Hell’s Swells

By Kim Schiffmann, in Surfing · 13-11-2020 01:00:00 · 0 Comments
Hell’s Swells

The idea of sitting out on the ocean, becoming one with the elements, feet dangling off the board, maybe watching some dolphins leap out the shimmering water and swim towards the sunset while waiting for the next wave to ride, might make surfing seem like a calming sport. And it can be. Just not in Nazaré´s Praia do Norte during the big wave season.

This is no place for beginners, and even professional surfers are reluctant to try what the big wave surfers eagerly await; waves the size of ten story buildings, created by a rare combination of environmental conditions. To be very honest with you, I still wonder sometimes what makes people want to throw themselves down a moving mountain of water, armed with nothing but a surfboard, an inflatable rescue vest and an extra big portion of courage with a sprinkle of death wish, but having surfed a little bit, I do understand the thrill and, like any extreme sport, the adrenaline you get when (or if) you successfully surfed a wave that size, must just make it all worth it.

The official world record for the biggest wave ever surfed belongs to Rordigo Koxa, a Brazilian big wave surfer, who topped Garrett McNamara’s previous record of 78ft (23.77m) by another 2ft, surfing an 80ft (24.38m) wave. In January of 2019, two years after Rodrigo Koxa’s 80ft wave, Hugo Vau, a Portuguese surfer, claimed to have broken the world record again with a wave measuring a staggering 115ft (35m), though this has never been confirmed. All of those waves were surfed in Nazaré.

But what makes Nazaré’s waves so big? Underneath the ocean, less than a mile away from shore lies one of the largest submarine canyons in Europe which reaches a depth of 5,001m and is 227km long. Just to give you an idea, the Grand Canyon’s lowest point lies at 1,829m.

In the winter and autumn months, also known as the big wave season, storms out on the Atlantic can cause large swells that propagate waves, those waves would usually slow down and get smaller as they reach the coast due to the rising seafloor. Here though, the seafloor drops and the water has no other option but to rush to fill the space. This separates the wave into two and increases the speed of the one travelling down the canyon until it reunites with the swell coming from the shallower continental shelf. So actually, the giant waves we see, are two waves stacked on top of each other. Combine this with the currents, wind, wave period and swell direction and you truly get one hell of a wave.



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