Hurricane Epsilon 2020: the historic swell that hit Nazaré

December 7, 2020 | Surfing
Nazaré, October 29, 2020: Hurricane Epsilon generates and delivers unprecedented XXL waves | Photo: Heidi Hansen

"I've been waiting all my life for this swell," says professional big wave surfer Nic von Rupp about 2020's late October storm.

Hurricane Epsilon merged with a low-pressure system near Greenland, generating an unprecedented XXL swell in the North Atlantic.

The combination of the two systems, together with the mechanics of the Nazaré Canyon, created the perfect conditions for some of the largest and cleanest waves ever recorded at Nazaré.

Professional big wave surfers flew in from all over the world to ride the potentially record-breaking liquid mountains at Praia do Norte.

"Having such a giant swell at the beginning of the season is a bit like having the cup final four months early," says British big wave surfer Andrew Cotton.

"Nerves and fears were definitely high, but the challenge is always to turn the fear into focus, be in the moment, and enjoy. Nazaré definitely challenges you in many ways."

Andrew Cotton: the British surfer says Nazaré challenges athletes in many ways | Photo: Heidi Hansen

Energy Through the Roof

Mason Hyce Barnes, from the United States, happened to be in London when the swell approached the coast of Portugal.

He wasted no time in heading straight for Nazaré.

Before this swell, the American had only paddled Nazaré but, on October 29, 2020, Garret McNamara towed him into the biggest wave of his life.

"Thursday was a day I will never forget for the rest of my life. It felt like I was in an arena with all the people on the cliff screaming," said Barnes.

"The energy was through the roof. The biggest waves I, or anyone, has ever seen - no wind, and sunny."

"My biggest wave was the most challenging wave of my life. It took everything I've ever learned not to fall and make it to the end."

"The speed, the bumps, and the size were like nothing I have ever felt in my life. I almost wiped out multiple times, but luckily pulled through and made it safely."

"I had the best team possible that day [Garrett McNamara, Will Skudin, and Andrew Cotton] and owe every moment to them. Thanks to them for keeping me safe, and to the locals for sharing such an amazing place."

Praia do Norte: Human versus Nature | Photo: Heidi Hansen

A Historic Swell

The monster swell delivered all expectations as one surfer after another caught the biggest waves of their lives.

There is a possibility that Andrew Cotton and Lucas "Chumbo" Chianca scored waves larger than the current world record.

We have to wait for the official measurements before knowing for sure. Chianca was ecstatic.

"What an epic day in Nazaré we had. For sure, a historic swell for Nazaré and our lives. On that day, we were expecting something huge, and we just got 100 percent or more than what we expected," stated the Brazilian surfer.

"I was with all my team, so I was feeling super comfortable and great for that day. Me and Kai, we were looking for the biggest waves of the day, so we didn't tow together that day."

"I towed with Ian Cosenza, who is my tow partner for a long time. Kai towed with Carlos Burle, so we could both get the best hours on the rope and we could both surf the biggest waves and perform at the highest level."

"So, after that, I felt ready for whatever wave came our way. It's only when I got out of the water that I realized that one of my waves was that big."

"On the wave, it just felt like 'Oh my gosh, is this wave never going to end?' I was going down the face for so long until the base, and I didn't hit the base yet, and I just saw the closeout coming towards me, and I surfed to the top as fast as I could, screaming to my rescue to get me out of here because the set behind was huge."

"I knew that wave was one of the biggest waves of my life for sure, but I didn't expect it to be big like that. It just felt perfect, but I wanted to keep on going and get some more. It was an amazing day."

Lucas Chianca: he enjoyed a epic big wave surfing session on that October 29, 2020 | Photo: Heidi Hansen

Another Day in the Office for Kai Lenny

We can all agree that it is quite insane charging the big mountains of water at Praia do Norte, but one surfer pushes it beyond the reasonable limits.

Not only does big wave surfer, Kai Lenny, do 360-degree rotations while surfing down monstrous waves, he also brings his GoPro camera to film both his epic rides and wipeouts.

That's something you don't see every day.

"That was some of the biggest surf I've ever seen at Nazaré. What's crazy is that I think it can get way bigger than that," added Lenny.

"I hope sooner than later we have another opportunity at it because on days like that, you learn so much. I had some great rides."

"I also had some great wipeouts. It was also fun to watch my friends catch absolute bombs and rip so hard. I'm grateful everyone came in alive!"

Kei Lenny: foiling in XXL Praia do Norte | Photo: Heidi Hansen

All Elements Aligned

Jose Carlos Molestina, an Ecuadorian big wave surfer and entrepreneur, paints a picture of the perfect day to bring us along on his adventure.

"That day will be imprinted in my brain for a long time. Waves that big with wind conditions that optimal are never easy things to align," expressed Molestina.

"When one sees the waves on the way out of the marina, you can already tell what kind of a day it's going to be."

"That day I had never seen the waves crash so far from the cliff, so I knew Nazaré was in for a world record-breaking day."

"Once in the arena, all the emotions were running high. We were trying to get a read on how 'smooth' the surface of the waves actually were."

"The wave at Nazaré always has smaller waves inside it. This is what makes committing to go down a huge mountain of water expecting water moguls and not fall at a critical point a huge feat of commitment."

"Once my team was in place, the only thing left was just to go for it. Lucas towed me into a bomb and, fortunately, it was to the right, which being a regular footer allowed me to at least catch a glimpse of where the lip was a little better while trying to dodge smaller waves on the way down."

"It was really a ride of a lifetime. It was amazing to share it with good friends and see them have so much fun on that day. Everybody made it out OK and just got reloaded of surf stoke."

Praia do Norte, Nazaré: the eye of the beast | Photo: Heidi Hansen

Life Saving Moments

Professional big wave surfer Toby Cunningham, of California, spends his winters in Nazaré.

He had a close call the morning of October 29 and credits his partner, Glyn Owens, with saving his life.

"Thursday was incredible - 50-70 feet and clean. That's very rare here. I got a giant one in the morning, and my partner Glyn Ovens saved me at the last second," stated Cunningham.

"I would have had the wave essentially land on my head if it were not for him. I'm very thankful for my team and all others who stayed safe out there, and nobody was seriously hurt. It's in days like this that all of our training comes together."

Jet Ski Drivers and Spotters

The majority of the boards seen at Nazaré don the ORG logo.

Eduardo Garcia, surfer and CEO at ORG Surfboards, reflected on the epic conditions that lasted several days.

He considered it a blessing to be there experiencing historic swells with his peers.

"It is with great pride and affection that we see most of the surfers out there with our boards. The performance was incredible, and the athletes' satisfaction was superb," said Garcia.

"I'm proud to see surfers like Lucas Chumbo, João de Macedo, Antonio Silva, Michelle, Caio Vaz, Toby, Pedro Scooby, Nic von Rupp, Andrew Cotton, Maya Gabeira, etc. at their best. Thank you for living it all on the front line."

Without the aid of jet ski drivers and spotters, there is no chance of tackling the famed mountains of water.

Surfing Nazaré would be almost certainly a kamikaze attempt without this teamwork.

At Praia do Norte, sportsmanship, safety, and respect for the power of Nature are held in the highest regard.

In addition to hosting the "Crypto Tips" channel on YouTube, Heidi Cunningham works as a spotter for one of the surf teams.

"As a spotter, you have to be vigilant the entire day, either looking at the horizon for what's to come, or analyzing how the waves are reacting to the canyon, or how the rescue skis need to maneuver to pick up the surfer and manage to escape the inside," explains Heidi.

"You're the eyes in the sky, and you're there to help make sure everyone gets home safe. Thursday was one of those days that brought waves that made my jaw drop."

"Even after six hours in the lighthouse, I couldn't help but continue to be amazed by the raw power of the ocean."

Alemão de Maresias, from Brazil, has long experience as a jet ski pilot and was driving safety for Maya Gabeira and Sebastian Steudtner on the big day.

"Thursday, October 29, was the biggest day I have ever seen in my story of big wave surfing and in Nazaré," underlines Alemão de Maresias.

"I can surely say that, for me and for the team and I was working with, it was a blessed day. It was a dream what happened out there."

"The connection with the team and with Nature. I am super proud and happy to see my friends charging and riding the best waves of their lives."

Jet skis: saving lives in extreme ocean conditions at Nazaré | Photo: Heidi Hansen

"I Never Felt So Alive"

Antonio Cardoso, a professional bodyboarder and big wave surfer from Nazaré, was driving a filmmaker and doing safety this day.

The magic of the day was not lost on him as he fulfilled his duties.

"It's hard to explain, but I never felt so alive. Everyone was motivated by the sweet conditions for a huge swell. And it was really a rare moment because this was the first swell of the winter and one of the biggest in years," added Cardoso.

The rumors about the big swell did not only reach surfers.

The cliff was crowded with people applauding, cheering, and screaming with excitement the whole day.

Flawless Shooting Conditions

Among those on the cliff and surrounding area were photographers.

The death-defying dance - the extreme ballet - between Mother Nature and humans creates a wonderful subject for their cameras to capture.

While the conditions were considered perfect for the surfers, it was also an amazing day with great shooting conditions for those documenting the historic event.

Helio Antonio is one of the local photographers who took advantage of the fantastic conditions.

"The last swell was so exciting. The forecast looked amazing and didn't disappoint. Glassy conditions and once the sets started rolling in, it didn't stop," declared Antonio.

"The big difference in this session was probably that no monster wave got unridden. Everyone was so motivated, and there were lots of amazing rides. There are so many contenders to win the biggest wave award. A lot of surfers killed it!"

The expectations were high, and people came from near and far to surf or watch the show.

However, travel restrictions due to a wave of another sort - Covid-19 - had some surfers, fans, and photographers sidelined and viewing from afar.

A live stream was available online for those unable to attend.

Nazaré: hundreds of photographers and videographers earn a living from shooting surfers at Praia do Norte | Photo: Heidi Hansen

Traveling Limitations

Videographer Steve Cummings - aka Jacuzzi Surfer - usually spends the winters in Nazaré with front-row seats to all the action.

This swell, however, he was forced to attend virtually through the live stream.

"In the days leading up to the October 29 swell, my phone/social media/email and all my surfer friends were asking me the same thing: 'You'll be there, right?'" revealed Cummings.

"The numbers were looking massive. In sheer denial, I tried to find every hole in the armor I could - 'no the period is too short' or 'it's the wrong direction for the perfect swell, it can't happen now, not a chance.'"

"As the days counted down, I knew full well that this was looking like the best swell Nazaré would have in many years, and I wasn't going to be there. I set my alarm for 3:00 (PST) and started streaming the show."

"My phone continued to buzz: 'how is it, bro, I'm so jealous, I wish I was there with you, bro!' Sorry guys, I'm in San Diego."

"Legendary cinematographer, Tim Bonython was commiserating with me, who was in my same position, but in Australia."

"Tim and I are usually on the cliffs of Nazaré filming the whole season, literally yelling across the cliffside to each other 'did you see that sh--? Holy crap!"

"It was a different feeling being a consumer rather than a creator during one of these swells. But still, it was amazing..."

Nazaré is known for its big waves, immense energy, and adrenaline-fueled excitement, but this day was something extraordinary and one to remember.

One thing we know for sure - Nazaré will always provide incredible experiences both on land and on the waves.

Who knows? Maybe the biggest waves are yet to come.


Words by Anndi Bergset and Heidi Hansen

Photos by Heidi Hansen

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