At Jaws when things go wrong there’s typically a contingency plan for everything, but as Jesse Richman judiciously warns about the massive wave at Nazaré, “If you end up in the wrong spot you might not make it out.” Inspired to kitesurf the wave if ever everything lined up, Jesse booked a last minute ticket from his home in Maui to meet the swell of the season as it converged on this tiny port town in Portugal. Watching from the long sandy beach to the north of the iconic Nazaré lighthouse, Jesse eyed a monster set jack up in the distance. He had arrived just in time for one of the largest swells to hit the newly discovered icon of big wave surfing since Garrett McNamara dropped in on his 100-foot record-setting wave.
Jesse’s first impression was anything but welcoming. The massive peak unloaded uncomfortably close to the lighthouse with a heaving mass of leftover whitewater imploding on the inside rocks, sending water hundreds of feet into the air. During Jesse’s first morning in Nazaré he’d witnessed one of the most spectacular collisions of water and land he’d ever seen. Jesse had lined up a Nazaré-based tow team as his safety if anything were to go wrong, and the idea was to spend the morning studying the wave and the logistics with his team—yet at that exact moment, he watched UK surfer Andrew Cotton tow-in on a mid-sized left, only to get a fierce pounding by the wave’s monolithic lip.You can watch the backbreaking wave online; Cotton’s crash has been nominated as an entry for the WSL Big Wave Wipeout of the Year. When the lip explodes on Andrew’s head, it ejects him 20 feet into the air before his limp body comes cratering back into the flat face of the wave. By all appearances, it was a savage wipeout followed by a chaotic rescue; as the motionless body washed in towards the beach, it was clear to Jesse that something was seriously wrong with Cotton. A small group congregated around the injured surfer. Meanwhile, Jesse and his safety team, Glyn Ovens and Toby Cunningham, eyed one of the abandoned rescue skis that had been swallowed by a set and was now rag-dolling in the shore pound. They wrestled the rigid safety sled attached to the back and used the foam sled as a backboard to transport Andrew to emergency responders.
If watching a professional surfer break his back on a smaller sized wave wasn’t enough of a warning signal, Jesse noticed an eerie difference between Nazaré and Jaws, the big wave he had mastered in his backyard.