I broke my nose surfing in Nazaré without experience

I honestly never imagined surfing Nazaré…never in a million years. But hey, when the swell went from 60 feet to 20, and the guy with the most hours logged on a Jet Ski in Nazaré offered to tow me, how could I say no? And I’m glad I didn’t. As any surfer knows, all it takes is a good wave to make your session worthwhile. And despite finishing the session with a broken nose, I had my Nazaré wave.

The story begins during the big swell in Nazaré at the end of February. I flew out to film my friend Toby Cunningham surfing giant waves in his Ho Stevie! combination. He ended up using a different suit because he wanted to wear two life jackets, one under his suit (which is why he needed a bigger suit) and one over his suit. But oh my god, did these guys put on a show! Everyone agreed that the waves on Friday February 25 were at least 60 feet, and some of the guys said they even saw a couple of 80 feet.

Nazare Bomb Ho Stevie

A breathtaking angle from the deep wave corner that is Nazaré. Photo: Steve Mara.

The surfers were all strapped to their boards, and with the massive bump on some of those waves, I swear they could have kicked a bus out, like a wet Evel Knievel. Apparently they put metal pellets in their tow boards, to add weight and help absorb the chop. A 25 pound shortboard is pretty normal there!

Get some fresh air at Nazare Ho Stevie

Giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “chop-hop”. Photo: Steve Mara.

People swarmed the cliff from sunrise until late Friday evening, shouting every time a surfer made (or failed to make) a wave. It was like an arena with that crowd, though I doubt the surfers could hear the cheers the whole way through, with 10 skis buzzing around and massive waves crashing left and right. The carnival festival was on Saturday (which locals said would be crazy), and with the swell a few notches, far fewer people showed up on Saturday compared to Friday. I guess they like to party more than surf.

Crowds at Nazare Ho Stevie

If the waves are big in Nazaré, people will come for the show. Photo: Steve Mara.

Toby said he would tow me into the waves if I wanted to. I didn’t really believe him, but if he weren’t going to surf Nazaré in his Ho Stevie! combination, I thought I had to try it myself. Sunday was supposed to be much smaller than Friday, but it was really hard to judge its actual size – we were hoping for 20ft waves. I started nagging Toby into towing me, but when he finally agreed, my excitement turned to nervousness.

Nazare Training Toby Cunningham Ho Stevie

Toby Cunningham gives me the ropes. Photo: Steve Mara.

The night before, Toby gave me the three-minute version of how to surf Nazaré:

1. Do whatever Toby says.
2. Stand up as for wakeboarding (we used a board without straps, so this proved extremely difficult, holding the board against my feet with one hand while holding the rope with the other).
3. Toby will put me in the right place, I just need to let go of the rope and ride the wave.
4. When I come out of the wave, look at Toby, don’t look at the wave and panic (this also turned out to be harder than it looked).
5. Throw the board onto the rescue sled under me and hold on tight.

And just like that, I was ready to be a big wave surfer.

An empty lineup in Nazare

An empty lineup in Nazaré. Photo: Steve Mara.

There were maybe three surfers paddling the waves Sunday morning and a jet ski cruising. I don’t practice breathing, but the thought I reassured myself with was that if I wiped myself off on a 20-30 foot wave, I would only have to hold my breath for 10-20 seconds. But the plan was not to fall.

We went to the marina, mounted the ski and sailed to the lighthouse. By this time in the afternoon the other surfers had left and we had Nazaré to ourselves. Literally just me and Toby. Unreal! When you are on the cliff of Nazaré, it is easy to see the sets coming. But when you’re sitting in the water, all you see are mountains of water moving in what seems like every direction. I just had to believe that Toby would put me in the right place.

We did a few practice runs, where he pulled and towed me a bit. I was surprised at how exhausting it was! There was so much chop there that it was hard enough to stay upright while being towed. After a few failed attempts (it’s about 15 times harder than getting up on a wakeboard), it finally clicked for me. I told Toby to only tow me in a straight, so I didn’t have to deal with the back surf, and it was time to shine.

Tow Surfing Nazare Ho Stevie!

I surf on Nazaré? Really? Photo: Steve Mara.

When Toby said, “Let go!” I let go of the rope, and I was surfing Nazaré! Even after watching the pros a few days before, I wasn’t prepared for the bump on my face, and it almost knocked me out. I did though, and my adrenaline was surging when I kicked.

As we all know, when watching a video of yourself surfing, it’s never as important or critical as it seems. I caught maybe a 15ft wave and rolled a little too far on the shoulder. I was ready to catch at least a few more (hopefully bigger) waves now that I felt like it. But after a few failed attempts to stand up, I was gassed. Toby wanted to play on the inside whitewash (i.e. how scary he could scare me), so we put the board under his leg on the ski, and he told me to stay on the sled and to hang on.

Jump off the jet ski Ho Stevie

Seconds from injury. Photo: Steve Mara.

Kneeling on the sled seemed like the natural thing to do. Looking back, I should have lain on my chest as he whipped me through the whitewash above my head. The first few times went well, even being completely submerged for a split second. Then we took in some air and I didn’t prepare enough for the impact of the landing. My face hit the sled HARD.

Broken Nose Nasare Ho Stevie

A good wave and a broken nose for my efforts. It’s worth it? Photo: Steve Mara.

I felt missing teeth and surprisingly they were all intact. Just a handful of blood when I smelled my nose. It’s time to go home. A terrible way to end this perfect day, but I had my wave. My only, glorious, exhilarating, wave of baby Nazaré. So the next time someone offers to tow you in a wave, say “yes”. Don’t kneel on the sled ;).

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