Every year, between October and March, thousands of people visit Nazaré - Portugal to see big wave surfers ride the world’s biggest waves.
The fishermen of Nazaré have long known the secrets of the sea, understanding the mystery behind the mountains of water that crash against Praia do Norte, shaking the earth and echoing the roar of the sea throughout the village.
But this phenomenon has nothing to do with sailors' stories of sea monsters and old folktales. The monster waves of Nazaré are the result of a combination of natural forces that come together in the North Canyon.
How Nazaré's North Canyon creates the World's Biggest Waves
Nobody knows exactly when the giant waves arrive in Nazaré, nor what their duration and size will be, as this phenomenon depends solely on Mother Nature.
When the North wind and the Atlantic currents meet in a certain direction and angle, usually between October and March, the giant waves of Nazaré are formed in the depths of the sea, in a giant hole known as the "North Canyon” (Canhão da Nazaré), considered one of the largest submarine canyons in Europe.
This complex geological zone has always been feared by the local fisherman, who know all too well that the sea around the Fort of S. Miguel Arcanjo holds in its depths several shipwrecks and even a sunken German submarine from World War II.
The unique features of the North Canyon allow the formation of giant waves in exceptional conditions, increasing the size of a normal wave several times. An invisible giant that inspires fear in some, and courage in others... especially giant wave surfers from all over the world!
Big wave surfing in Nazaré Portugal
Although big-wave surfing in Nazaré is recent, Portugal's most famous fishing village has been a popular surf spot for decades, with video recordings showing American surfers enjoying the waves here since the late 1960s.
In the last decade, Nazaré's fame as a surfing location has increased, especially gaining the attention of giant wave surfers from all over the world.
The first surfer to capture this spotlight was Hugo Vau, who on January 17th, 2008 surfed a wave that many present that day believe was the biggest wave ever surfed in Nazaré. Known as "Big Mama", the wave is the biggest ever registered by the ocean buoys of the Portuguese Navy. And although there was a video of Hugo Vau surfing this wave, the poor quality of the images didn't allow the Portuguese surfer to be awarded the world record.
It was only in 2010, with the arrival of the famous American big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara, that the world's attention spiralled again towards Nazaré. Especially after McNamara won the Guinness World Record for the biggest wave surfed in November 2011, after catching a 23.77 metre swell.
Garrett McNamara's giant wave surfing in Nazaré Portugal
American big wave surfer Garrett McNamara thrust Nazaré into world fame in 2011 when he broke the Guiness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed, featured in the HBO hit documentary ‘100 Foot Wave’. Click below to learn how he ended up in Nazaré, his love affair with Portugal and why he moved here with his family in 2021...
That record was broken on November 8, 2017, when Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa caught an even bigger wave at 24.38 meters.
On 11 February 2020, Maya Gabeira set a new Guinness World Record in the women's category of the largest wave surfed, surpassing her previous 2018 record with a 22.4 metre high wave.
World Surf Competitions in Nazaré
Due to these world records, Nazaré has been hosting some of the world's largest surfing events, attracting surfers, journalists and tourists from over the globe.
Along with national championships, between October and February the international championship Nazaré Challenge also takes place, which is part of the Big Wave World Tour of the World Surf League. This event lasts only one day and has no fixed date, depending on the weather forecasts and sea conditions.
Some curious facts:
The best place to see the North Canyon's giant waves is at the Fort of St. Michael the Archangel (also known as "the Lighthouse"), located at the top of the promontory of Sítio. You can also see the waves on the sand of Praia do Norte beach or online, through live streaming platforms.
Among the thousands of people who come to the Lighthouse every year to see the giant waves of Nazaré, not all are surf enthusiasts! Many are simply fans of one of the most spectacular natural wonders of Portugal, not to mention the bravery of the surfers and jet-ski riders who enter the sea in such frightening conditions.
Behind a giant wave surfer, there is always an angel on top of a water bike, a key piece to ensuring that surfers can return to land safely.
Podcast - The Guardian Angel of Nazaré
Sérgio Cosme is a rescue jet-ski rider responsible for saving the lives of the big wave surfers of Nazaré. When Rodrigo Koxa broke the world record for the biggest wave ever surfed, Sérgio was instrumental in not only pulling Koxa onto the wave, but also getting him back into the water after a near-fatal accident in the very same spot…
Getting to Nazaré from Lisbon or Porto
The closest airport to Nazaré is in Lisbon. The journey by car is around 1h30, being the fastest route by the A8 motorway. You can also catch the Expresso bus at Sete Rios station, bound for Nazaré, or take the train at Oriente station or Sete Rios bound for Famalicão da Nazaré, and then take the bus to Nazaré.
If travelling from the North of Portugal, the journey by car is about 2h20, departing from the A1 motorway in Porto towards Lisbon, passing thereafter on the A 25 (Exit 16 - Aveiro/Viseu) to take the A17 and then the A8 (Exit 22 - Nazaré/Alcobaça/Valado dos Frades). If you choose public transport, the best option is to take the Expresso bus at the Campo 24 de Agosto station.
Surf schools in Nazaré
If you want to learn to surf in Nazaré, there are several local surf schools, such as:
Nazaré Surf School - Located on the village beach, Nazaré Surf School rents equipment and offers surf, bodyboard and sup classes from initiation through to competition levels, in private or group lessons.
Surf4 You - Based in Nazaré, Surf4 You provides personalized surf lessons, working only with small groups of friends or family.
Soul Surf School - Accredited by the Portuguese Surf Federation and with qualified instructors by the Portuguese Institute of Sport and Youth, this school trains competition athletes, but also that surfing can be a way of life. The classes are aimed at surfers from 6 years old and up, with three different levels of learning (beginner, intermediate and advanced), in group classes up to a maximum of 6 people or individual classes for 1 or 2 people.
Discover more about Nazaré Portugal
Regardless of whether there are giant waves, the village of Nazaré always has a lot to offer, with leisure activities for all tastes and budgets…
From its vast architectural patrimony, to its traditions and local cuisine, Nazaré has been able to maintain its authenticity throughout the years.
It may be on the crest of a giant wave that the world has "discovered" this unique land, but it is in the many layers of its identity that Nazaré has captivated the attention (and love!) of people from all over the world.