Nazaré swell takes big wave riding to new heights of risk

I don’t believe you should want to die doing something you love. What fun is never again being able to do something you love. No, that’s not a question.

You should die doing something you hate. Like math. Or watching Grey’s Anatomy.

This is why I don’t understand the infatuation with riding waves like the ones in this video, taken recently at the big wave break in Nazaré, Portugal, and now “trending” all over non-surf related news sites.

A storm awoke gargantuan sets of muscular, plodding waves that looked more like Appalachian hillsides than surfable waves and there to be towed in to them was a collective of common big wave wranglers like Garrett McNamara and Carlos Burle, who was there specifically to top McNamara’s big wave record.

Maya Gabeira, also an accomplished big water artist, had to be rescued from the tumultuous froth as onlookers stared from above at the invading tidal beasts, which appear even more monstrous when camera perspective skews our viewing angles.

Gabeira was rag-dolled several times by the tumultuous white stew before Burle finally bailed from his sled to drag her to shore for CPR.

Those who surf know the feeling of being caught inside. Few other emotions are as visceral, or so physically manifested in the stomach. It’s a wave-to-wave, oxygen-depleting  existence. Get through this next one. Go back under and wait. Hope for the sun.

Surfing to many is knee-high beach break and carefree lessons captured in surfboard shaped frames for the stairwell. Soft top boards and rented wetsuits.

Probably, that’s what surfing should always be. Or perhaps only slightly more advanced versions of those experiences.

But even at the moderate level, surfing makes no excuses about indifferently coupling a reason to live with the potential for death.

As much I as love to surf, it has scared me more times than climbing. I’d rather find myself off-route on a dissipating finger crack than on the inside of a freak set. Waves know no end, they continue forward without the slightest concern for what’s floating in their path. Human life is just more flotsam and jetsam.

I don’t doubt for a second the skill of these riders and I couldn’t care less about the politics of tow-in surfing. What I deeply question is the comfort these riders have with death. I want to know why they willingly accept odds that suggest never returning to the surface is more likely than rescue should they need to bail or realize too late that the wave they chose was too fast and closing too soon.

Wave measurement being as subjective as it is, whether or not Burle broke McNamara’s wave height record will be debated for some time. If it sells more Red Bull, then it was probably bigger.

Is tow-in surfing going too far?

There is no shortage of surfing purists who believe tow-in surfing is a far cry from the true roots of wave riding. While some will go so far as to publicly disparage it, the majority of its opponents, for lack of a better term, will engage in a form of fence-sitting, politely acknowledging its existence but not going so far as to call it the evolution of the sport.

More over, does the collective reticence from modern surfing’s forefathers really suggest that tow-in is not even really surfing, but an entirely different sport?

There is no second-guessing the skill of those who can maintain control under the speed and volume of water that tow-in type waves create and by all means, these guys are great watermen. The growth of tow-in surfing, however, has taken the spirit of surfing and injected it with an adrenaline-laced cocktail of performance-enhancing machinery and made-for-TV commercialism.

(Then again, so have the folks at Quicksilver, Hollister and Volcom.)

Think about it. When is the last longboarding competition you’ve seen backed by television advertisers? No, I’m not suggesting lonboarding is the defining essence of surfing but it is without question the salt of surfing’s earth.

Tow-in wave riding has made what should not be accessible to most accessible to many. It also operates largely without the ingrained sense of etiquette that surrounds surfing. Does tow-in drown the defining concepts of the sport in a din of four-stroke recklessness? It can be argued.

The video in this post shows several surfers taking falls that could easily result in death. Yet, far too many people won’t get all that nervous when they watch hundreds of thousands of ocean current-fueled gallons of whitewater toss a rider like a kelp leaf because, idling just outside the death zone is a wave runner and life jacket, as if that’s all it takes to render flaccid the break of a 50-foot wave.

Big wave surfing, the stuff of Greg Noll and Jeff Clark, seems to me to be the better evolution of surfing. Tow-in wave riding, while admittedly intoxicating to take in, has pushed itself into its own realm. Unfortunately, it’s created an offshoot of surfing that is growing further away from its paternal influence. While that separation in direction does not make it inherently bad, it does require a great deal more supervision.