A woman’s view over Nazaré’s Big Waves

by Maria João Proença 

Back then, Nazaré’s big waves were already feared by the local fishermen who, for lack of an alternative, ventured into the sea, putting their lives at risk to support their families. Today, those same waves bring economic prosperity to this small town.

In 2011, a Hawaian surfer called Garrett McNamara catapulted Nazaré into world fame after surfing the biggest wave ever registered. The world couldn’t believe it. Suddenly, Nazaré became a mecca for big wave surfers and for the curious who wanted to watch their “heroes” riding these massive walls of water.

Joana Andrade, owner of Progress Surf School Ericeira and head surf coach at Aethos Ericeira, was one of the people fascinated by McNamara’s achievement. So much so that she ended up becoming the only Portuguese woman with enough courage and determination to challenge the giant waves of Nazaré. Despite some initial hesitation, there was a little voice inside that just wouldn’t leave her alone. “Oh Joana, maybe you could actually do this… If you only win championships when the waves are big, why not challenge yourself and take this next step?”, Joana recalls. 

Fear was never an impediment. It was and still is, according to Joana, very “important” in the sense that it makes her “more conscious, determined, and disciplined”. The giant waves of Nazaré taught her how to deal with fear: “Ever since I was a child, one of my greatest fears is to drown. The big waves helped me realize that instead of running away from fear, I should go toward it,” she explains.

She would not come to this conclusion overnight. It was, in fact, the result of intense daily physical and psychological training, critical for success in this type of surfing. To stretch and cardio exercises, as well as training of breathing techniques and apnea, Joana adds meditation and yoga sessions to her routine. “Visualization and meditation are part of my preparation before entering the sea.”

Falling on a giant wave is one of a surfer’s greatest fears. When these wipeouts happen, there is a trauma that takes some time to go away. If it ever goes away. Joana admits that, fortunately, she has never had any big scare while surfing in Nazaré. The secret lies in living in the moment. “When it comes to big waves, there’s no time to think about what you’re going to do later, what you’re having for dinner, etc.,” she says. “You have to be present. Any distraction can be fatal.”

Nazaré had a profound impact on her life, causing her discipline and determination to deepen. “I realized that I had a huge inner strength that allowed me to conquer my dreams.” The giant waves ended up opening up several doors for her. Recently, she became the protagonist of the documentary “Big Vs Small”, by Finnish director Minna Dufton, which tells her story as a giant wave surfer. 

As a pioneer woman in Portugal surfing Nazaré’s big waves, Joana often receives messages from other women telling her how they would love to follow in her footsteps. Despite the satisfaction this feedback gives her, the Portuguese surfer warns that it’s not easy: “You need to have previous preparation. You can’t just put on your wetsuit, grab your board and venture into the big waves. You need a team to help you. And to have that team you need sponsorships and substantial financial support .”

Despite her extensive experience as a surf instructor, she admits she would never risk training someone for the big waves. “It’s a very big responsibility. If someone comes to me saying they want to surf in Nazaré, they have to show me that they know how to surf big waves, master the sea and be comfortable in the water when the sea is big. If all these requirements are met, I’m not saying I’ll train that person, but I can show them “the way” to Nazaré.”

Nazaré’s giant wave phenomenon

The phenomenon of Nazaré’s giant waves occurs every year in Praia do Norte, between November and March. These waves are originated by storms that take place in the Atlantic Ocean’s open waters every winter, and accentuated by one of the largest underwater canyons in Europe, the Nazaré Canyon, with an extension of 170 km and a depth of up to 5 km, located near Nazaré’s coast. 

The best place to admire its magnitude and the courage of those who dare to ride them, is next to the Nazaré Lighthouse, in the São Miguel Arcanjo Fort, from which you get a privileged view from above over Praia do Norte.

Giant waves don’t come to Nazaré every day, though. To know when they’re happening, you can ask Aethos Ericeira’s staff or our surf instructor Joana Andrade. You can also follow her on Instagram at @joana_andrade_surf.

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