While many Europeans were battening down the hatches and heading indoors until the storm known as Saint Jude had passed, a group of surfers in Portugal made their way out into the ocean to catch what may be some of the biggest waves ever ridden.
But it was also a day of high drama as a legendary Brazilian surfer nearly died, only to be rescued by a friend, who then went on to ride one of the biggest waves ever seen – possibly even topping the mythical 100 feet.
The coastline of Praia do Norte, near the fishing village of Nazaré, is known as a surfing paradise, but during the swell whipped up by Monday’s storm it seems the British surfer Andrew Cotton and the Brazilian Carlos Burle surfed waves that may yet break the all-time record, which currently stands at 78ft (23.8m).
The pictures and video emerging from Monday show that surfing is not all about golden Hawaiian sand. The astonishing waves in Portugal rose up from a storm-tossed sea driven in from the Atlantic, as crowds watched wrapped up against the rain.
Saint Jude killed at least 11 people across Europe and the waves were so dangerous in Portugal on Monday that Brazilian star Maya Gabeira was nearly drowned. She was being knocked unconscious and broke her ankle but was rescued by her compatriot Burle.
Cotton, from Devon, and Burle are now waiting to see if one of them will be crowned champion, as experts measure the height of their respective waves. The first images, seen on the Surfer Today website, suggest either one of them may have gone over the current record, set in the same spot in November 2011 by American Garrett McNamara.
The record will be announced in May next year, at the Billabong XXL awards.
Cotton said: “They were absolutely giant waves, I don’t know how you would even begin to measure them. It was really exciting, a big day.”
It was also something of a payback for Cotton. He had towed McNamara out on a jetski to ride the wave that set the record two years ago and it was now the turn of his friend to repay the favour. “I got him the Guinness world record, at the same place, and now he towed me into this one. I’ve been here in Portugal for a month now and we were lucky to be here, in the right spot,” he said.
But big-wave surfing is incredibly hazardous, as the dramatic rescue of Gabeira revealed. “It’s really dangerous out there. It’s frightening, there’s massive amounts of water surging through. It’s deadly,” said Cotton.
“Maya was out on the waves when she came off her board, and was knocked unconscious. She is one of the best surfers in the world, a very experienced big-wave surfer, has surfed everywhere around the world, won numerous awards.”.
Talking to the surfing website Stab shortly after rescuing his friend, Burle spoke about the dramatic moment when he thought she had died. “She got caught inside by a giant wave and she disappeared. Man, she was gone for about five minutes. I couldn’t find her anywhere. I was so scared. I didn’t want to lose my friend, you know? Then I saw her and raced towards her.”
Having found her, Burle then lost her again among the waves and feared that she had drowned, before seeing her floating face down.
Brazilian surfer Carlos Burle, (2nd r) watches footage of himself suring giant waves in Nazare, Portugal. He was towed out by American surfer Garret McNamara, (far r), who holds the record with a 78ft wave, surfed at the very same spot in 2011. Photograph: Miguel Barreira/AP
“She was heading for the rocks. It was terrible. The worst situation I have ever faced. I raced up to her, jumped off the ski and grabbed her. I couldn’t let her go,” he said.
“We got lucky. I got lucky. We got to the beach. I don’t know how, but we made it to the beach. They started administering CPR immediately and she coughed up a bucket load of water and she started breathing. Then they took her away in the ambulance. I was shaking. I’m not the best guy in these situations. I know the ocean, but I wasn’t expecting this. I was in shock and so totally scared,” he said.
After rescuing Gabeira, he headed back out to sea, but despite having possibly just broken the world record, Burle was far more concerned about his friend. “I tell you what made me happy was talking and laughing with Maya in the hospital,” he told Stab.
“She told me that she knew that she was dying and that she felt happy. That she was dying happy. I told her that she might have been happy, but I was way more happy that she didn’t die.”
One of the things that makes Nazaré such a special place for surfers, but also so risky, is its unpredictability, explained Cotton. “It’s a beach, not a point break or a headland, so when the waves break, they could break anywhere. If someone goes down, you don’t know where they will go. It’s really scary. That’s what makes it hard.”. But the risks won’t make him stop. “It’s like anything though, like horse riding … it’s all dangerous. You can’t stop just because someone got hurt.”
Cotton, who is married with two children, has been surfing since he was nine and runs through safety procedures with his team before going out to sea. “We have a safety crew, everyone has radios. It’s not just like nipping down to your local beach; there’s years of training and practice. It’s calculated risk.”
When the big storms such as Saint Jude begin to brew, he has no other thought in his mind than to find the best surf. “That’s what we do. We look at the storm and work out where will be best to get the biggest waves. We’ve been planning for this,” said Cotton, who works as a lifeguard in the summer months. “Britain isn’t famous for its legendary surf. England has a big surfing community, but you have to travel for the big waves. It’s a niche I’ve found myself in.”
But Cotton’s parents reminded him he had more prosaic duties to return to at home. They sent him a message after his morning’s surfing. “Darling, Just read journal of your monster wave this morning. Thrilled to bits and very proud. Well done. Keep safe as we have a new washing machine that needs plumbing in! Loads of Love, Mum & Dad.”