He wasn’t even sure he wanted to go. Tracking the swell, big-wave surfer Andrew Cotton, known more commonly as Cotty among friends and fellow surfers, was considering the outer banks of the nearby Emerald Isle instead. Mullaghmore, Ireland, was pumping, and aside from or in addition to an ankle injury he’d suffered amidst the frigid tubes of the greener coast — a setback that was still nagging him on a soft warm-up in three-foot surf mere days before he would eventually fly out — he had a good inclination to forgo the excursion south and head back west.
But then Garrett McNamara called. And when Garrett McNamara calls you and tells you otherwise, you listen.
“[He] called me Friday: ‘This is the biggest I’ve ever seen.’”
The big-wave surfing mainstay wasn’t chasing this particular wave, and was scheduled to be there for his on-going work for children with disabilities, but he knew it was going to be big and the big-wave surfer in him wouldn’t subside. For Cotty — following the call from his friend — there wasn’t much hesitation left to overcome. In fact, there was no more hesitation at all.
“I booked a ticket and flew out in the morning. I was at Nazaré by Saturday night.”
Cotty implicitly trusts McNamara, and for good reason. While his introduction to his occasional tow-in partner wasn’t exactly fortuitous, it was a connection based largely on necessity. And when 80-foot waves are coming down overhead, necessity comes in the shape of things or people that keep you afloat.
Back in 2011, Cotty’s partner Al Mennie reached out to McNamara to join them in Ireland for a session. McNamara had different plans — he was heading to the Nazare Canyon — but thought the additional company would be good, after all his team was looking sparse that trip.
“[McNamara] just rang us up. ‘Cotty, I’m going to be in Portugal. You fancy coming down? Tow us about?'”
A 34-year-old plumber and lifeguard from Devon, England, though he’d tell you he was a surfer foremost, Cotty wasn’t going to sleep on the opportunity to go out with a legend and agreed, which might have very well been the best decision he ever made in the way of chasing waves. Since they first skied out into the thick, Cotty’s big wave aptitude has risen significantly.
“Before I started surfing with him, I didn’t think some of the stuff was humanly possible,” the Brit said. “To be better surfer you got to surf with better surfers. See it, experience it. And I want to be a full-time surfer. I want to be able to focus everything around surfing. That’s my dream.”
Two years ago, when Cotty was down in Nazaré staying with McNamara, Cotty was on the internet surfing the web. McNamara told him to get off the computer and to write down goals. “I wrote down eight things to work towards. On that list was travel with my family more, travel to Jaws, win the XXL award, get the best ride nomination. These are the things I want to do.”
It’s this focus and determination that has brought Cotty to where he is today, miles closer to being a full-time surfer. And this necessity goes in both directions. McNamara, in turn, has come to need Cotty. Even more telling is the fact that he has come to respect Cotty.
“Cotty has always been quiet and humble,” the Hawaiian shared. “He is very easy to be around for long periods of time and is easy to get along with.”
How about when it counts? How about when umpteen gallons of water and the impossible force they bring are being dumped down all around?
“In the water, he is pretty much the same as on land,” said McNamara. “The one thing that always stood out was his ability to drive a ski in a beach break of Nazare and in the impact zone. And he is good at safety and that’s the most important thing out there.”
“I wouldn’t do anything that I thought was too dangerous,” Cotty, a husband and father, added. “No one wants to go out and drown. What we do is extreme, but we’re trained and experienced. I don’t want to survive waves, I want to surf waves.”
“The lead up to the swells are the hardest thing. I’m looking where to go.” Cotty was concerned that the oft-fickle Atlantic Ocean would disappoint, and even upon arriving to the Portuguese coast, wasn’t feeling much better about his decision to skip out on Ireland.
Even McNamara was concerned. “I was skeptical of the swell direction and wind, which did end up affecting the conditions of the day,” he agreed. “It was pretty crazy out there, a lot of bump and a lot of wind.”
For local photographer Bruno Aleixo, it was the wind. As he saw reports and forecasts, he thought that it appeared, on charts at least, to have all the potential to be enormous like last October when Cotty surfed a wave estimated to be 80-feet. But the wind was “incognito,” and he wasn’t sure what to expect. Then he drove to the spot where he would look on.
“I remember that it was very cold and a nasty wind when I first arrived,” Aleixo said. “It was chaotic, wild and out of control. The places where they usually catch the waves was really dangerous and almost impossible.”
And when Cotty and McNamara did head out, they avoided the chaotic inside and stayed left. But the left wasn’t much better. The waves not only took a while to develop on the fringe, but when they did come, most broke near to a precarious grouping of rocks.
Still nursing that ankle, Cotty, with his leg taped up, drove first, dropping McNamara into a massive wave that he rode out, never peaking, with Cotty following closely behind. It’d only be one for McNamara, and after that wave passed, they switched places.
A set approached, and McNamara nodded at Cotty. “Do you want it?” he asked.
Cotty sized up the enormity of what was growing fast and coming at him faster. That’s pretty big.
“Of course I want it,” he answered.
McNamara took his direction and steered into the wave. “My wife sits up on the cliff with a walkie talkie and is always telling us what she sees,” he explained. “She kept telling us to head to the north but we only listened a couple times — and one of those was Cotty’s waves. When I was putting him on that one she was actually telling me to put him on the one behind it. Who knows what might have happened if I listened to her!”
But he didn’t listen to her. Soon, Cotty was hurling down the gigantic wave at speeds hovering at 40 miles per hour, expertly placed mid-face by McNamara. From the viral videos that made their rounds, it’s easily gleaned that the ride was bumpy as Cotty visibly bobbles about. And first hand, it was even bumpier than it appears in the short clip.
“It was super bumpy,” he reflected. But bumpy wasn’t all he needed to worry about. “I was going straight down and I begin to hear the wave breaking and think that there’s no way I’m going to make it. I’m going to get mowed.”
Then the whitewall hit, pushing him into an uncontrollable forward momentum. I am going to get absolutely steamrolled. Cotty hit a slight chop and the wave engulfed him. But he wouldn’t stay under long. Pulling the cord to his Patagonia big-wave inflation vest, his wetsuit billowed out like a buoy, and he quickly shot to the surface, where he waited for his pickup after what, at the time, still felt like a rather disappointing ride.
Pulling into the small crowd gathering on shore, nearly three hours after the wave, neither Cotty nor McNamara were all that stoked. It was a good session, sure, but both had only caught one wave apiece, and it didn’t feel any bigger than what they had become accustomed to at Nazaré. Had he flown thousand of miles for one wave?
“When we got to the ramp my wife actually said to me that she thought Cotty was going to be bummed he didn’t go to Ireland because she saw a few photos from over there while we were out in the water,” McNamara said.
They were bummed. “When they were at the harbor I don’t think they thought it was that big,” Aleixo said. “No one was like, ‘Wooow, huge!’”
“My initial when I got out, was that maybe I should’ve gone to Ireland,” Cotty admitted. “It was bumpy. I only caught one wave. And Garrett did, too. I was sort of like, ugh.”
But then Alexo grabbed him. “I was talking to Cotty and said, ‘Mate, you got the biggest wave ever.’ He hadn’t seen the shots yet and when I showed him he was like ‘No way — I have to see the video.”
“It’s amazing what a photo can do,” Cotty added.
The following Tuesday, the media lost it. Cotty was getting calls left and right, from surf publications to nightly news programs and international titles jumping onto the excitement surrounding a possible Guinness World Record. “I couldn’t believe it,” he expressed. “I surf big waves a lot. I suppose with all these bad things that are happening with this terrible weather it was a good story, especially when records are mentioned.”
This attention — far and wide — comes at a good time for him, though. While an invitation to be an alternate at a Big Wave World Tour stop in Spain last fall has been confidence building, his current surf situation with regard to sponsors is the worst it has ever been. His long-time sponsors Analog, who he had also been working with at a more salaried day-to-day level, called it quits in 2012. He was lucky to garner the support of British wetsuit company Tiki Surf, and is as appreciative as one gets for their efforts, but expenses often outweigh what he pulls in. So he works, full time, as a lifeguard and plumber between March and September, often six to seven days a week, saving up for the winter swells. A recent gig with EpicTV filming a series on his adventures was a good grab allowing him more time to focus on surfing, but he still snags odd jobs to make ends meet.
The hope is that all of that changes, and signs are showing that it will. The 80-plus-foot-wave has garnered a Billabong XXL nomination and the entry has a good chance to bring Cotty a much-needed $10,000. His name is also becoming a household one, which attracts more sponsors, and also receives more invitations to competitions.
“The Billabong XXL nomination means the most to me, getting a nod from the surf world, as it does for any surfer. The Guinness world record thing — I never thought about that… the mainstream.”
But he does appreciate the mainstream attention big wave surfing brings to surfing in general.
“I see photos of Slater with the most technical air. That’s really mental how he can do that. But then you show my mum a picture of me on the huge wave, next to the air, and she’s like, ‘Wow.’”
Yet amidst the newfound fame and long desired recognition, Cotty remains humble. “I’m a pretty average surfer,” he says.
“He’s not the guy that is looking on how to get to the spotlight,” Aleixo has observed. “He loves surf. I never saw him brag about a wave.”
Cotty may not be bragging about a wave, or even the wave, but they’re always on his mind.
“Thinking about the next swell — that’s why surfing is so exciting. Next week a bigger wave might be surfed.”