Remember that Euro swell back in October? Three days of carnage across the Old Continent, Conor Maguire's biggest ever wave in Ireland, UK went off, Spain and of course, Nazare reared its head too for a colossal few days of surfing. With that firmly in the rearview though, a couple more incredible rides are making their way out from hard drives.
At the moment, Guinness World Records are analysing US east coast charger Mason Barnes' Nazare bomb from that session to see how it stacks up to Rodrigo Koxa's biggest ever wave. But while we don't think it pips it, the real story here is Mason's candid and incredible journey to surf the Portuguese behemoth. Below, he's laid out the nuance, the grit and guts needed to ride the shifting, XXL peaks of the world's biggest wave, and it is an incredible read. Dig into the full story here and check out some other colossal Nazare waves throughout.
Words by Mason Barnes
Three years ago, Grant “Twiggy” Baker, my big-wave surfing mentor and friend, took me to Nazaré, Portugal for the first time. Each winter, some of the world’s best big-wave riders converge on this once-sleepy fishing village for one reason: to ride the world’s largest waves. The mountainous A-frame peaks that break up and down Nazaré’s Praia do Norte (North Beach) are the eighth wonder of the surfing world, thanks to a 15,000-foot-deep underwater canyon just off of Portugal’s Silver Coast. When the massive swells (typically generated by intense low pressure systems) hit the sandbars nearshore, the waves mutate and double, even triple in size.
When I saw this rare combination of elements, I knew that I had a chance to ride the biggest wave of my life, and the anxiety began to build
Because the waves are so big and move so fast, past a certain size, they are impossible to paddle into and the only way to catch them is to get towed in by a jet-ski. If the sheer size of the wave isn’t enough, unlike the giant swells at Waimea Bay or Maverick’s, there is no safe deep water channel to retreat to at the end of your ride. Instead, an expert jet-ski driver must shadow your ride, zoom into the impact zone, and rescue you before you get steamrolled by the wave behind yours. If he fails to do this, you get pushed into apocalyptic shorebreak and washed to the beach at the foot of the cliffs – if you’re lucky. Anyone who is serious about surfing Nazaré should watch the 2013 video of Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira. After falling on her wave, she takes wave after wave on the head, loses consciousness, and is floating face down near the shorebreak. Had it not been for the heroic rescue effort of her tow partner, Carlos Burle, I don’t think Maya would be alive and still surfing today.
Big-wave surfing is something I take very seriously. After bad wipeouts at Waimea Bay and Maverick’s, I know that career-ending or even fatal injuries are possible. As I’ve grown older, I realised that the things I do out of the water give me a great deal of confidence in the water. Training my body and mind for the worst-case scenarios takes up as much of my time as riding waves. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with Dan Duffy, a physical therapist in my hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, who helped me make full recoveries from two knee surgeries. Dan also designs specific workouts to mitigate the injuries that come with big-wave surfing. Recently, I also began to study Wim Hoff’s controlled breathing and breath retention techniques and can now hold my breath for more than four minutes.
In the fall of 2020, I felt mentally and physically ready for Nazaré and hoped to ride the biggest wave of my life. I didn’t just need the weather to cooperate and deliver a giant swell, because of COVID, I knew that it would be difficult to enter Portugal from the US. I flew to England in early October and waited there. A few weeks later, a big storm hit America’s east coast and as it crossed the Atlantic and headed towards Iceland, it grew and grew. When I saw this rare combination of elements, I knew that I had a chance to ride the biggest wave of my life, and the anxiety began to build. Not just anxiety, I also felt excitement, anticipation, and a healthy dose of fear.
When I arrived in Lisbon, one of the immigration officials spotted me in line, and pointed to the inflation vest I was carrying. “Going to Nazaré?” he asked. When I said I was, he waved me through without opening a bag and wished me luck. Once I arrived in Nazaré, Hawaiian Garrett McNamara, who pioneered this spot, had everything ready. Garrett rode a 78-foot wave here in 2011, set the world record for the largest wave ever ridden, and held that record until 2018. He has earned a lot of respect in Portugal and is at the top of the pecking order. Garrett spends much of the winter in Nazaré and had jet-skis, tow ropes, radios, and all of the other necessary equipment dialled in and ready to go. It requires a team to surf giant Nazaré and I felt fortunate to be part of a skilled and experienced unit that also included Englishman Andrew Cotton and New Yorker Will Skudin. Both men are seasoned big wave-riders and expert jet-ski drivers I trust with my life. My confidence in them gave my own confidence a big boost.
On every big-wave trip, I follow the same routine. First, I organise my equipment, finding a sort of meditation in the process. This helps me prepare myself mentally and focus on the task at hand. The first day of the swell was forecast to hit 40-60 feet in the late afternoon, so there was no need to rush into the water. I slept in, ate breakfast, then stretched and did my breath work. We took our time, then sometime around 3pm, we went to the harbour and got in the water. Our timing was perfect – the biggest waves of the day were breaking by the time we got out to the lineup.
There were about 15 skis in the water, and I could tell people were a little nervous because no one knew how big it was going to get. Late that afternoon, Garrett pulled me into giant left. When I got to the bottom of the wave the lip landed on the tail of my board and I vanished for a few seconds in the whitewater explosion. When I reemerged, still on my feet, I heard the crowd on the cliff roar. It was definitely the largest wave I have ever ridden, probably a 60-footer. Even though I wanted a bigger, better wave, I felt like I could go home happy now, and that wave definitely took a lot of pressure off.
I was surprisingly relaxed when I woke up the next morning and saw that the swell had gotten much, much bigger overnight. On giant days I usually don’t like to look at the waves. I remind myself: this is what all the hard training has been for, I’ve done this before, and have the skill to do it again. Once again, we really took our time and never rushed. When we finally got down to the harbour, there was no small talk, everyone was stone-faced and focused. Just getting into the lineup that morning was crazy because there were waves breaking in places we’d never seen them break before. Sandbars a mile out to sea were capping and new peaks were popping up and down the beach. Some of the wave faces looked like they were 100 feet tall. A new world record was definitely a possibility.
There’s no room for distraction when it’s this big, because you’re never in a safe spot and have to be completely focused in order to dodge the bombs. We waited and watched for about 20 minutes just to see what we were in for. Andrew Cotton was up first, and he immediately got whipped into a giant right that was close to 100 feet and maybe even a world record. After he rode it and got back on the jet-ski, Andrew said, “I’m done, I don’t need another one.” Next, Will Skudin rode some beautiful waves before a fog bank rolled in and we had to wait.
By the time it was my turn to surf, I had been sitting on a jet-ski for around three hours. I did my breathing exercises and felt very calm. Even though my first two waves were warm-up waves, I was going as fast as I had ever gone on a surfboard and I was navigating bumps the size of cars in the faces. My third wave was a big one. Garrett towed me into it and when I let go of the rope, I was going down a 60’ wave. About halfway down the face, I hit a bump, and my foot slipped out of the footstrap. When I tried to correct my trajectory, I over-rotated, and in the most critical part of the wave, my legs gave out. I fell, I hit the water so hard that my life vest inflated on its own. As I was cartwheeling down the face, I prepared for the worst: getting sucked over the falls and pushed into the shorebreak at the foot of the cliffs. Miraculously, it didn’t happen. Instead, I was pushed out the back of the wave. Will, seeing how hard I hit the water, thought I’d been knocked unconscious, and he knew that for this rescue there was no margin for error.
Charging in to save me, he hit me with the jet-ski on purpose to make sure he didn’t miss me and lose sight of my body. Even though the jet-ski knocked into me hard, I was grateful to have a waterman like Will watching my back. When I climbed onto the rescue sled, I saw my board floating nearby, which is almost unheard of because we do not wear leashes. I grabbed my board and Will whisked me back out to deep water where Garrett waited on his ski.
“Are you alright?” he asked, concerned because, as he told me later, I “looked drunk” from the beating I had just taken.
“I’m a little shook up,” I said.
Adrenaline was coursing through my body and Garrett had to repeat his next question. “I said, do you want another one?”
Nodding, I slipped onto my board and said, “I want one right now!”
Luckily, I didn’t have too much time to think. I grabbed the rope and 20 seconds later, this giant lump of water popped up right in front of us. When I first saw it, I could tell that it was something special. It looked giant and came in at what’s called “Big Mama Peak.” Waves only break out there when they’re over 70 feet. This was a very, very rare wave and I knew it. Ironically, because of my wipe out, I was in perfect position to catch it. Garrett asked me if I wanted it and when I said yes, he started to tow me into this beast. He was screaming, “go left!” I was angling to go left, but as the wave got closer to the cliff, it started to close out, and I angled back to the right. Instead of being on the shoulder, I was right in the centre of the peak.
It took all of my years of surfing, training and mental preparation to get to the bottom of this wave without wiping out. The speed was like nothing I have ever felt surfing and the moguls I was skipping over were gigantic. If I made a single mistake, I knew that I was going to get smoked. “Don’t let it happen again! Don’t let it happen again!” I repeated this mantra as the steep wave face gave way to the relative calm of the shoulder. Somehow, I made the wave and Will came in, picked me up, and whisked me out to deep water. At first, I was wondering what just happened because my memory of the ride was just a blur. You are so in the present moment and so focused on everything you’re doing that you don’t remember the fine details. That wave was probably only 30 seconds long, but time slows way down on critical waves like these. At first, I was numb. Blank. I wondered what had just happened. I’ve ridden 60’ waves, but this wave felt so much different, so much more powerful, so much more critical that I knew it was bigger than anything I’d ever ridden.
Still, when Will said, “That was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” I was surprised. Garrett, Andrew, and Will are the guys I look up to, they’ve surfed the biggest waves in the world. When I heard the pride in their voices, I was overwhelmed, and my chest grew tight
Looking up into my teammates’ faces, I saw that they felt the same way. Still, when Will said, “That was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” I was surprised. Garrett, Andrew, and Will are the guys I look up to, they’ve surfed the biggest waves in the world. When I heard the pride in their voices, I was overwhelmed, and my chest grew tight. When I felt tears start to sting my eyes, I said to myself, “All right, just let it all out.” I rode my jet-ski out into deep water where I could see the cliff, the lighthouse, the plumes of spray coming off the waves. For 10 minutes I sat there in a wash of emotion and just cried.
When I’d recovered my composure, I rejoined the team. Will got a few more amazing rides and whipped Justine DuPont, an incredible French surfer, into one of the biggest waves of the day. Then Garrett said, “That’s it, we’re heading back to the harbour.” It was time to celebrate. That night I had my first beer in months, we feasted on Indian food, and then passed out. Less than 48 hours later, Portuguese authorities at Nazaré closed the beaches out of fear that the thousands of people lining the cliff to watch were spreading COVID.
My trip to Nazaré couldn’t have worked out better. If it wasn’t for Garrett McNamara, Andrew Cotton, and Will Skudin, I’d have never caught or successfully ridden the biggest wave of my life. And because of that wave, I was invited to compete in this year’s Nazaré big wave contest. Wherever I happen to be in the world, when I hear word of another giant swell heading to Portugal, I’ll be on the next flight to Lisbon. Until then, I’ll be surfing, training and dreaming of speeding down the face of a 100-foot wave.
Cover shot Wateryphotos. A version of this story was also published on Surfline.