Nazaré: Mother Nature created the canyon wave | Photo: Vitor Estrelinha

The Portuguese town of Nazaré can deliver 100-foot (30.4 meters) waves. How can we explain the Nazaré Canyon geomorphologic phenomenon?

In the 16th century, Portuguese people and army protected Nazaré from pirate attacks, in the Promontório do Sítio, the cliff-top area located 110-meter above the beach.

Today, from this unique site, it is possible to watch the power of the Atlantic Ocean. If you face the salt water from the nearby castle, you can easily spot the famous big waves that pump the quiet village.

What are the mechanics of the Nazaré Canyon? Is there a clear explanation for the size of the local waves? First of all, let us underline the most common swell direction in the region: West and Northwest.

A few miles off the coast of Nazaré, there are drastic differences of depth between the continental shelf and the canyon. When swell heads to shore, it is quickly amplified where the two geomorphologic variables meet causing the formation of big waves.

Furthermore, a water current is channeled by the shore - from North to South - in the direction of the incoming waves, additionally contributing to wave height. Nazaré holds the Guinness World Record for the largest wave ever surfed.

In conclusion, the difference of depths increase wave height, the canyon increases and converges the swell and the local water current helps building the biggest wave in the world. Add a perfect wind speed and direction and welcome to Nazaré.

The Mechanics of the Nazaré Canyon Wave:

1. Swell refraction: difference of depths between the continental shelf and the canyon change swell speed and direction
2. Rapid depth reduction: wave size builds gradually
3. Converging wave: the wave from the canyon and the wave from the continental shelf meet and form a higher one
4. Local water channel: a seashore channel drives water towards the incoming waves to increase their height

a) Wave fronts
b) Head of the Nazaré Canyon
c) Praia do Norte

Nazaré: the canyon, the continental shelf and the local water current | Illustration: Instituto Hidrográfico/Red Bull