Editor’s Note: Yesterday, while surfing massive Nazaré, Andrew Cotton was caught in one of those moments every big wave surfer faces: making a split-second decision to go right or left, depending on the situation. And on this occasion, the consequences were dire. Taking off on a massive wave, Cotton chose left and the wave detonated on him, breaking his back. The Englishman was kind enough to send us an email from his hospital bed in Portugal. And the account is riveting, pulling back the curtain on an epic session that could have ended much worse. Thanks to Cotton’s will, and a good rescue crew, he will surf again:
We were all amped this morning as it was looking so good. The waves looked good and the wind was still ok. We knew that the wind was going to pick up through the day so we wanted to make the most of it early on. I was out with Hugo Vau filming for a new documentary about Garrett (McNamara) getting back into big wave surfing after his own injury. We were catching some great waves and I’m loving the new boards I’ve got.
We knew it was heavy, perhaps a little heavier than normal. The wind was north, northeast and holding up the lefts. Garrett noticed a wave a little further towards the inside and I was keen to go for it. The wind had made the waves a little bumpy by this time, but this one seemed to be smooth.
As I came over the top on the rope and dropped down I could tell that this one wasn’t going to barrel. I think that what’s going through your mind at Nazaré when you get a wave in that spot is, “don’t go right if there are more waves behind this one.” Basically, if you go right and end up towards the headland it’s harder for skis to come and get you. If there is a set of waves following you can get washed in towards the cliff, which is really bad news. The lefts are usually longer, and in this wind, more hollow.
I suppose I made the split-second decision to go left based on those factors. I knew I was deep, but that’s part of the fun of surfing Nazaré. You want to get deep to experience the wave properly.
Another split-second decision was to bail off the board. Again, I would normally ride waves like that out until their natural end but I decided to jump. I think I knew it was heavy and wanted to be off the board when it hit (probably saved my knees and ankles). I felt the impact, which to be honest is not easy to describe: what immediately followed was a feeling of lightness or floating. Having seen the footage I now know that I was actually floating.
So I impacted the water on landing and took the wave on the head. Soon after that is when the pain kicked in and I knew something was wrong. I pulled the safety vest I’ve been trailing from Blue Soup and it worked like a dream. Hugo Vau came to get me but I was in too much pain to reach out to grab the sled and was hit by more whitewater. Hugo swung around again and managed to get me.
As we headed in I was trying to hold on to the sled. The pain was pretty intense and I don’t think Hugo realized it was getting pretty difficult for me to hold on. He didn’t know I was injured at this point. On the inside, we had to do a 180 to punch some whitewater and got hit by a refracted wave side on. The ski flipped so I let go and was basically washed in the rest of the way.
Luckily there are lifeguards on the beach during big swells now thanks to the town’s mayor. Nazaré legend Pedro Pisco is working to make things safer for all surfers, especially on big days. The lifeguards did a textbook spinal recovery and got me off the beach and into an ambulance. I was then rushed to the hospital. Well, kind of rushed. I had time to stop along the way and have a chat with Garrett who was obviously concerned.
So I’m still in the hospital in Portugal but very thankful that it wasn’t worse. Looking forward to getting out and starting the rehab…….Thanks to everyone who helped today. So many top people going above and beyond to make sure I was ok. I owe a few people a beer or two.
As told to Joe Carberry.