It’s the big-wave mecca and it’s never been ridden by a wind-powered athlete – until this Tuesday, when Australia’s Jason Polakow windsurfed for the first time the liquid mountains of Praia do Norte, in Nazaré, Portugal.
Aged 44, the big wave windsurfer and two-time wave-sailing world champion found a new challenge: riding the 13m (43ft) waves of this infamous location on the Atlantic coast.
On Tuesday, February 2, 2016, the conditions were favourable, finally allowing him to windsurf it.
“It’s a very challenging and unique spot; no wave breaks in the same place and the height is very difficult to judge,” he said in a first statement after spending five hours in the water. “Chasing huge waves is my passion, so after seeing amazing images from big wave surfers, I just had to try.
“I’ve surfed all the big waves around the world and I must say that for me, Nazaré has been the most difficult and challenging. The waves are coming from many different angles at the same time, making it extremely difficult to judge and be safe. Water safety was my main concern, so having the two most experienced surfers – Andrew Cotton (UK) and Hugo Vau (POR) – taking care of me, and George Leal aka “Jesus” communicating with the water safety crew, I was feeling confident.
“The session we had was a great start for me in Nazaré, as I caught some huge waves. I’ve had a difficult but exciting adrenalized time out there and it’s for sure one of the highlights of my career!”
Polakow established himself as Australia’s top windsurfer at 18 years old. In 1990, he had already beaten windsurfing legend Robby Naish in his own backyard at the Maui World Cup Grand Slam. After two world titles, the wave-sailor broke away from full time competition. He’s been searching and windsurfing the world’s biggest waves for the past 10 years.
Sitting at the apex of a deep canyon that funnels the North Atlantic swell towards the shore, Nazaré attracts a few fearless big wave surfers every year. Waves can reach up to 100ft – that’s about 10-storey high. Polakow is the first ever wind-powered athlete to ride this iconic swell.
And the Australian has already set a new goal for himself. He aims at breaking the unofficial world record, which at the moment is around 60ft at the famous surfing location called “Jaws”, in Maui, Hawaii.
“For the longest time I thought “Jaws” was the epitome of big wave windsurfing but Nazaré definitely holds the key to producing the biggest waves in the world,” he added. “My goal is to come back here on a gigantic swell. We can definitely break that record right out here at Praia do Norte on the next big one.”
Q&A with Jason Polakow
When did you hear about Nazaré for the first time?
The very first time I heard about that spot was probably when Garrett McNamara had that world record wave. It was all over the news and right there I could see that there was potential to go windsurfing, because there was wind on the outside and Portugal has good wind. Right then, I sowed the seed in my head. It took quite a few years to get here, but I’m so happy that I came here and was able to do it.
Was it as difficult as expected?
Nazaré is such a unique spot. I’ve surfed all the big waves around the world and I must say that for me, Nazaré has been the most difficult and challenging. The waves are coming in from many different angles; from the south, from the southwest. They’re moving so much; it’s not like one spot where you can take off. It’s moving like 200 to 300 metres up and down the beach and you think you are in the right spot and you catch the wave and then all of a sudden the wave is gone; it’s super difficult. Particularly with the session I had out there, with the wind being so light I had to be very close to the inside and use a lot of jet-ski assistance. It was definitely the most difficult and exciting adrenalized time I’ve ever had.
What is it such a singular place?
Nazaré is a special spot. It has a very deep canyon that kind of comes into a V and the waves come from the outside down like a channel through this special cabin on the reef; then it hits the inside here and chucks up to a huge peak and causes the wave to sometimes quadruple in size. It’s just an amazing spot. One of the freaks of nature, for sure.
What did you think when you got there for the first time?
My first impression was like ‘wow, it’s going to be super difficult.’ I could see all the different swell directions coming and not really any spot to be in the right place. With the wind being so light, I knew it was going to be a real challenge.
How did you prepare for it?
Back in Hawaii I was doing a lot of swimming, cardio, breath-hold training; we had a lot of big swells this year, so I’ve just been out a lot of days and ‘practicing’ wipe-outs. Riding waves, getting wiped out, relaxing and keeping my heart rate down and doing as much practice as possible for Nazaré. Being in Hawaii has been a great training tool for this spot, but like I said, my first impression seeing this was pretty unexpected. I didn’t realize how difficult the wave is.
How many hours have you been in the water?
We had probably about five or six hours on the water, which is a pretty long time for being in the cold weather. The session we had was pretty good, some pretty huge sets. I wouldn’t say gigantic by any means, but for sure big enough to see where I was and get some experience on the spot and just building my confidence. Nazaré is not the place where you come and get 20 waves; it’s a place where you come and if you’re lucky you get one or two unbelievable waves for the day. Taking that into consideration I think I had about one or two good ones and I am happy with the result.
Why has never someone windsurfed Nazaré or even tried?
Windsurfing (or kitesurfing) Nazaré – no one has ever attempted to do that; I think there’s a couple of big reasons why. The first one is the danger element out there; it’s super gnarly when it gets big. Two is the logistics. The third thing is, there’s only maybe five or six guys who could possibly do this. That makes it very limited.
Why are you the only windsurfer to have tried this?
The main reason why I was fortunate enough to be the first to sail out here with wind is just having a good crew supporting me, some great local team as well and I guess just my own personal drive. I really, really wanted to do this. It’s a passion of mine to chase down the biggest waves. In windsurfing, we don’t make a huge amount of money, it’s just the drive and the passion that make us want to do it and that’s the goal for me.