For the uninitiated it would be easy to guess the biggest waves in the world likely break off the shores of Hawaii or perhaps Australia. But over the last ten or so years, a wave known as Nazaré (pronounced ‘Naz-a-ray’) located off the beach of Praia do Norte in a picturesque town on Portugal’s rugged west coast has been drawing the best big wave surfers in the world like moths to the proverbial flame – or in this case, inferno.
Nazaré is a true monster – the wave it’s claimed is most likely to break the magical one-hundred-foot-high barrier that has long been the Holy Grail of big wave surfing. It is a freak of nature created by the Canhão da Nazaré, the largest underwater canyon in Europe. Reaching depths of 16,500 feet, the canyon tapers to a point as it meets land, funneling the swells that have been building and traveling through the Atlantic Ocean upwards into gargantuan towers of water that, when they crest, have nowhere to go but down. It is the faces of these titanic waves where surfers as brave as they are talented place themselves, whipped in by jet skis to try and ensure they have enough speed to outrun the foaming beast chasing them. It’s quite the arena.
That these waves break directly in front of a cliff top viewing platform that puts onloookers so close to the action they can as near as see the whites of the surfers’ eyes has only heightened Nazaré’s notoriety. It’s like it was perfectly sculpted and designed for the video sharing multimedia age.
It was here on 29 October 2020 that German (not a nation famed for its giant surf or professional surfers) Sebastian Steudtner was towed into what has just been ratified by Guinness World Records as the biggest wave ever surfed – an 86ft tower that reduced Steudtner to an almost comical, ant-like scale. It was a record that took nearly two years to award.
Speaking to Spanish newspaper Marca, Steudtner said of his wave, “I had tears coming out of my eyes because of the wind, my face was melting. It was crazy. I didn’t imagine that could happen in surfing until that day.” Speaking to Magicseaweed he added, “I remember thinking, ‘oh that’s fast’. The wave was chattery, crazy. It felt big, but at the time, I wasn’t really sure how big. That’s how it is out there, you just keep going.”
‘Keeping going’ is something Steudtner is very familiar with. He has form in the realm of big waves, but his recent achievements were subject to a strange mishap that cost him dear – both emotionally and financially. In 2018, an enormous wave Steudtner surfed (again at Nazaré) went viral with, to-date, more than a billion views across different platforms making it the most watched and shared wave ever. But for Steudtner the glory and reward was cruelly denied him, as most news outlets and even the odd celebrity incorrectly attributed the footage to the then-World Record holder, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa. Some but not all have since rectified the mistake.
Despite the missed opportunities for funding and sponsorship such coverage would have undoubtedly afforded him, today Steudtner is more philosophical. “The way I look at it now is, maybe I didn’t get the credit for it – we’ll never know why it went out wrong – but it’s probably one of the most successful surfing releases of all time – for me personally, the acknowledgment of the public in that sense, makes it ok for me. People are correcting it when they see it now. The people have spoken. On the business side, it’s messed up [laughs].”
Indeed, it must now be quite satisfying to know he now has – officially – the record for the biggest wave ever surfed. “I’m really proud of this achievement and of my whole team’s performance. It was a dream since I was a kid to become a surfer and I’ve always stayed true to that. I hope my journey and this World Record will inspire lots of others to chase their dreams as well,” he told Magicseaweed. And what it means to him and his future career? “It is great to have, feels like it was destined to be. I’ve been putting all my energy into this, I don’t know who else cares as much as I do out here, it’s great to have this one on the resume, let’s see what comes from it.”
Whether Steudtner has inspired you to don a wetsuit, grab a board and motor into the lineup yourself (don’t do this) or you just want to see one of the most awe-inspiring examples of the raw power of nature balanced with mankind’s overwhelming desire to challenge it, Nazaré is a fantastic vacation destination. A traditional old fishing town fronted by a huge sandy beach steeped in Portuguese tradition, its warm but mild climate makes it a year-round option. But for big wave surfing (watching), October until March offers the best window for those massive winter swells.