NAZARE, Portugal >> At the market in the ancient fishing village of Nazare, Portuguese pensioners shopped for their fruit and vegetables. Retired fishermen chatted over coffee. And a record-breaking American surfer sipped on a cucumber and celery smoothie.
It was Garrett McNamara, a 52-year-old from Hawaii who until recently held the world record for the highest wave ever surfed. And who, for most of his life, had never visited Europe and had to take some time to find Portugal on a map.
“I never envisaged this,” said McNamara, who tended to surf in the Pacific Ocean. “Portugal was never a destination.”
For centuries, Nazare was a traditional seaside town, where fishermen taught their children to avoid the huge waves that crashed against the nearby cliffs. But over the past eight years, those same waves have turned the place into an unlikely draw for extreme surfers like McNamara, their fans and the global companies that sponsor the athletes.
Tall as a 10-story building, the waves are caused by a submarine canyon — 3 miles deep, and 125 miles long — that abruptly ends just before the town’s shoreline.
When McNamara first saw the giant walls of water in 2010, “it was like finding the Holy Grail,” he said. “I’d found the elusive wave.”
Up in the town’s 17th-century fort, tourists now ogle surfboards in the same rooms where the marine police used to store confiscated fishing nets. Out in the bay, professional drivers are test-driving new watercrafts, yards from where villagers dry fish on the beach. In the port, surfers rent warehouses next to the quays where fishermen unload their catch.
“It’s a very interesting mixture of history and tradition — and a surfing community,” said Maya Gabeira, who holds the record for the biggest wave ever surfed by a female surfer, achieved at Nazare last January, and who has had a base in the town since 2015. “We’re not the predominant thing here.”
The dynamic constitutes a sea change for both the big-wave surfing world, whose members have historically gravitated toward the surf hubs of Hawaii and California, and the 10,000 villagers of Nazare, who were used to having the place to themselves over the winter.
The story of how it happened depends on who is telling it.
For Dino Casimiro, a local sports teacher, the tale began in 2002, when he was appointed by the former mayor to help popularize water sports among locals, and publicize Nazare’s waves among foreigners.
For Jorge Barroso, the former mayor, the turning point was in 2007, when he gave Casimiro permission to hold a water sports competition off the most northerly — and the most deadly — of the town’s two beaches.
And for the town’s current mayor, Walter Chicharro, the story starts soon after his election in 2013, when he pumped more money into publicizing and professionalizing the town’s surfing scene.
But the watershed moment really came in 2010, when McNamara finally took up a 5-year-old invitation from Casimiro to come to Nazare and try out the waves that break off the town’s north beach.
For all concerned, these were uncharted waters — literally and metaphorically. Not only had McNamara never visited Europe, but the villagers, many of whom knew someone who had died at sea, had never considered their tallest waves swimmable, let alone surfable.
Bodyboarders like Casimiro had long tried their luck. But surfing — particularly in the winter — was thought impossible.
“I thought he was crazy,” said Celeste Botelho, a restaurant owner who gave subsidized meals to McNamara and his team throughout the 2010 winter. “We thought of that beach as a wild beach.”
Botelho even avoided growing too attached to McNamara and his family: She feared he might soon drown.
McNamara was meticulous in his preparation, spending that winter studying the rhythm of the swell and the contours of the seabed, sometimes with the help of the Portuguese navy.
A year later, in 2011, McNamara was ready to surf Nazare’s waves at somewhere near their peak. That November, he conquered a 78-foot wave — turning McNamara into a world record holder, and Nazare into a name recognized throughout the surfing world.
The tourists started to turn up in meaningful numbers in late 2012, eager to see the world’s tallest waves. Previously, the town’s hotels and restaurants emptied out in September. Now they had business year-round.
Under the new mayor, Chicharro, the town’s fort was opened to the new visitors, both as a viewing post for the waves, and a shrine to those who had tamed it. About 40,000 visited it in 2014, while more than 220,000 have entered in 2018.
From surf schools to souvenir shops, surfing is now big business in Nazare.
When Paulo Peixe founded the Nazare Surf School, shortly before McNamara broke the world record, surfers were seen as “guys who don’t like to work,” Peixe said. “Now it’s different. There’s the idea that surfing is good.”
Botelho, initially so fearful of McNamara’s project, has now named her menu after him. The town has played host to a surf-themed film festival, while the World Surf League, professional surfing’s governing body, runs regular competitions here.
“I don’t think there’s any other place on the planet right now that is as popular a big-wave surfing location as Nazare,” said Tim Bonython, a documentary filmmaker, legendary in the surfing world, who recently bought a house in the town.
At least 20 professional surfers stay in Nazare during any given week over the winter, several officials and surfers reckoned. They are drawn not just by the height of the waves, but by their regularity: Big swells hit Nazare for unusually long stretches of the year.
“It’s so consistent,” said David Langer, an American surfer who moved here in 2013. “It’s literally 10 times more active than any other big-wave place.”
Some big-wave surfers have yet to be convinced. The biggest waves here are so tall that it’s hard to tackle them without being towed toward them by a Jet Ski. Purists would rather paddle into the waves unassisted, Bonython said.
And then there’s the risk. All big waves are dangerous, but Nazare is particularly unpredictable.
“It’s unlike any other wave at big-wave spots,” said Andrew Cotton, who broke his back at Nazare last year. At other big-wave sites, he said, the waves break in the same place, “and there’s always a safe zone and an impact zone,” he said, whereas Nazare “is just all over the place.”
The town has now become so used to the presence of surfers, and the business they bring, that even the local fishermen, who sometimes jostle for space in the water with surfers, are generally welcoming.
“Surfers have a different relationship with the sea,” said Joao Carlines, a retired fisherman who now dries fish on the beach for a living. “But I’m happy the town’s become known for surfing because it means we have people coming here in the winter.”