It is still dark outside when we leave early to beat the morning traffic on the bridge. If you miss the window, you can end up spending most of your morning in an unfortunate queue, but today we are in luck and traffic flows beautifully. Lisbon is still covered in night.
As the first light colors the sky softly pinkish, we decide it is time for a coffee break, and make our way to a simple road side café. There are lots of these simple coffee places, and just about all of them, no matter their appearance, serve you the most wonderful coffee. Today is no exception.
Refreshed, we continue our journey north. With an extra careful eye on the thermometer, since the roads can get slippery at night this time of year. Our destination is the small town of Nazaré, a couple of hours' drive north of Lisbon.
This little town has made an international name of itself in big wave surfing, ever since Garrett McNamara surfed a 24m wave here in 2011. For the locals, this surf spot has been known and surfed for ages, but Nazaré's reputation is growing internationally. You may already have watched impressive You Tube clips of massive waves being surfed just outside the signature lighthouse.
Today, December 20 2016, marks the day of the 2016 World Surf League (WSL) Big Wave Challenge, and the reports say that the competition is on. Waves are pumping and we are soon to witness something unique. The first event in WSL Big Wave Tour ever to be held at Nazaré, Praia do Norte.
When we arrive to this picturesque little town, the sun is just starting to share its warmth. We stop by a local supermercado to stash up on some fruit, and then we make our way up to Sitio, the section of the town where you can access the lighthouse and the north side beach. Nazaré has one down-section and one up-section, divided by a steep hill/cliff. The waves on the left side are more mellow, and it is to the right of the lighthouse you will find the action. If you ever go to Nazaré to check the big waves, remember to follow the road signs to Sitio.
The big wave season normally hits during the winter months, say mid-October to February. So, if you are in Portugal during these months, you can definitely plan a day or two in this magic place.
Christmas is just around the corner, but today that is hard to believe. Although we spot several older women wearing the traditional multi layer wool clothing (tradition speaks of seven layers), a thick hoodie will do the trick today. The winter sun is still strong in Portugal, and we have a feeling this day will be something special.
Finding a parking spot is a challenge of its own today, due to the competition, but the town is small, and even filled with cars, it is still quiet and calm.
The contest takes place at Praia do Norte, to the right of the lighthouse. No cars are allowed there, so to reach the spot you have to make use of your own two legs and make your way down a gravel road. The view is as breathtaking as the sound is impressive. The Atlantic means business today.
Let's stay in the sun, we decide, and find a spot to start watching the contest. In the water, the brave surfers are already searching for the best wave out there. They have plenty to choose from, and jet skis make sure everyone is safe. As safe as you can be in these conditions. The swell today is not joking around, and you have to know what you are doing. There is a lot of water making its way towards the beach...
The conditions of Nazaré are unique. Combine the normal swell direction, the deep undersea canyon just off the coast, and the drastic changes in depth, and you got yourself a mighty impressive wave machine. Signature of Mother Nature. You can read more about how and why the waves form this way in this article.
A lot of the time, big wave surfing is done by tow-in, where the surfer gets help of a jet ski to gain speed and ride the wave. Today's competition is a paddle one though, and that ups the game. (No use of jet skis to get on the wave, just for safety, rescue and transport.) In order to catch these huge monsters and ride them, you have to get in the right spot of the wave in order to get the momentum to make the drop. That means to get yourself to the steepest point of the wave just before it breaks. And, there is just you and your board. Not something for the ones faint of heart. Even from a distance, it is scary to watch, and it makes you fill up with awe and respect for these brave souls out there. Not only the surfers, but the jet ski drivers as well. The skills and knowledge needed to stay alive out there. Imagine riding a moving vertical wall of water the size of a big building...
After a while in the sun, observing from a distance, we get curious, and make our way down closer to the lighthouse and cliff. The crowd is thinning out here, but the ground is also more slippery. The pathway and staircase at the lighthouse itself is closed, we guess due to the big crowds, but also the big swell today. The force of the breaking waves should not be underestimated, and also as a spectator, you need to keep an extra eye on where you are going. It feels like stepping into Mother Nature's center force, the gravity of the Atlantic pulling you in. Hypnotizing. In the speakers, we hear the commentators urging the spectators to be careful at the cliff. The last thing anyone wants today, is a spectator free falling into the crashing foam.
We stay safe (of course) and enjoy the competition whilst savoring some fresh apples and baking in the December sun. Surfers pass us by, running up and down the beach in their wetsuits and inflatable safety wests, looking pumped and ready for the challenge. Our swim practice coach with that constant big smile on his face rushes by and greets us on his way to gratulate one of the competitors. His steady feet knows just how to handle this slippery path and he runs easily along the rocks. What comes to mind is the friendly and supporting vibes of it all. Where everyone cheers for each other, like a family. Regardless of who wins or who finishes last, there is a deep respect among the surfers, and amongst the crowd of spectators. Everyone who has surfed even the smallest of waves, knows the strength it takes to paddle out in these conditions. And not only physical strength, no, the mental game is just as important.
If you are curious about the competition, and want to read more about the details (and see some more exciting footage than my iPhone could manage) I recommend this WSL article summing up this historic big wave surfing day.
Going to the Nazaré Big Wave Challenge today was a memory for life. Words can not convey the experience fully. The ocean, the waves, the sounds, the friendly vibe, the impressive skills of the people in the water, the taste of that fresh crispy apple whilst resting on a sunny spot with nothing but crashing waves in front of you. Off season Portugal is absolutely beautiful.
Sometimes during the winter season, it is easy to use some not so nice words about non-insulated houses with no heating, and you risk spending your days in a freezing indoor climate hiding under 7 layers of wool blankets cursing and just waiting for spring. But today, today makes it all worth it. Every bit of it. This place is true magic, and the best part is that it is real...
(Join Karuna and friends for our surf- and yoga weeks during the warm season here in Portugal. You will not need seven layers of wool, just your smile and we'll provide the wetsuits.)