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Surfing

Nazaré is the tiny fishing town that became big wave surfing's biggest name

Portugal's Nazaré was a sleepy seaside hamlet like any other, then surfers started flocking to chase the massive waves that local fishermen had forever run from. Join us for a deeper look.
Written by Russ Bateman
6 min readUpdated on
Portugal's Nazaré holds an outsized role in the big wave surfing world. The infamous Nazaré Canyon causes huge Atlantic swells to assemble in the depths, before eventually focusing their collective energy on Praia do Norte (North Beach). With its towering cliffs serving as an amphitheatre for crowds and a bright red lighthouse atop the Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo to put the monstrous waves in perspective, Nazaré is both a spectator's and a photographer's dream, and it was inevitable that images of its biggest days would captivate surfers and non-surfers alike.
Professional big wave surfer from France, Justine Dupont, tows into a massive wave at Nazaré, Portugal

Peaks to the horizon

© Hélio António

You can't have spectacular imagery without incredible subject matter and the waves of Praia do Norte more than live up to the hype. With big waves come big names and big events and the reputation grows greater. Nazaré truly is surfing's perfect storm.
01

Humble beginnings

Surfing was slow to get started in Nazaré. In the late 1960s, American surfers visiting during the calmer summer months rode the waves that break along Nazaré's main beach, Praia do Sul (South Beach). Due to the bathymetry of the canyon, Praia do Norte, on the other side of the Fort, is surfable from tiny to tremendous, and in the ensuing years both Praia do Sul and Praia do Norte, became popular fair weather spots for bodyboarders. When the conditions turned rough, however, local board riders, much like their fishing counterparts, steered well clear of the unruly waves.
Nazaré's Praia do Sul, as seen from the air

Nazaré's main beach bears no resemblance to its rowdy northern neighbour

© Sam McGuire

02

A reinvention for the new millennium

Nazaré's renaissance as a big wave surfing Mecca came fast, furious and only lately, as one of the more recent additions to the big wave landscape. In the mid-2000s Hawaiian big wave surfer Garrett McNamara was told by local Portuguese bodyboarder Dino Casimiro that every winter Praia do Norte was blasted by enormous waves, and encouraged him to come to Portugal and attempt to surf them. When McNamara finally agreed and bought a plane ticket for Portugal, big wave surfing was changed forever.
Garrett McNamara surfs Nazare, Portugal.

Garrett McNamara

© [unknown]

I've never really seen bigger waves than I've seen here
Garrett McNamara
Intrigued but sceptical, McNamara flew to Portugal on a reconnaissance mission. Standing on the cliff beside the 16th century Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo, at the time abandoned and shuttered, McNamara soon discovered his local intelligence was spot on. Waves 50ft [15m] and higher stormed in endlessly from the horizon, gathering steam as they funnelled down the Nazaré Canyon towards their final destination.
"I've seen some big waves at Mavericks and Jaws," McNamara says. "But I've never really seen bigger waves than I've seen here."
03

Surfing's most spectacular playing field

Unlike other big waves around the world – think Jaws, Mavericks, Shipstern Bluff and Mullaghmore – where the ocean floor is hard rock or coral reef, Nazaré breaks over sand. Reefs create consistent breaking waves, and offer predictable spots for surfers to take off on. Nazaré, on the other hand, churns out massive waves that break the length of the sandbars that run parallel to the beach.

3 min

Nazaré in numbers

A staggering string of stats shows just how powerful the waves get at Nazaré, Portugal.

"It's all sand," explains McNamara. "You've got a deep canyon, you've got a shelf and you’ve got swells coming across both. When everything comes together, magic happens."
When everything comes together, magic happens
Garrett McNamara
Although potentially treacherous, McNamara was convinced he was looking at a setup that would allow someone to one day ride a 100ft [30m] wave – surfing's equivalent of walking on the moon or breaking the four-minute mile. The mark has still never been conquered to this day, but it seems a matter of when, not if.
04

Catching a world record

In 2011, McNamara returned to Portugal. Though he didn't tame a 100-footer, he did ride a mind-blowing 78ft [24m] monster that earned him a Guinness World Record. Suddenly, McNamara and the sleepy town of Nazaré were world famous.

15 min

The legend of Nazaré

Kai Lenny travels to Nazaré in Portugal to train with Brazilian big wave charger Lucas 'Chumbo' Chianca.

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For men and women like Justine Dupont, Natxo González, Lucas 'Chumbo' Chianca and Kai Lenny, Nazaré became a mandatory stop on their annual pursuit of the world's biggest waves.
"There’s a kind of magic about Nazaré," says Dupont. "It's weird, kind of scary. It can be like paradise – and evil."
05

The professional era

Today, the town has capitalised on the wave's fame and refurbished the São Miguel Arcanjo and built a high performance training facility for its big wave surfers to use. Nazaré's most famous surfers, like Dupont and McNamara, have purchased homes and take up residency every winter, ensuring that they never miss an XXL swell.

1 min

Justine Dupont surfs a huge wave in Nazaré

See Justine Dupont pushing the limits in Nazaré.

It can be like paradise – and evil
06

Competition comes to town

In the winter of 2016-17 the World Surf League held its first ever big wave event in Portugal, the Nazare Big Wave Challenge. After a day of carnage the event – a strictly paddle surfing affair – was finally taken out by Australian Jamie Mitchell. In 2017-18 it was Chianca who claimed glory, and in 2018/19 it was South African Grant 'Twiggy' Baker who hoisted the trophy, though rumblings were growing stronger that perhaps it was time to switch up the format of the event.
In the winter of 2019-20 the WSL launched the Nazare Tow Challenge, a tow-in event featuring teams of two. Lenny and Chianca came together as Team Young Bulls, and on the back of their insane wining performances a white-hot spotlight was shone on the stratospheric progression of tow-in surfing

11 min

Lucas Chumbo’s winter at Nazaré

Lucas Chumbo relives his, and Young Bulls partner Kai Lenny’s, winter highlights at Nazaré.

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"Nazaré is, without a doubt, one of the biggest waves on Earth,” said Lenny, after his team's win. "It's an amazing playground and also one of the scariest places in the world."
As for his aims at Nazaré? "We want to ride the biggest wave ever that comes in. That's the number one goal." Simple, really.
07

Big Wave winners at Nazaré in recent times

Since it's first event in the surging winter of 2019-20, the Nazaré Big Wave Challenge boasts a who's-who of the sport on its winners' list and is now one of the established must-do contests for the world's best big wave riders.
The very first champions crowned during an historic session of huge wave riding in February 2020 were certified big wave legends Kai Lenny and Lucas 'Chumbo' Chianca. Chianca repeated his victory in 2021 with a dominant performance, while French ground-breaker Justine Dupont claimed the first-ever women's title that year.
It was Brazilian take over in February 2022, as Chianca completed a hat-trick of Men's Best Performance wins, while the incredible Maya Gabeira secured the Women's Best Performance award – a feat that both repeated a year later in 2023.
Proving his absolute mastery of the world's gnarliest wave, Chianca was once again unbeatable in the 2024 edition, winning the overall title with partner Pedro 'Scooby' Vianna alongside the Men's Best Performance once again, while Gabeira was women's champ for the second year running.
Check out the 2024 highlights in the player below:

3 min

Highlights

Check the highlights from the Nazaré Big Wave Challenge at the world-famous Praia do Norte in Portugal.

08
The annual trek to Nazaré isn’t just for big wave surfers anymore, either. Spectators from the around the world show up on the cliff on every big swell to witness men and women like Lenny and Dupont surf the impossibly huge waves. And on the very biggest days, you can count on global media outlets broadcasting the action to millions of television viewers.
A big set rolls in at Nazare Portugal.

Standing room only at Nazaré

© André Botelho

While the illusive 100-foot wave has yet to be ridden, each year surfers are edging closer – and they're edging closer at Nazaré. One day that wave will be ridden, and only a fool would bet against it being ridden at Nazaré.
"One day," Dupont says. "There are no limits."

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