Sampling Europe’s best (and scariest) big-wave spots

Big-wave surfing has become ingrained in European surf culture — epitomized in 2011, when Garrett McNamara set a world record for surfing a 78-foot monster at Nazaré, Portugal. In light of Nazaré being added to the 2016/2017 Big Wave Tour, we explored other European big waves and the hazards surfers face tackling these vast mountains of water.

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The rococo brilliance of a cresting wave that lures us in the larger it becomes is deceptive. You’re unlikely to be attacked by a shark, yet you’ve still got plenty of hazards (as ever when surfing big waves) in Europe.

Nazaré, Portugal

This iconic, powerful beachbreak, just north of Lisbon, has captured the world with the unruly-sized waves that are produced here. We caught up with local big-wave surfer Alex Botelho to ask what it’s like to surf Nazaré.

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“It’s truly unique in terms of surfable waves, as it’s pushing the limits of what is possible on any wave-riding vehicle,” Botelho says. “It’s definitely an amusing place for me to surf — challenging, fun and scary at the same time.”

Alex Botelho dropping in at Nazaré. Photo: Courtesy of Tó Mané

The Nazaré canyon, at around 16,000 feet deep and 140 miles long, allows Atlantic swell to arrive unhindered at the beach, producing enormous waves. As Botelho notes, “It’s probably the most intense place in the water I’ve been; the concentration of all that swell in the canyon is funneled and released onto one relatively small area on the beach, and you can really feel that in the inside, where anything that stands there gets swept away.”

Mullaghmore Head, Ireland

Rocks, rips and relentlessly heavy barrels: Welcome to Mullaghmore.

A spot plagued by icy-cold water with plenty of wind and rain. Slippery boulders hinder a smooth entrance, making the leap off the rocks risky; rips are everywhere, and the sheer volume of water churning and swirling around makes surfing this spot sketchy from the offset. Then there is the wave itself.

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I spoke with Seamus McGoldrick, a local rider at Mullaghmore, who warns of “tweaked necks, burst eardrums, blackouts and hitting the reef.” He concludes, “There are lots of hazards to consider when riding Mullaghmore, but if it wasn’t dangerous, it probably wouldn’t be as much fun.”

Belharra, French Basque Country

Jamie Mitchell tackling bulky Belharra. Photo: Courtesy of Aurélien Laborde Photography
Big, bulky Belharra breaks in the French Basque Country and proves rather hazardous for surfers getting into the wave under their own power. When armed with a Jet Ski, it’s easier to whisk rapidly away from the danger, but for those paddling, the wave can quickly shift, leaving them in the impact zone.

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Added to this, there are long breaks in sets, so it can be tricky to stay warm. Since the wave isn’t breaking over rocks or reef, but deep out at sea, some surfers opt not to wear leashes, which can aid them in a quick rescue if things turn pear-shaped here.

The Cribbar, England

Otherwise known as “The Widow Maker.” Photo: Courtesy of Dom Moore
This Cornish spot works rarely, but it’s nicknamed “The Widow Maker” for a reason. It’s half a mile out to sea, calling for a beefy paddle out, and if you come off your board, you’ll be precariously positioned in front of the headland near the rocks.

“The Cribbar is a treacherous piece of water that demands understanding and respect,” explains Dom Moore, a local at this spot. “I’ve seen a punctured lung out there and a shattered ankle bone when the lip landed on a guy’s back.”

Yet time it right and you’ll “get the steepest, fastest takeoffs — the kind that literally suck your breath away,” says Moore.

La Vaca Gigante, Spain

This beefy wave is called “The Giant Cow” for good reason. Photo: Courtesy of La Vaca Gigante
“The predominant danger here is the entrance and exit,” explains Óscar Gómez Ibars, the local pro who discovered this spot 10 years ago. “This is due to the narrow path along the cliff that makes it more tricky with a high tide and plenty of swirling currents.”

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Positioning is key here, and “you must fight over several waves to get to the proper place,” he continues. You’ve got a little more than a quarter-mile paddle out and four tons of water landing on you in the impact zone. Once the wave gets about 25 feet tall, you really need a security patrol, as Gómez Ibars notes: “The strong currents and a potential broken board could get you into a lot of trouble.”

Punta Galea, Spanish Basque Country

Just a little farther east of La Vaca Gigante is another whopper of a wave. Recognizable for those rugged cliffs flanking a notoriously dangerous inside section, Punta Galea has been featured on the Big Wave Tour qualifying series for good reason.

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As the Atlantic swell rolls in, it impacts the Nervión River current and the wave jacks up. Throw in a healthy dollop of wind and you’ve got yourself a chunky right-hand pointbreak. Snapped leashes call for speedy rescues before a nasty entanglement with the rocks.

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