If you’re a fan of surfing, there’s almost 100 percent chance you have at least a cursory understanding of the mechanics behind Nazaré. The wave is the biggest in the world, bar none, and it’s the owner of that title because of a very unique set up. But its arrival on the scene is a relatively recent one, and if you’ve been around for a while, you likely remember what happened when it first popped into public consciousness.
It was back in 2011 when Garrett McNamara first towed a wave that stunned the world there. But it wasn’t all that well received, at least for a few years. Widely shunned by many big wave surfers from around the world, Nazaré was deemed a novelty. But to those who surfed it, it was clear that it was far more. And now the place has, of course, gained the respect it deserves. Sure, it still has the occasional doubter in a comment section, but for the most part, Nazaré has transformed itself into revered wave in the public eye.
But it’s not just transforming public perception — it’s transforming the town itself. For centuries, it’s been a fishing village. The soul of the place lived inside the fish the townspeople caught and sold, but the waves were always there. They were always dangerous. “It was known worldwide precisely for death,” Jorge Barroso, the former Mayor of Nazaré, told Vox. “For the harshness of the sea.”
It claimed the lives of many unfortunate souls, but despite the dangers, fishing thrived as the area’s main industry. Then, almost overnight, big fishing began to take its toll on fish populations. Trawlers slurped up vast numbers, depleting the once-vibrant communities of their most valued resource. It forced the community of Nazaré to find another industry, and it looked to tourism.
Since Portugal is a stunningly beautiful place with stunningly beautiful beaches and a rich cultural history, it wasn’t a hard sell. But beach-goers only came in the summer, and the winter months were barren. So they decided to capitalize on something that had been there as long as the fishing. Big waves.
Enter Garrett McNamara. He got an invite to the place with an interesting proposal. They wanted him to try and surf the place. With any luck, it would draw the attention of the surfing world and boost winter tourism. McNamara trained for a full year before surfing the wave that lit the world on fire. And now, all these years later, the plan has worked. Today, five out of the six biggest waves ever surfed have been at Nazaré. Tourists come in droves to stand atop the now-famous cliff and gawk as people like Maya Gabeira, Nic von Rupp, Rodrigo Koxa, and many others tempt fate.
The town is mostly better for it, but the boost in popularity hasn’t been without its complications. Prices are skyrocketing, and many families can longer afford to live there. Shipbuilding and repair shops are shutting their doors due to lack of business. Some are concerned that the new-normal for Nazaré could turn the place into a town devoted solely to tourists, while forgetting about the needs of those who call it home. With any luck, a balance will be found, because Nazaré’s rich tapestry of culture should be preserved by any means necessary.