Nazaré: The Ultimate Big Wave Spot of the Decade

This past week a huge swell hit the shores of Nazaré, a small surfing town in Portugal. The waves ranged from 60-70 feet and surfers and spectators from around the world visited to experience the massive swell. While this was certainly an extraordinary week of waves, Nazaré is known for its huge waves and has been the hub for big wave surfing and record breaking waves for the past decade. Take a look at the history of this small town in Portugal before and after it became the big wave surf spot of the decade. 

Before Nazaré was known and visited for its huge, record breaking waves, it was a small, not so well known, ancient fishing town on the coast of Portugal. Before people surfed the waves, they viewed them as dangerous and something to be avoided, but all that changed after American surfer Garrett McNamara was invited to surf the huge waves in 2010. McNamara arrived in the winter (the biggest wave season) to check out the surf. When he arrived he later spoke about his experience saying, “It was the biggest wave I’ve ever seen, we have something special here.” While locals in Nazaré thought that he was foolish to attempt to surf the waves, McNamara soon proved them wrong. He went out to surf the waves that winter in order to get used to the break. 

Garret McNamara’s practice paid off and on November 1st of 2011, he broke the world record for the largest wave ever surfed. The wave was around 78 feet and McNamara said that, “it was magic.”

After this world breaking event, Nazaré became a popular place for surf enthusiasts to visit and a surf culture began to form around the town. While Nazaré had mainly focused on fishing and small markets that catered to locals, surf shops started popping up around the village and more people, locals and tourists, began to participate in this new surf culture. The World Surf League also began holding surf competitions in Nazaré. 

The record breaking did not stop after Garret McNamara’s wave. In February of 2020, Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira surfed a 74 foot wave, breaking her own record and the world record for women surfers. When talking about big wave surfing Maya Gabeira said, “I didn’t see limitations.” She took this mindset to Portugal where she caught her record breaking wave, saying, “Those are rides you’ll never forget and I think that’s priceless.”

These waves are unlike any others, not only because they are really big, but also because they are not as choppy as other big waves around the world. The conditions for the waves are caused by a submarine canyon, a very steep canyon in the ocean. This causes energy to build up, making the waves bigger and cleaner. The submarine canyon combined with a nice swell makes for some extreme surfing conditions.

This past week this combination came to fruition and surfers headed out to catch the enormous waves. This was one of the largest North Atlantic swells that anyone has ever seen with sets running from 60-70 feet and some waves reaching up to 80 ft. While no records were broken for surfing, the day will still go down in history as many brave professional surfers went out to catch the wave of their lives.