All over Europe, Hercules made headlines. Huge swells hit the European coastlines early in January, and amazing reports of huge conditions filtered in from all over the Atlantic coast. But somehow, the only thing that came out of Nazaré, one of Europe’s most well-known big wave spots, was silence.
I was there, and I can tell you that although the massive walls of water were certainly present, no one was out there. Not a single surfer charged Nazaré’s beautiful monsters. Surfers from all over the globe were present, so what went wrong on such an epic few days in surfing’s history?
Like so many others, I followed this low from its humble beginnings. As things began to look really interesting, I booked a flight to Nazaré, wanting to shoot some unique pictures of this very special weather phenomenon.
When I arrived at the hotel in Nazaré late Sunday night, I was filled with expectations. I felt like a little boy on Christmas Eve. I didn’t know it then, but I was in for a pretty big surprise.
Before I go any further, I’m going to tell a story. It’s about a fishing village called Klitmøller in the northern part of Denmark. In many ways, Nazaré and Klitmøller are similar. They have both grown from old fishing traditions, so the ocean is a big part of the whole spirit of these two villages. And of course, they both offer excellent surfing.
With a financial crises raging over Europe and most of the world, it’s often common for areas like these to be hit hard. No jobs, young people moving to bigger cities, houses suffering from a lack of maintenance… slowly but surely, debt mounts, and whole communities suffer.
It’s a vicious circle – and one that’s hard to break. In the case of Klitmøller, the local authorities have managed to welcome to this new generation of water enthusiasts and professional athletes. The result is a huge success for the whole region. Population growth, job opportunities, new shops opening, lots of tourist money flowing into local businesses. Surfing has changed the whole economic situation for this little town: once a fishing village, it’s now a thriving little surf town.
So what does this little Danish village have to do with Nazaré? Back to my experience in Nazaré and its lack of surfers.
I woke up on Monday morning after a very restless sleep. My subconscious had been listening to the ocean pounding against the shores all night, and I couldn’t wait to see the ocean. I packed my gear and drove directly up to the old lighthouse. It was raining heavily and the wind was howling, so I expected not only difficult surf conditions, but a photographic nightmare as well. But what I didn’t see coming was a huge police roadblock on the road down to the lighthouse.
I parked my car and walked down to the lighthouse. My first assumption was that maybe the swell was so gigantic that the whole area was a danger zone. Then I meet the local police, and they told me I had to have a special license from the Harbor Captain to drive down there. That was a first for me: a license to shoot?
After a long conversation with the police, they let me bypass the road block and drive down. I waited for eight hours in the driving rain and howling wind before I realized that Hercules’ Black Swell was going to peak overnight. I packed it in and drove back the hotel for the night, eagerly anticipating tomorrow.
I awoke early on Tuesday; well before the sun rose. Like the swell, the road block was bigger this time, but again, I managed to get down there again. And this time Hercules delivered. A huge, clean swell was rolling in. No wind and no rain – a perfect day for shooting. It’s just such an amazing place. The old lighthouse, built in 1557, has something magical about it. It creates a unique contrast to the ocean surrounding it. I really love that place.
But this is when it got weird. Nobody was surfing these big clean beauties. I was told that, according to a new Portuguese law, you need a person on the cliff and a hired lifeguard on the beach with a vehicle, both in communication with each other and with two skis in the water.
The fact is, if you make it too difficult or expensive for the planet’s elite big wave surfers, then negative rumors begin to circulate. One of the guys I met said that this was a classic example of how the companies are paying off the local authorities to keep their riders free from any competition.
Rumors have a tendency to grow. A reputation that takes years to build can be destroyed in in an instant. In other words, Nazaré’s great reputation in the surfing community will suffer from such bad rumors, and the ones who lose will be the local community.
On a personal level, I know I’ll think twice before I decide to fly down there again. If I can’t be sure that there will be any action going on, is it worth the risk? And judging from what I heard down there, many of the surfers feel the same way right now.
This is where my little story about Klitmøller becomes relevant. Some big waves surfers travel very long distances to chase these monster swells. If they show up in Nazaré and are met with a lot of bureaucratic frustration, they’ll probably go somewhere else – after all, Nazaré isn’t Europe’s only big wave spot. Although it is essential that a very high level of security is present, most of the surfers are aware of the consequences and don’t take the risks associated with surfing there lightly.
If Nazaré’s authorities decide to stick with these methods, they’re going to miss the opportunity that is sitting right in front of them. If there are no surfers, there are no spectators. No surfers, no media, and no spectators means no tourist money flowing into the local economy. Nazaré has something very precious. The economic potential should be greeted with open arms, like it was in Klitmøller, not squashed by road blocks.