Perched atop a rock outcropping overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Nazaré lighthouse has stood sentinel for decades in this corner of Portugal, north of Lisbon, helping guide wayward ships through the rugged, unpredictable surf toward the tiny port town it shares a name with.
In late October, as a deadly storm sent huge swells toward Europe, the lighthouse became a measuring stick for the 70-foot high waves pounding the coastline. Its base served as an informal grandstand for spectators watching elite big wave surfers riding huge, steel blue crests.
Surfers like Sylvio Mancuso and Garrett McNamara rode some of the largest waves ever seen on the Portuguese coast. Jet-skiers buzzed around, ready to make daring rescues in the roiling water. Maya Gabeira – one of Brazil’s most accomplished female surfers – almost drowned after a vicious wipeout.
Then came Carlos Burle’s last wave of the day.
After having helped drag an unconscious Gabiera from the pounding shore break, the 46-year old Brazilian rode back out into the waves, grabbed hold of a rope hanging from the back of a jet-ski and was whipped onto the face of a 72-foot monster made of frigid seawater and foam. Dwarfing the lonely lighthouse, the wave – far and away the biggest of the day – reached its apex, broke in a widow's peak shape, surging forward in both directions – what surfers call an A-frame break.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have to surf this wave,’” Burle told Fox News Latino. “It was bigger than any wave I’ve surfed before.”
With a wall of almost four-story high water chasing him down, Burle cut left on the waves face before attempting outrun the collapsing giant by hooking right. As he neared the bottom of the wave the wash caught up with him and knocked him off his board, sending him into the spin cycle.
“It was one of the rides of my life for sure,” he said. “To me, it was perfect.” It looked pretty perfect on the videos that quickly circulated online and in the media, too.
Burle, Chilean Ramón Navarro and a group of other watermen from Latin America are putting the region – long seen as something of a backwater in big wave surfing – on the radar thanks to their audacious exploits and a media-driven fascination for finding all things bigger, heavier and more perilous.
Television networks broadcast Burle's ride countless times and everyone from big wave pioneer Laird Hamilton to armchair experts commented on it. That one 30 second ride did more to put Latin American big wave surfers in the world’s attention than any previous event had before.
Punta de Lobos
Big wave surfing is outsider corner of an outsider sport. Ever since Californian Greg “Da Bull” Noll made the harrowing drop into 30-foot waves at Waimea Bay on Oahu, Hawaii, in the 1950s, every winter the North Shore has drawn the world's best riders to the Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, Velzyland and Log Cabins – breaks that to big-wave surfers are as iconic as Wrigley Field and Fenway Park are to baseball fans.
For Latin Americans like Burle and Navarro trying to gain exposure in pro surfing, the annual migration to the North Shore of Oahu is a rite of passage and an opportunity for self-promotion.
“We really have to push ourselves and push the limits,” Navarro said. “If you want it, you have got go after it yourself.”
More than 6,000 miles from the Hawaiian Islands is the Chilean commune of Pichilemu, which is home to Navarro, Chile’s first and most famous big wave surfer.
From the commune, it's a 150-foot drop to a black sand beach with a set of huge rocks just offshore. This is the break of Punta de Lobos, which, during winter, throws up waves 20 feet high and barrels that tear almost 600 feet down the coast.
Navarro is a short, compact man with a slowly receding hairline and a scruffy goatee who is frequently garbed in a woolen poncho while running errands around Pichilemu. He looks more like a local fisherman than one of the world’s most best big wave adventurers – which makes sense given that his father made his livelihood on the water, often taking the young Ramón with him to dive for the mollusks that proliferate in the cold Chilean waters.
“I have a really close connection to the ocean thanks to my father and how close I’ve always to it,” Navarro said.
He began surfing at the age of 12. This isolated break – a little over 4 hours south of the Chilean capital of Santiago – proved a boon for Navarro. The swells generated where the Pacific meets the Andes was a perfect playground for Navarro to master big wave skills and to build his confidence, and because few locals surfed and the region wasn't yet a big destination for foreigners, the nonexistent line-ups let him chase whatever waves he wanted to.
Unlike Brazil, however, Chile doesn't have a large surf industry, and the sponsorship deals that come with it. Despite having 3,999 miles of coastline with arguably some of the best surf in the world, magazine shoots were sporadic at best. For decades, Chile existed in surfing obscurity.
“It’s really hard to make a name for yourself in surfing,” Navarro said. “You have to go to places like Hawaii or California where the industry is more built up.”
The Ultimate Thrill
Burle was 18 when he first made the pilgrimage to Hawaii and, besides being shocked by “the difference between the Third World and the First World,” he discovered that he loved challenging himself in the turbulent surf. The booming reef breaks of Hawaii were of a magnitude that the Brazilian surfer had not seen back on the relatively tranquil beaches of his home country.
“When I started surfing big waves, I didn’t know I could make a living,” he said. “I did it because I loved it.”
The learning curve in surfing is fairly steep; in big surf it's even steeper.
“The first wave I went for I got pounded, but I liked it,” Navarro said. “After riding my first wave I knew that I wanted to do this my entire life.”
We really have to push ourselves and push the limits...It’s something that if you want it, you have got go after it yourself.
- Chilean Surfer Ramón Navarro
Big wave surfing is an inherently dangerous pursuit and not something that every surfer can – or wants – to do. Putting one’s life on the line for a chance to ride a colossal wave takes a person who is willing to make a huge sacrifice for the opportunity.
"If you want the ultimate thrill, you've got to be willing to pay the ultimate price,” big wave surfer Mark Foo said, shortly before he died surfing the northern California big wave spot, Mavericks.
Anyone involved in the sport has friends who have died in the ocean, and every surfer knows what the hazards every time he or she paddles out.
Recent technological advancements – inflatable wet-suit vests, cannisters of air for breathing underwater, rescue teams on jet skis – have made the sport a little safer, but Burle cautioned that the best safety precaution is what your mind tells you.
“It comes down to you having the balls and ability,” he said. “There is always a point when you have to think, 'Is this worth this?'”
The Big Time
The Hawaiian apprenticeships of both Burle and Navarro served them well. They both gained notoriety in the North Shore line-ups as some of the gutsiest chargers in the water. Even so, the surf establishment was slow to pick up on the talents of Latin American surfers.
Burle been surfing waves in Hawaii since 1986, but he still had to wait until 1998 for his coming out party at the inaugural Reef Big-Wave World Championships at a spot called Killers of the coast of Todos Santos, Mexico. He paddled out into some viciously large waves and bested the entire field. Back home in Brazil, Burle's victory was celebrated as if it had been the football World Cup, with the surfer appearing on the front pages of the country’s newspapers and making the rounds of TV talk shows.
Eleven years later, Navarro made his appearance on the world stage during a rough windy, winter day at Waimea Bay.
Competing in the 25th annual Quiksilver tournament - which is held in honor of late Hawaiian waterman Eddie Aikau and only when conditions at the bay reach over 30 feet – Navarro paddled into an immense wall of dark blue water. After dropping like an elevator down almost 30 feet, Navarro maintained a squat stance on his board as he was bounced up and down over the windswept face of the wave.
“Ramón’s surfing really proves that he is a real child of the water,” Gary Linden, the director of the Big Wave World Tour, said.
Navarro didn't win "The Eddie," but he did take home a $10,000 check for winning the "Monster Drop" award for his 100-point ride. Not bad for a poor fisherman’s son from Chile.
For years contests were few and far between and big wave surfers distanced themselves from the competitive world tour that took place on non-monster waves and was dominated by the likes of Kelly Slater and Australian Mick Fanning. Instead, big wave surfers preferred to watch for signals of storms churning up swells and would go jetting off to Tahiti, South Africa or wherever the next big one was supposed to roll in.
This, however, began to change around the time that Burle and Navarro came onto the scene, as sponsors and advertisers realized the potential profits to be made off big wave events. In 2009, after years of shaping boards, Linden launched the Big Wave World Tour. With limited spots holding the potential for massive swells, he turned his attention to the Southern Hemisphere.
“There are so many big wave spots in Chile that have never been ridden and there are still places in Peru that have yet to be discovered,” Linden said. “Latin America has more undiscovered surf sports probably than any other spot in the world.”
Navarro helped introduce Linden to his home break at Punta de Lobos and to other spots along the turbulent Pacific coast of South America. Realizing both the surf and market potential of the region, Linden scheduled three out of the six events on this year’s tour in Latin America– Todos Santos Especial in Mexico, the Billabong Pico Alto in Peru and the Quicksilver Ceremonial in Chile – putting Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world firmly in the spotlight of the sport.
“The consistency of the waves in these spots is always great and there is so much talent coming out of the region,” Linden said. “It’s just a natural place for the sport.”
The names on the roster of big-wave surfers in the world tour are a testament to this. Some of the competitors now include Gabriel Villarán of Peru, Brazilians Danilo Couto and Felipe Ceserano and Chilean Fernando Zegers.
For his part Burle, who won the World Tour in 2010, is still competing at the ripe old age of 46, but sees his role in the sport more as a mentor to the younger generation of surfers than as someone pushing the limits.
“I just want to lend my experience to the kids I train. I don’t need to ride the biggest wave in the world anymore,” said Burle, whose 72-footer came very close to being the biggest. “It is nice to see that they’ll have a much better and easier life thanks to exposure than I had when I was growing up.”
Back in Chile, Navarro doesn’t see his role in the sport so much as a mentor but as an explorer. Standing over the cliffs of Punta de Lobos, he knows that to the north and south there are countless reefs, point breaks and hidden coves just waiting to be ridden. And to him that is the true essence of the sport: chasing the wave.
“My next project is to just explore the coast of Chile because there is probably 30 to 70 percent that has not been surfed,” Navarro said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.