life.