Riding 80ft Waves Takes A Tranquil Mind

At Nazaré, Portugal an undersea canyon at least five kilometres deep funnels the world’s heaviest waves onto a rocky headland, where big wave surfers like Andrew Cotton choose to ride giants, but bravado here can be deadly...

Imagine a column of water the height of Mt Kilimanjaro, being abruptly driven into the shallows by ocean swell, then picture being towed by a jetski onto the path of the wave about to break off the top, onto a beach chewed away by winter surf that detonates like an artillery barrage.

That’s ex-plumber and Devon surfer Andrew Cotton’s day job, one that saw him break his back in a bad wipeout in November 2017, on the same day and in the same place that Rodrigo Koxa set a new Guinness World Record by surfing an 80ft monster.

It’s the kind of setting that you’d expect a gung ho adrenaline junkie to call home, but to survive at Nazaré, you actually need to cultivate a level of calm and lack of ego that would impress a Zen master. Cotton is on his way back to full fitness and another season spent unflinchingly pushing his body, and sport into uncharted territory.

I don’t want to ride a big wave for a photo, I want to ride it for a feeling

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Q: The wipeouts at Nazaré are ferocious – what mindset do you need to be in to make it back to shore?
A:
‘You can’t fight the ocean because you are not going to win. But as human being what we try to do is swim against the current, fight the ocean. You’re not going to beat it, you’ve just got to go with it – you’ve got to flow with it, submitting to the power of the ocean. You can spend so much energy fighting it, but what’s the point? Accept it, go with it and know that everything is going to be alright. And if it’s not then it’s not, you know?’

Q: Saving energy and oxygen is a good survival strategy but how do you get the strength to think like that with an eight-storey tower of water about to land on you?
A:
‘I realised the biggest thing in big wave surfing was confidence. Obviously the fitter you are it helps but it’s not like many other sports where the fittest person wins. It’s an extreme sport so you are pushing what you think you are capable of. I did a freediving course about seven years ago and doubled my breath hold in two days. At that point I just wanted to hold my breath for as long as possible and the guy explained to me very simply that the body is just a machine – you do this and this and you generally get that, which I found really interesting.’

Q: So, how long can you hold your breath for?
A:
’Anywhere between three and five minutes – the best I have done is just over five minutes. That’s a great confidence builder but the reality is that being able to hold your breath statically is nothing like surfing. But you can take some of those techniques that help you get to five minutes and use them in your everyday life – it doesn’t have to be surfing, it can be work, stress.’

Q: Where does the magic in surfing come in, for you?
A:
‘Where everything just comes together and things flow, where you’re going really fast but in slow motion – that’s the magic. It doesn’t have to be the biggest wave in the world but when everything clicks and you enter that flow state, when those moments happen in the sea, where you’re dealing with something that’s also flowing, then it’s pretty amazing.’

Q: You broke your back on the same record-breaking day at Nazaré when an 80ft wave was ridden – is there a theoretical limit to the size of a wave a human can ride?
A:
‘Yes and no. That’s the exciting thing about surfing – it’s never ending. If you are a mountain climber and climb the biggest mountain in the world then what’s left to do, whereas with surfing you just never know what’s around the corner. I could surf the biggest wave today and next week there could be a bigger one. You feel like you are never quite satisfied and chasing something that’s never coming, but then that’s also the draw that keeps you going.’

Q: You are making a good, if painstaking, recovery from crushing your vertebrae – did you think that could end it all?
A:
‘It never entered my head to think it was the end of my career. The day I did it I was chatting to [Nazaré big wave pioneer] Garret McMannara’s wife Nicole, saying I had broken my back and she said to me: “You have to start now referring to it as your healing back. Don’t refer to it as ‘my broken back’ because it’s already healing.” ‘I think it worked – straight away I was thinking positive.’

Q: You spent a whole season searching for a new big wave spot in the open ocean off Ireland – do you think there are new spots yet to be discovered and explored that could push the limits even further?
A:
‘There are loads of places and that’s the exciting thing – it doesn’t have to be a land mass, it can be something out under the water that can make a wave break. It’s good to be looking around the corner and there are other things out there to be discovered. My friend has a catamaran and we had loads of fun sailing between the UK, Ireland and to islands off Madeira – there are places out there you don’t realise exist.’

Q: Everyone talks about the height of big waves but what’s your focus when you are riding these giants?
A:
‘Approaching them like you would approach a two-foot wave, with playfulness like you want to go places – being in a critical spot, turning or being in the barrel – and there are not many big wave surfers that do that. I don’t want to ride a big wave for a photo, I want to ride it for a feeling and you don’t get that feeling hanging on, you get it surfing.’

Find out how you can improve your ocean confidence at Andrew Cotton’s Surf Fit Life fitness retreats at www.surffit.life
Photos by Mikey Corker, Josh Simpson, Mick Corbett

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