Antonio Cardoso Has Got Nazare On The Ropes

 Photo: Helio Antonio

Photo: Helio Antonio

Legend has it that in the 12th century, a Portuguese knight was hunting for deer near the fabled cliffs of Nazare when, suddenly, he was blanketed by a great fog – with his horse charging at full-speed towards the unseeable cliffs, he prayed for a miracle. Whether by divine intervention or animal intuition, the knight’s horse ground to a halt right before the cliff’s edge. He rode home that day with his life intact and chaps lightly soiled.

Today, the knights round these parts don’t hail from Portuguese royalty but places like Hawaii and Australia, clad in neoprene and inflation vests and hunt not game, but big waves; throwing themselves into the raw Atlantic swells at Praia Do Norte, Nazare’s infamous big-wave haven. No other spot over the last half-decade has built careers, garnered headlines and made mice out of men en masse than Portugal’s patron saint of pleasure and pain. And each ride, they’re no doubt praying for a miracle – to come out alive and live to tell the tale.

Most of us only know Nazare from the anxiety-inducing clips that flood our feeds: Andrew Cotton’s backbreaker; Maya Gabeira’s brush with death; Garrett McNamara’s record-breaking 100-footer. They incite fear and social sharing, but mostly act as a bit of entertainment from the safety of our desk chairs. But what it’s really like to sit out there, staring down a wave as big as a football field? What goes through one’s head when towing a rider into such a beastly wave?

 Photo: Helio Antonio

Photo: Helio Antonio

Antonio Cardoso would know. A born-and-raised Nazarean, he’s sampled Praia Da Norte in every conceivable shape and size. The wave is most portrayed in it’s nightmarishly huge form. But to Cardoso, Nazare can hold all shapes and sizes. In fact, to him it’s what makes it the best waves in the world on its day – and so hard to kick (though he spends half the year chasing the world tour and the other half between Portugal and his girlfriend’s place in the Canary Islands, he still calls Nazare home). “I prefer living here,” he says. “It’s one of the best beach breaks in the world; but also the most savage and unpredictable.” Cardoso’s main focus is bodyboarding – currently sitting in the top 10 on the APB World Tour, he’s a solid contender for the 2018 world title – but his years banking local knowledge has also enabled him to sidestep into being a skilled jetski driver and waterman in the big stuff; sometimes trading foam for fibreglass as an aspiring tow-in surfer. “It’s a whole different sport. It’s all about speed, stability, balance and commitment.”

Cardoso got his start in big Nazare after a close friend, who owned a jetski, coerced him into being his tow-in partner (”I know how to read the waves really well”). They began venturing into bigger swells, clocking up hours towing in guys to the point where Cardoso is now one of the regular drivers in the lineup, alongside McNamara and the Red Bull team. It’s a noble pursuit that, for obvious reasons (see: danger), isn’t in great supply. Despite this, Nazare can be a crowded affair on big days, says Cardoso. “It’s a jungle out there – like 20 jetskis sometimes. I see a lot of misunderstandings. Jetskis on the inside zone getting washed into the rocks, really critical moments. On the biggest days there is always two jetskis for one guy – one to tow and be on first rescue, and a backup for second rescue. And sometimes it’s so much tension and speed out there that you hit your friend or some boards with your jetski while you’re driving. Plus, even a small wave can flip your ski so easily, because the waves are really wedgy. When you’re surfing a big-wave point, it always breaks in the same spot and you have channels. But here, it’s different. It’s really dangerous. So many jetskis get rolled into the sand. When you have a jetski, a rope, speed, and a 30-foot wave behind you, it’s easier to get injured on the ski than on a surfboard.”

 Photo: Helio Antonio

Photo: Helio Antonio

To understand what makes Nazare so special, you need to wander down the battered cliffs, past the sand, to the giant canyon that starts off the coast of Nazare and stretches to depths normally registered hundreds of kilometres off continental shelves. The subaquatic valley provides the open ocean swells with uninterrupted access to the coast. This valley, combined with shifting Atlantic sands, makes the coastline ripe for heavy shorebreaks - when it’s “smaller”, you get the type of waves that are perfect for bodyboarding. Heavy, powerful, wedgy. Like El Fronton and Aussie Pipe, it’s the sort of wave made for all-maneuver riding. And when it gets big? That’s still somewhat uncharted terrain. In fact, it wasn’t till 2010 that anyone even dared surf Praia Do Norte on a really big day. “There weren’t any good local surfers at the time,” says Cardoso. “Only a group of older bodyboarders. But then Garrett McNamara came and surfed these huge waves.”  The fabled waterman boldly went where no one had gone before, bringing with his exploits the ascension of Nazare as a big-wave arena. Atop the cliffs sits Forte de Sao Miguel – once an old fortress and lighthouse once used to warn passing ships of the unseeable dangers nearby – now serving as a surf museum acknowledging the aquatic pursuits of big-wave greats like McNamara, and our very own Mike Stewart. It’s also the perfect vantage point to watch raging Nazare from the safety of land; and with its bright red hue and crowd full of piercing eyeballs, the fort makes for an intense line-up marker from the sea.

But it’s of little help when you’re navigating the spots myriad challenges. A rip with the entire force of the Atlantic pushing you into a jagged cliff face; an eight foot sidewash that could clean out a jetski-clad lineup in a matter of seconds; and staggeringly unpredictable conditions. “You are in the middle of the ocean, man,” says Cardoso. “It’s a whole different level out there.” With the right swell direction, Nazare’s underwater canyon can turn a fun-looking two-metre pulse into triple-overhead faces. While a westerly swell can create playful a-frames and ramps all the way down the beach, turn that swell a little further north and you’re looking at an entirely different, immensely scarier Nazare. It’s an unpredictable, ever-changing beast that can stump even the most talented riders. Once you’ve navigated the intense drive out, the next challenge is wave choice. “The rips are huge and can generate two metre waves themselves,” says Cardoso. “If it’s too peaky, it pinches and throws a backwash to both sides. He’s going to get those huge side-washes to the head, so it’s not the waves you want. I need to put him on the second, third, fourth waves which are cleaner. Or a longer wave that’s not going to close out at the end. The waves that condense – those junctions are deadly. You don’t want to put your partner in these kind of waves.”

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Cardoso might seem cool under pressure, but he’s actually more afraid towing than being towed. “It’s easier being responsible for just me,” he says. One particularly dangerous session became a turning point for Cardoso in the big stuff. As he was going through the motions of towing in a local rider and setting him up for a set wave, an intense anxiety began to creep up on him: “The Red Bull team was out there laughing and having fun, but I was so afraid. Being responsible for my friend’s material and his life, it was so scary. So he told me, ‘If you can’t drive, I’ll push you into some waves’”. The script was flipped, with Cardoso out of the driver’s seat, onto a surfboard and grasping the end of the tow rope, waiting heart-in-mouth for his shot at big-wave glory. A meaty set approached. Cardoso was up, and suddenly racing into a 20-foot wall of water. He took a straight line, like a snowboarder racing an avalanche – soaring ahead of the looming lip for a few moments until he felt the near safety of the shoulder. “Instantly the adrenaline took hold of my body and commanded my brain. I began to feel what I think the rest of the guys out there feel: I just wanted to get back out and get a bigger wave than before.” He’s even tried it on a bodyboard once, towed in by McNamara himself – though it didn’t go as smoothly as his stand-up experience. “He put me on a big one, and I was just skipping like a stone. I felt my heart going into my mouth every time I jumped, man. When I got thrown onto the sand by the wash, I took off the vest and said, ‘No more’.”

So far, Cardoso’s tried his hand at a few big sessions and come out unscathed; but others haven’t been so lucky. Take Andrew Cotton’s back-breaker – according to Cardoso, he was doomed from the moment he let go of the rope. “That was a good wave but he wanted too much,” he says. “He dropped too straight. After the bottom turn, he lost speed. You need to run with the wave. And that was a bad decision from him.” Cotton is touted as one of the best big-wave surfers in the world; but when it comes to Nazare, sometimes, even the knights can come unstuck. It’s the nature of the game out here, and shows how things like wave selection are so crucial to the difference between a good ride and a trip to the emergency room.

If broken backs and near-drownings are part of playing Nazare’s risky game, then training and preparation is paramount. Cardoso recently took a big-wave water safety course – under the tutelage of veteran watermen like Peter Conroy – that grants him a big-wave golden ticket: the ability to purchase a highly-coveted inflation vest, very few of which are made, and bestowed only to the most experienced riders. The course is normally completed in Hawaii, but due to the rise in Portugal’s big-wave popularity, guys like McNamara and Conroy are bringing their teachings to Nazare. “Everyone wants a Peter in the lineup,” says Cardoso. “Big-wave surfing is huge and has a lot of money and impact. I know there could be a future for me in rescuing and being part of these teams, and I want to meet these other crazy guys and see if I could do this.” We can’t wait to see how this Nazare legend unfolds.

 Photo: Josh Tabone

Photo: Josh Tabone