As the waves at Nazaré are more dangerous than any other surfing spot in the world, according to Von Rupp, these feats have only been made possible thanks to the establishment of the most stringent safety regime in big wave surfing history.
As well as the jet ski driver, who deposits the surfer on the wave, teams authorised to surf at Nazaré during a big swell must also include a spotter with a radio who keeps the driver informed on the surfer’s location. “When you’re in the white water, you don’t know where anything is, you’re just trying to survive,” explained Salvador, who was put in charge of safety when McNamara landed in Portugal in 2010. There is also a second rescuer on a jet ski, and on big days a third.
Even then, the reality is that you can die, says Joana Andrade, the only Portuguese woman to surf the big waves at Nazaré. She prepared for eight months before her first attempt in 2013, a process that involved physical and spiritual training such as visualisation and breathing techniques. “You can have the physical body super well prepared but it’s your mind that’s going to save you if things go wrong,” she explained. According to Von Rupp, some surfers meditate on their own drowning. “You have to be prepared not to panic if you’re about to pass out, because that’s when you open your mouth and let all your oxygen out. Your best chance of survival is keeping calm.”
If the worst happens, responsibility shifts to the first jet ski driver. For Von Rupp and Andrade, this is Sergio Cosme, who has become known as “the guardian angel of Nazaré”. “If you practise something 100 times, it becomes automatic,” he told me. “In that moment, there are so many concerns in your head and in the case of safety, you have to be able to do things automatically and minimise the time of all the procedures because you only have seconds to do them.”
But years of training doesn’t guarantee a successful rescue, something Cosme struggles to talk about. Last year, his friend, Portuguese big wave surfer Alex Botelho, was knocked unconscious between the waves and stopped breathing for 10 minutes before being rescued by his partner Hugo Vau and resuscitated on the beach. “One day, the worst could happen, and it will be really hard to handle that,” Cosme said.