Charging Nazaré - Riding Giants with Andrew Cotton
Nazaré. A humble, Portuguese fishing village that became one the most exciting big wave discoveries to date.
The 170km long and 5km deep Nazaré canyon creates the largest and most fear-inducing waves on the planet.
Between November and March, Sítio da Nazaré and its iconic lighthouse has become a hotspot for eager observers hoping to witness the surf show of a lifetime.
As ‘the holy grail’ of big wave surfing, Nazaré attracts a community of intrepid surfers from across the world that dedicate their lives to riding it. One of these big wave riders is North Devon local and dryrobe® Ambassador Andrew Cotton.
Ditching plumbing to pursue his dream to be a professional big wave surfer, Cotty has ridden down the face of some of the most extreme waves recorded in the world. Even after breaking his back after an infamous wipeout, he returned to the big wave surf scene determined to ride the faces of these monstrous walls of water.
Fresh out of big wave season, we had the pleasure of catching up with one of our first ambassadors about his big wave career and connection with Nazaré.
If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to become a big wave surfer, you’re about to find out.
How did the realisation that you wanted to be a big wave surfer come about and how did you get the support you needed to make it happen?
I don’t think there was ever a moment where I realised - I don't even know if I want to be a big wave surfer, to be honest!
I always just wanted to be a surfer. Within surfing, everyone has strengths and weaknesses. And my weaknesses were “surfing” and my strengths were just going straight on bigger waves. There was never a moment.
I think first of all you have to do a few changes to how you operate and how to support your surfing. So I was either trying to work in the surf industry or be self-employed.
I was trying to give myself that time.
Firstly, it was about hassling local companies to support that. And that’s where dryrobe® came in. I think Gideon was one of my first. I met him in a coffee shop in Braunton in 2010, he had some products and told me his plan for dryrobe®, I told him my plan for my surfing and it was like, ‘How can we support each other?’
The same goes for others, I was supported by The Thatch in Croyde and they sponsored me for a bit along with other local brands - that’s how it sort of started really.
You’ve previously mentioned that when you started out big wave surfing with Garrett McNamara, you didn’t really drive a jet ski but dedicated yourself to learning it - how important is willing to learn in this sport?
Being willing to learn new things, is something I wish I’d done more of when I was younger.
Now that I’m getting older, everything compliments each other. You can get so narrow-minded and focussed on just surfing or shortboarding, without realising that every sport contributes to everything - like cross-training.
So, if I was to talk to my younger self and I’d be like, ‘Do everything as much as possible.’ Every other sport - it’s all connected.
But driving the ski, it’s super important. One, they’re great safety tools but it also opens you up - you look at the ocean in a different way, how you read it, and also how you surf it as well.
Same with foiling, you look at the wave and look at the ocean in a different way. Same with longboarding or kitesurfing or windsurfing - everything is all linked in.
You’ve got to look at the best guys now, Kai Lenny and even Lucas Chumbo, they don’t just surf they do everything and that’s why they’re the best.
Do you think that’s where the other elements are going? Like, foiling has gone from standard progression to the flips they’re now doing?! It’s bizarre.
But even Kai was doing snowboarding - and I’ve never really done snowboarding, except for in the last year. Even just going fast down a hill on a board, it’s connected to surfing and big wave surfing, the weight transfer and just being used to going fast on a board.
We’ve sort of seen that with Justine - you’ve introduced your family to big wave surfing.
Yeah, she’s never really surfed but she’s exceptionally good on snowboards and skis. And she’s taken to big wave surfing leaps and bounds. Even some of my mates that have surfed since a kid, you tow them into a wave and it’s just alien to them. Justine’s probably surfed a handful of waves and she already understands it.
Can you remember the point in your big wave career where you were like, I love this and want to keep doing it for as long as possible?
I think you get those moments all the time throughout the year, but I think the defining moment was perhaps when Ace was coming along (my son) and that realisation that you were going to be a Dad and there are different responsibilities. And then knowing that you can either do big wave surfing as a job and a career - and try and make some money out of it or maybe do it once a year - if I can do that.
I think that was a bit like ‘Ok, got to get a bit more professional here and make it count.’ That was a big turning point.
There were a couple of moments last year - me and Josh (my mate who lives near me) and we were going foiling one morning. It was 5 o’clock in the morning and we launched from Velator. We were going down with the ski and the sun was rising - a bright red sunrise. And we were like, ‘Technically we’re going to work. This is the dream!’
It’s kind of crazy, to think about when you started 12 years ago, it coincided amazingly with the internet and the pioneering of actual full-time big wave surfing.
You never realise that at the time, it’s all just normal. But looking back, I was super fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with the right people. But it’s like anything, you don’t realise that at the time. At the time, you’re just doing it.
Now if you were asking yourself the question, can I have a career in big wave surfing - now the answer is yes. But then, it was so new.
I always thought it would be I’d have to support it with either plumbing or lifeguarding or some sort of business venture. And to be honest, I still do that now. Next week I’m going to New York to do a talk. So you’re not like a full-time professional surfer, whatever that means, whatever that is.
I suppose, nowadays there are a lot of athletes that are entrepreneurs and have to think outside the box to fund their sport.
You’re based in North Devon, but obviously, you’ve spent a lot of time in Nazaré. What does this area mean to you and does it ever feel like a home from home?
Yeah for me Nazaré has turned into the holy grail of big wave surfing I guess - which is strange because when I was kid, it was always Waimea as a big wave surfer and you go to North Shore and surf Waimea and paddle big there.
Now it’s almost like if you want to surf big waves, you’ve got to go to Nazaré and train there.
And that’s really cool as there are loads of opportunities, obviously for me, but it also opens up loads of opportunities for other European surfers because it’s cheaper to get to,it’s affordable and it’s doable. Whereas Hawaii just isn’t, and I think that’s great.
You can see that through the talent coming through. Now there’s a core of young kids and European surfers that are absolutely killing it. I think it’s a really good time to be chasing big waves in Europe. It’s an exciting time.
It’s crazy to think if you compared it to Hiking, originally you thought your Everest was over in Hawaii and then you realised your Everest is actually in Europe and way bigger than your original Everest.
Yeah, you just go on by what you’re told. So you open the magazines and books or watch VHS tapes and you’d see Waimea or Mavericks and it’s like ‘OK, that’s where you’ve got to go.’
But then realising, actually no, you’ve got it on your doorstep - it’s really cool.
And the talent - there’s a couple of really amazing French kids, which again, they paddle surf, tow, foil. You’ve got Ben Lark who’s a young Scottish kid - another really good talent.
Do you find yourself mentoring them?
No, I wouldn't say I’m a mentor. To be honest, hanging with the younger lads and seeing, like the waves that Taz paddled last month - seeing that for me was just motivating. So I’m using them to sort of try and keep my level up.
It must be fun to hang out with them and see what they’re up to.
They’ve still got another 20, 30 years of doing what they’re doing so the level of how good they’re going to get and how far they’re going to go with surfing is crazy, it’s really exciting.
So talking about the relationships in surfing, Nicole McNamara has described you as Garrett’s ‘chosen one’ and that he really wants you to succeed in the sport. And in turn, you’ve said that ‘Garrett’s waves are my career highlights.’ How important are the trusting relationships/ friendships you have with your peers in big wave surfing?
I think relationships, not just in surfing but anything - doing something on your own is just… you need someone to bounce off, and finding the right people to push you in the right way and in a healthy way is super important.
And Garrett has been key to me because he made me understand what was possible and how you could humanly survive in the water and how you approach big waves.
Guess it’s the closest thing to a team sport in surfing?
Even if you want to win the CT or go on the QS, you need someone to push your performances and bounce off. Even though you’re not a team, you need someone to push you because if you go surfing by yourself or train the whole time, you get into that rhythm where you’re not really pushing yourself.
It’s the same for any sport. Even just going to the gym and doing a workout, sometimes it’s good to mix it up and train with someone else because they might be going that little bit harder or vice versa!
And that goes back to me surfing with some of the younger lads and seeing what they’re doing - that pushes it.
That’s one of the things around big wave surfing, you’re at the elite level in that sport but you don’t really have a coach.
I do believe that’s changing. I don’t know whether it’s me getting older, but I’ve definitely taken my training more seriously over the last few years.
After a few big injuries, you learn a lot about your body but also about your fitness and how I want to keep going. I need to think about movement, injuries, and being healthy. Along with the best way to train, programmes, and eating healthier - he says just eating three bits of cake haha
Every year now, with RedBull we go and get tested to see where we are with our fitness and highlight things we need to work on and imbalance - because it’s all about improving. Constantly improving.
Whenever you see those clips of all the athletes training with Red Bull it seems like such a cool atmosphere and place to be.
It’s a pretty cool facility they’ve got there. Surfing wasn't that ‘sporty’, and did things like testing. Now it is.
Were there any surfers that inspired you to pursue your career as a professional surfer?
I suppose growing up, it was all local - like surfing in the Croyde surf club contests, it was like Scott Rannochan and Matt Jenkins were the top guys and they won everything. And you wanted to always surf like them.
Ralph Freeman, was the local big wave surfer and you’d hear stories of him going to Madiera and charging giant waves in Madiera and Hawaii.
They were the guys who influenced me the most through my younger years, so I’d say those guys really - the local legends.
You said that while you were a plumber, you were barely surfing and you hated it. How does being in the sea improve your mental well-being?
I think it’s just exercise in general, and it’s about getting into good rhythms and good routines. And that’s not to say you can’t get into a good routine and work full time - it’s just that while I was working I got out of that routine. Being active, doing sport, and being in the sea, it helps you switch off and forget about stuff. It’s important.
We kid ourselves that there’s no time, but it’s just about making time. It only needs to be half an hour, whether that’s going for a walk, going for a swim or a quick surf, or going to the gym, you can definitely make time. I think more people do it now, it’s definitely a thing that people do.
It’s easy to get into bad habits, you’ve got to remind yourself to make time to get outdoors.
In the summer, you push yourself, while the sea is flat, to do some of your best physical training ready for the next big wave season. What are you aiming for with your training?
So it’s the saying ‘fit to crash.’ Throughout the season, you usually pick up little injuries or little imbalances - a lot of it is imbalances. You end up getting stronger on one side and therefore your body imbalances and sort of get a sore back or shoulders. So, the off-season is working on those. It’s like working on movement patterns, my imbalances, and general fitness.
The goal is to be fit, pain-free and to be able to take impact.
That training has definitely changed a little as you get a bit older. Less on the weight, but more endurance, and work more on movement patterns. So being able to move nicely and pain-free and still keep up that quickness.
What is your version of being fit for big wave surfing? Like a marathon runner will train to be able to run as long as possible, a footballer is about agility and turn of speed. So what do you think about what is key?
Being strong and mobile - so you need to be able to take a hit. Knowing how to deal with the high impact that is coming.
A few years ago I was doing loads of yoga, but I kept getting injured. I was quite flexible but wasn’t strong enough in some of these positions, so then I was like, ‘I don’t need to be as mobile.’ So I sacked off the yoga and started doing a bit more pilates, and then working on different movement patterns with Blakey.
I think you can still keep getting stronger and better. It doesn’t just stop, you can keep going.
When you envision some of the older big wave surfers, they just look as strong as an ox. Like, been there, done that and they can handle it. And you can see that in them and their physical attributes.
Yeah, and I think that’s motivating. Like in your 20s, you kind of think that you can’t always keep on continuing and improving. By 25 or 30, it’s done or it’s not possible.
Your ability to hold your breath underwater - not seen anything like it. Is that something you take into your training, like 'This season I need to be able to hold it for a certain amount of time?'
The breath-holding is really good confidence-building.
Previously we used to loads of long breath holds - so calm it down and try to hold it for as long as you can. Now it’s more about, breath holding shorter times and higher heart rate to make it more relevant to what we’re doing and you’re mimicking more how you have to hold your breath.
A lot of it’s to do with your mind - your mind can play tricks on you and can limit you. And that’s when panic sets in because your mind is telling you that you need to breathe. Understanding that your mind is going to tell you a lot of things, but it’s not necessarily the right thing.
How do you mentally deal with the nervousness around a big wave session in the sea and how do you keep calm if it’s getting dangerous out there?
That goes into the breathing and understanding that it’s ok to be scared - fear’s all good and healthy - it’s normal. Everyone gets scared and everyone has fear. So that's the biggest thing, that it’s ok to be scared. But pushing through fear is also pretty rewarding and to not let it get the best of you.
The classic saying is ‘Fear’s healthy, panic’s deadly.’
So simple things like nasal breathing and thinking about what you want to do and how you want it. Not thinking about the worst-case scenario.
You’ve got a massive social media following and an amazing presence online! Does this add to the pressure in any way or is it pretty motivating?
It’s a tough one. Social media is such a big part of what we do now.
It does take up a lot of time and sucks time away. But the messages you get or the conversations you have with people you’ve never met can be really motivating as well.
It’s trying to manage that and not take up too much time, but also give back to the people who are messaging or commenting.
And it’s a good way to get your content out there. For me as an athlete, I can share my waves and training sessions or my daily routines or my life - whereas that hasn't always been possible.
It’s good to leverage that and make the most of it.
Sometimes the most random things take off and get the views and the likes. Sometimes you get caught too up on likes etc., and you can spend ages doing an edit or sharing your best moments - and it doesn’t do as well as a single wave, which you don’t hold in high regard and it goes nuts!
You’ve travelled all over the world to some incredible places including Waimea Bay where you got your first taste of big wave surfing. When asked where your favourite surf locations are they’ve included Nazaré and Ireland - what do you love about these harsher and colder places?
I think it’s just what’s more familiar to home. It is amazing going to the dream locations, but there’s something about the cold. It keeps the crowds down a little bit, you have to work that little bit harder and you have to be more prepared. And when you do get those good days or the dream sessions, sometimes they mean a little bit more.
There’s a certain type of person that puts the time into those cold environments.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely to go to the tropical paradises, but there is something about spending time in Ireland and Portugal. Portugal is relatively warm, but it’s definitely not Hawaii, especially in January and February.
It goes back to that thing, it’s not just a given, you’ve got to really want it. You’ve got to go that extra mile to put that time in and devote that energy.
Thinking back to those early days in Ireland, it was just you and a few lads...It’s come a long way there since then but there were waves that were viewed as unsurfable are now surfable.
Again, you need people to help show you the way on what’s surfable.
I remember looking at Mullaghmore years ago and thinking that’s not surfable, it’s not even towable, and now guys are paddling it! So it just takes a couple of people to show the way. And all the equipment that comes with that and how wetsuits have been developed, things like dryrobes that keep you warm and make it more enjoyable.
Have you got your eye on any other potential ‘didn't use to be surfable but is now surfable waves’?
I’m a little bit out of the loop really. There are still a few spots in Ireland that I remember seeing years ago that we still check on. I haven't really been searching for a while, but maybe it’s time to do that.
Ben Larg, the young Scottish lad was sending me some photos of some crazy waves in Scotland that he wanted to surf, so maybe next season.
After the incredible success of the critically acclaimed HBO series 100ft Wave, the second series is out. What’s it like to see the recognition of big wave surfing develop to a bigger audience?
I think it’s really exciting and going back to social media, I’ve had a lot of messages from people who have said they’ve never surfed and now it's on their bucket list as a sport to try out.
As surfers, or anyone who’s into a sport, you surround yourself with like-minded people and you think it’s bigger than it is. You think everyone knows about surfing and big wave surfing and you forget that actually, no, no one does!
It’s just this tiny bubble that we’re involved in and yeah we surround ourselves with everyone who talks about it but outside that bubble, no one’s got a clue.
I think the guys at HBO, like the directors, Chris Smith and Joe Lewis, and Garrett and Nicole, have done an amazing job to bridge that core, niche sport to the mainstream, made a human story out of that, and made it interesting. That’s really hard to do.
Especially to keep the core audience engaged too. Sometimes you can lose your core audience and I think they’ve done a really good job of ticking both boxes. It’s still interesting to surfers, yet it’s still understandable and relatable to the mainstream audience.
You can see from the storylines that it’s like normal people doing extraordinary things and people can find it relatable and accessible content.
Yeah, I think it’s a really good achievement and I think it gives more attention to surfers and it gives loads of opportunities to surfers.
I’ve had lots more opportunities out of it but hopefully, it will inspire another generation to get more out of it.
What have you got lined up for the rest of the year?
Just doing some surfing hopefully and training and doing some talks for companies and brands - just keeping busy.
You finish the season in Nazare and you’re glad it’s over, but the second it finishes you almost start preparing for the next season and you’re counting down the days, the months. I just started a training programme with Blakey and started working on some new board designs which hopefully will improve performance.
And we’re filming season three of 100ft Wave.
What does success look like for you over the next 12 months?
There are certain goals you obviously want to achieve but actually, I think success is enjoying that journey. And sometimes that’s hard to do. But if you can just step back and enjoy it, I think that’s success.
Rather than stressing out about it or being down about not doing as well or not getting that wave. Just trying to enjoy it, which is hard to do! Just appreciating that time. I think my best surfing is always when I take the pressure off. If I put too much pressure on, I end up making silly mistakes, getting frustrated and pissed off - then you end up going backward. But if you take the pressure off a little bit and you get in the flow, that’s when you get your best waves.
What advice would you give to any aspiring big wave surfers, especially the youth?
I would say try every sport, enjoy it, don't take it too seriously, it’s a marathon.
I think we’re all like, ‘We’ve got to be pro and 17 or 18’ but no you really don't. And that goes with education and jobs as well.
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Cotty wears the Black Camo Black dryrobe® Advance