These days, Portugal's Nazaré holds an outsized role in the big wave surfing world. And rightfully so. With towering cliffs that serve as an amphitheater for spectators and a deep-water canyon that causes giant waves to break freakishly close to shore, it was inevitable that images of Nazaré's biggest days would captivate both the surfing and non-surfing worlds.
How it all began
It began as a pretty humble surf spot however. In the late 1960s, American surfers visited during the much calmer summer months and rode the waves that broke along Nazaré's main beach, Praia do Sul. In the ensuing decades, Sul and the town's other beach, Praia do Norte, became popular spots for bodyboarders.
A reinvention for the new millennium
Nazaré's reinvention as big wave surfing's Mecca came fast, furious and only recently. Indeed, Nazaré is the world’s newest big wave. Back in the mid-2000s, Hawaiian big wave surfer Garrett McNamara was tipped off by one of Nazaré's local bodyboarders, Dino Casimiro, that just a stone throw's throw from the historic fishing village's Praia do Norte (North Beach) was a wave that, in winter, broke bigger than any wave this local had ever seen.
I've never really seen bigger waves than I've seen here
A historic first trip
Intrigued but a bit skeptical, McNamara made the trip to Portugal for some fact-checking. Standing on the cliff beside the 16th century-era Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo, at that time abandoned and shuttered, McNamara soon discovered that his local tipster was a straight shooter. Waves 50ft (15m) and higher raced in from the horizon with dizzying consistency.
"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."
A set-up like no other on the planet
Unlike other big wave locations in the world – think Jaws, Mavericks, Shipstern Bluff and Mullaghmore – where the ocean floor is hard rock or coral reef, Nazaré broke over sand. Reefs create a single breaking point for waves, a predictable spot for surfers to sit and take off. Nazaré, on the other hand, churned out massive waves in a multitude of places, following the sandbars below.
It was a treacherous scenario, but McNamara was convinced he was looking at what could be the location of the world's first successfully surfed 100ft wave.
"It's all sand," explains McNamara. "You've got a deep [offshore] canyon, you've got a shelf and you’ve got swells coming across both – when everything comes together, magic happens."
Catching a world record
The following winter, McNamara returned. Though he didn't quite snag a 100-footer, he did bag a mind-blowing 78ft (24m) monster that earned him a Guinness World Record. Suddenly, McNamara and the little, sleepy town of Nazaré were world famous.
"There’s a kind of magic about Nazaré," says Dupont. "It's weird, kind of scary. It can be like paradise – and evil."
The professional era
Today, the World Surf League holds an annual big wave event at Nazaré. The town has capitalised on the wave's fame and refurbished the São Miguel Arcanjo, as well as built a high performance training facility for its big wave surfers to use. Nazaré's most famous surfers, like Justine Dupont and Garrett McNamara, have also purchased homes there, so that they’re ready for every single winter swell.
It can be like paradise – and evil
"It's, without a doubt, one of the biggest waves on Earth,” says Kai Lenny, who along with Chumbo won the 2020 WSL Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge. "It's an amazing playground and also one of the scariest places in the world."
The race for the 100-footer
The annual trek to Nazaré isn’' just for big wave surfers anymore, either. Fans and spectators from the around the world now show up on the cliff during 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 the media outlets from around the world broadcasting the action to millions of television viewers.
While that illusive 100-foot wave has yet to be ridden, each year surfers are pushing closer – and they're pushing closer at Nazaré. One day it will be ridden and it will be ridden at Nazaré.
"One day," Dupont says. "There are no limits."