Up against the wall.

Big wave surfers are accustomed to battling monster waves, walls of water towering more than 20 meters (66 ft.) above them. And Nazaré in Portugal is now their pilgrimage of choice – preferably when a storm is blowing. We brave rough seas to pay a visit to world record holder Garrett McNamara and surf pro Sebastian Steudtner.

The right wave.

The approaching monster looks as if it’s about to engulf the red lighthouse at the entrance to the bay. As the 20-meter (66-ft.) wave surges towards the coast, a tiny speck is visible just below its crest, tracing an arc of white spray across the face. With a telescope you would see that the speck is in fact a human on a surfboard – like an insect riding a tsunami.

 

Sebastian Steudtner has spent years preparing for moments like these – and weeks sitting it out for the right wave. Concentration is paramount. If he falls, 500,000 metric tons of water will come crashing down around him. As Steudtner puts it, descending a vertical wall of water is like riding a snowboard down a mogul field at 80 km/h (50 mph) – with an avalanche right on your tail. Suddenly the wave breaks, whitewater spitting and foaming over the top of him. But just before it swallows him up, Steudtner twists off to one side and finds safety in calmer waters.

A fascination all of its own.

“Being close to a giant wave like that has a fascination all of its own,” says Sebastian Steudtner of the ride he made on December 11, 2014. “It’s so rare to feel the energy these masses of water can generate – and to be witness to such a spectacle of nature.” Once experts had analyzed the images, they calculated the height of the wave at over 21 meters (69 ft.). That made it the biggest wave surfed that season, and earned the 30-year-old German a second title in the Biggest Wave category at the 2015 Big Wave Awards. Back in 2010 he had become the first European to win a Surf Oscar.

A fascination all of its own.

“Being close to a giant wave like that has a fascination all of its own,” says Sebastian Steudtner of the ride he made on December 11, 2014. “It’s so rare to feel the energy these masses of water can generate – and to be witness to such a spectacle of nature.” Once experts had analyzed the images, they calculated the height of the wave at over 21 meters (69 ft.). That made it the biggest wave surfed that season, and earned the 30-year-old German a second title in the Biggest Wave category at the 2015 Big Wave Awards. Back in 2010 he had become the first European to win a Surf Oscar.

Regularly visited by monster waves.

Steudtner completed his prize-winning ride at the bay off Nazaré, a small fishing village 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Lisbon on Portugal’s Atlantic coast, where appearances can be deceptive. For this seemingly tranquil little place is regularly visited by monster waves – and in 1183 even witnessed a miracle. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared here on a rocky outcrop above Sítio to warn Dom Fuas, a local nobleman, who was out hunting a stag in a dense sea mist. The scene was captured in a mural in the typical white-and-blue of Azulejo glazed tiles: the nobleman, sitting astride his horse, on the rocky outcrop high above the sea; above him on a cloud, the Virgin, warning him of the abyss. The stag is lost, hurtling towards the sea, which in this record of that day is depicted as being as flat as the tile on which it was painted. For centuries, before the apparitions at Fátima, Nazaré was Portugal’s most visited pilgrimage site. Today the village attracts pilgrims of a different sort – surfers. And all because of the submarine canyon that stretches from the open waters of the Atlantic to the Bay of Nazaré. On occasions, the significant variations in marine depth, strong winds, and unique currents combine to generate monster waves towering up to 20 or 30 meters (66 to 98 ft.) in height. From October through January, Nazaré regularly boasts the highest near-coastal waves in the world.

Iconic photographs.

Steudtner garnered a prize for his 2014 ride, but it was the world record set here by Garrett McNamara in 2011 that really put Nazaré on the map. The village is full of iconic photographs showing the American riding the monster wave at roughly the same spot where the ill-fated stag once found its watery grave. Surfing pictures hang in hotels, adorn menus, and are bought by tourists as postcards. That day in 2011, McNamara surfed a massive 24-meter (79 ft.) wave. Two years later he became the first human ever to ride a wave estimated at 100 feet – though the record-breaking 30-meter-high monster was never officially confirmed. “Nazaré is like Jaws, Puerto Escondido, and Waimea on steroids,” McNamara explains. In other words, he considers the waves at Nazaré to be even mightier than those in the infamous surf spots in Hawaii and Mexico.

Like virtually every big wave surfer, Sebastian Steudtner returns here regularly. “We’re always on the lookout for the biggest waves, and this is one of the most consistent spots for that,” he explains. Surfers like Steudtner are constantly travelling the globe in search of the perfect wave.

Originally from Nuremberg, he now spends only four weeks a year at home. “My yearly planner goes something like this: Christmas in Portugal, then Hawaii. After that, Ireland perhaps. In April I head to Indonesia, in May to Chile, and then it’s off to Tahiti. As a big wave surfer you map your life according to the waves.”

Garrett McNamara is another who puts his sport above everything else. He turned pro at 17, then spent ten years riding waves mainly in Japan until he discovered the world of big wave surfing. Soon he was winning competitions and had become the poster boy of his chosen discipline. “When you stare death in the face and get out alive, the rush is amazing,” he declares. McNamara named his two-year-old son “Barrel” – for the tunnel of water formed by a breaking wave.

A man with a mission.

Now 48, the American remains a man with a mission. Last Christmas he flew from Nazaré to his home in Hawaii. Three days later he was airborne again, flying back to Portugal because weather reports had suddenly forecast the arrival of bigger waves at Nazaré. “Big wave surfers check their weather apps every ten minutes. We’re all completely obsessed with them,” says McNamara. The weather chart on his iPhone is currently showing red to the west of Ireland. The color symbolizes an approaching storm front – which is exactly what he is looking for. Because where there’s a wind, there’s a wave – and the bigger the better.

 

But size isn’t everything. “Perfect waves come at 15-second intervals,” McNamara explains. Although he uses several different meteorological services, he says the data for Nazaré is almost always inaccurate. “To calculate the real height of the waves, you usually need to double the figures given.” His friend Keali’i Mamala adds: “In the past, we used to just watch the ocean for waves. Today the internet has changed all that.” The 38-year-old has been McNamara’s wave partner for ten years: big wave surfing is now a team sport. These walls of water are just too high for surfers to paddle in using their bare hands. Instead they are towed into position by a 280-hp jet ski.

The pros just love to see red.

In this world of surfing, everything is extreme: the waves, the speed, the power, the danger, the tension – even the boards, which are longer and heavier than regular surf boards. A big wave board must glide across the water smoothly even at speeds of 60 to 80 km/h (37 to 50 mph). The flipside for monster wave hunters is that waiting times can also be extreme. Even regular surfers are used to having to sit things out for hours, sometimes days, until the right wave comes along. But big wave chargers prize such rare specimens that they will wait months or even years for the perfect wave – often in vain. The monster is both the foe that can bring about their death and the friend that makes their sport what it is. It is also why big wave surfers like Garrett McNamara and Sebastian Steudtner are always on the move. Their hunting ground is not a specific beach, bay or island: it is the whole planet.

That’s why Garrett McNamara and his colleagues recently set up the Red Chargers initiative. Red Chargers are the men and women who are constantly searching for the next storm front, ever on the lookout for a red alert in their weather apps, and ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice and book a flight to wherever the next big wave is already gaining momentum.

With support from Mercedes-Benz AMG, the competition linked to this initiative takes place in Nazaré until the end of February. The main prizewinner is of course the charger who rides the biggest wave. But there are also awards for the surfer who provides best assistance to others, for example, or for the most tenacious surfer, even if he wipes out. “It is an event organized by surfers for surfers,” McNamara explains. “These are guys who sacrifice so much and are a source of inspiration to others.” The initiative seeks to showcase the achievements of big wave surfers to the media and sports fans, regardless of whether a new world record is set. In any case, these records are relative. The height of a wave can only be determined retrospectively using photos and video footage, meaning that the measuring procedure is not particularly accurate.

“It was pretty tough at the time.”

Initially it was much harder for Sebastian Steudtner to attract media attention than for other big wave surfers, but today his sport has developed a growing following among fans in Germany, too. The 30-year-old is no stranger to battling against the odds. He rode his first wave on a bodyboard as a nine-year-old on vacation and was instantly hooked. At 13, he told his bewildered parents he intended to become a surf pro – even though his family lived almost a thousand kilometers (620 miles) from the sea. Then, aged 16, he quit school in Franconia and moved to Hawaii. “Once I get an idea in my head that I know to be right, I go all out for it, grit my teeth, and get there in the end,” Steudtner says.

 

When he was 19, he conquered one of the biggest and most dangerous waves on the planet, Jaws in Maui. “It gives you an amazing sense of power to be so close to these wonders of nature,” he says. “But it also makes you realize how small and insignificant you are.” On the day Steudtner tamed his first big wave, he also wiped out and was rescued just in time by a jet ski before being dashed on the rocks. Others might have considered giving up after such a scare. For Steudtner, the accident was a sign he was doing the right thing: “It was pretty tough at the time,” he says. “But I told myself: if you can survive that, you can do it for real.”

Steudtner has set his sights on the world record.

Since then, the German has arrived in the world of big wave surfing, even if he on occasion had to supplement his income by working on construction sites when things didn’t quite work out. Garrett McNamara’s record in Nazaré in 2011 brought big wave surfing a level of interest in Europe commensurate to the height of his wave. “I was able to tap into that interest,” says Steudtner. He has since found new sponsors, including Mercedes-Benz. “I never used to have the money for really high-end equipment. But that’s all changed now, and I can really go for it.” For a man who has already slayed the monster of Nazaré, what that means is unambiguous:

Steudtner has set his sights on the world record. Just off the coast of the Portuguese pilgrimage site there have been occasional sightings of waves reportedly measuring 40 meters (131 ft.) or more. These are the ones big wave surfers dream of. And should that force of nature suddenly appear, the surfing community will be there. And may the gods watch over them.

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