Always searching for the best conditions, ‘The Windsurf Project’ headed to Portugal and it’s wild west coast. Chasing an XXL swell and north winds were project stalwarts, Thomas Traversa and cameraman Jamie Hancock. John Carter got the last minute call to join them and gives us the lowdown on the mission.
(Originally published within the April ’19 edition of Windsurf).
Words & Photos John Carter
We all know windsurfing can be a fickle sport to predict, especially when lining up big wave spots and all the ingredients needed to sail those locations. Sometimes when your first choice doesn’t happen then it is always reassuring to know there are other options to fall back on that still promise epic sailing. In this case the world’s most notorious big wave spot, Nazaré was our main target but we all knew if it didn’t happen there were plenty of other juicy offerings within an hour’s drive down the Portuguese coast.
For me this whole adventure came about when Jamie Hancock from ‘The Windsurf Project’ called me up one late January evening with a rough plan to head to Portugal with Thomas Traversa to sail Nazaré and some other spots around Lisbon. The mere mention of Nazaré was enough for me to drop all commitments, pack my bags and head to the ferry to be ready for a 6 a.m. flight from Heathrow the following morning. Out of all the places in the world, Nazaré for me has been right at the top of my ‘bucket list’ for several years now and I was super keen to go and check it out. Throw in Traversa, one of the few guys who has the balls to sail it, and for me this trip was a no-brainer. Personally I was not one hundred per cent sure about the forecast, but I was not going to take any chances on missing out if it did possibly happen. Fortunately, The Windsurf Project has partnered with Bridgestone to help fund some of these crazy last minute missions and enable the crew to capture these perfect days with boats, jet skis and all the necessary shooting platforms.
DAY 1… LISBON!
After leaving Jamie’s place on the south coast of England at 2 a.m., we drove up to Heathrow, jumped on a TAP flight at 6 a.m. and touched down in Lisbon at 8 a.m. with everything so far seeming too good to be true. So far the plan had run smoothly without a hitch, Heathrow was quiet, we had scored passes for the lounge and our flight was totally empty allowing us an extra couple of hours to lie down and sleep…perfect! Our luck didn’t last though! At 8:30 a.m. we were still stood at the empty baggage carousel waiting for one of Jamie’s camera bags; disaster! On a filming trip, without all the tripods, gimbals, water housings and accessories, the job of capturing the very best images becomes much tougher. Another 45 frustrating minutes passed by until we found that the bag of essential items would not be arriving until 4 p.m. at the earliest.
With no option but to plough on, we headed outside the airport where an Uber was waiting to take us to a harbour around 30 minutes’ drive away.
I knew the main aim was to sail Nazaré on the second day of the trip and had been so consumed with that idea that I had barely paid attention to the first day’s plan. A mention of a wave near Lisbon and a boat was about it, the rest we were leaving to Jamie’s local contact Mathieu Pelikan who was in charge of logistics. So one bag down but still brimming with enthusiasm we arrived at a small harbour situated at the mouth of the Tagus River. A six metre rib was waiting for us, with the aim to shoot a rare wave somewhere out in the mouth of the harbour. In the distance I could make out huge pluming waves on the horizon and judging by the water state in front of us, this was going to be one wet bumpy ride in the boat. So basically this freak wave, which needs a huge swell, breaks on a sandbank where the Tagus River breaks into the Atlantic and has a mythical status amongst the local surfing community. With the currents, state of tide and wind direction a very complex formula to all line up, this place has never been windsurfed and very rarely surfed.
The wave is a powerful peeling right-hander that barrels like crazy but due to its location out in the mouth of the river, access is almost impossible and very dangerous without boats or jet skis. The journey out in the boat was nothing short of a bare-knuckle ride on the back of a raging bull. With the huge currents of the river working against the tide, as well as the effects of the sandbar out in the middle of the bay, there was standing chop everywhere as the boat battled its way out to the wave. I was almost ready to go back after the first five minutes, already drenched and feeling like every vertebrae in my back had been misaligned.
“ The wave is a powerful peeling right-hander that barrels like crazy.”
Finally we reached the far side of the sandbar, where Thomas was rigged and ready on the beach on the other side of the river mouth. All of a sudden, instead of a churned up mess we were looking at a groomed swell peeling down this invisible sandbar just beneath the surface, it was quite surreal. Mathieu had been dreaming of a windsurfing session like this for years and you could tell by his reaction after Thomas charged down his first perfect peeling wave that this was a joyous moment. Who better to christen a previously un-sailed wave than the legendary Thomas Traversa! The session unfolded into a mixture of amazing wavesailing alongside hair-raising moments in the boat. While the wave peeled perfectly down the bar, rogue wide swingers were breaking right where we were shooting and on more than one occasion the boat flew into the air while we were trying to capture Thomas charging huge aerials. After a solid two hours Thomas was exhausted and we decided to call it a day for this particular session. One last blast back through the chop was required which was actually far worse than the outbound journey but all credit to the boat driver for bringing us all back into the harbour in one piece.
With the plan to hit Nazaré the next day our main focus, we decided to make the missing bag our priority so we would be ready for action at daybreak. Luckily Jamie’s bag had finally made its way to Portugal and after another trip back to the airport, we now had our full armoury of camera equipment. Tomorrow hopefully we were ready to capture Nazaré, the world’s most feared and extreme big wave. We went to hook up with Thomas before heading north. He was happily relaxing with his family in his new camper. It has always been a dream for Thomas to be able to take the family along with him around Europe and this mobile home is the perfect answer to make life comfortable on the road. When he saw the forecast for Portugal was firing they simply loaded up the camper and hit the road, leaving behind a cold forecast in France in exchange for an adventure and the Atlantic wind and waves of Portugal.
“ Who better to christen a previously un-sailed wave than the legendary Thomas Traversa!”
“The wave peels for two-three hundred metres with different sections, some of them really hollow. I heard about it about ten years ago and have wanted to sail it the past three to four years. This forecast was perfect and we were able to arrange the all-important boat to shoot from. The tides were huge so it only worked at its best for two hours. When we arrived it was beautiful. Clean glassy barrels peeling down the sandbar. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, but at the same time we were very close to the city of Lisbon. It felt extra special to have this sick wave all to myself, but right in front of a city with millions of people. I knew it would be good but there is that saying as long as you don’t try you will never know. I rode a lot of waves and we definitely scored, it looked like a wave you might only find in Indonesia! Having a camper was always a dream. I came to Portugal with my family many times when I was young in one and now we have this we can go explore with our children. As a family, having a camper is so much easier and it is a warm place for the kids to hang out while I am sailing.
We can go anywhere, just park and everybody is happy and life is easier. You need to drive a lot to score in Europe, on this trip we decided to go and two hours later we were packed and on the road. We still have to get used to the camper life but I am really looking forward to doing more trips all together. It is perfect! We have our own little home on wheels, I think it is the best investment we ever did.”
We arrived in Nazaré about 9 p.m. and Jamie drove me down to the infamous lighthouse so I could at least hear the waves breaking, even if I couldn’t see them. Up at the top of the cliff the wind was howling and I could make out the whitewater from the colossal waves breaking beneath us…finally I was at Nazaré! I have been looking at pictures and following any news about this place ever since I first saw the first images of the huge waves in front of the lighthouse on the point six or seven years ago. There is something special about the way the canyon helps accentuate the wave into this mountainous peak which they reckon on some days reaches close to 100 feet!
We found a nice hotel in town and crashed early so we would be ready for the next day, I was excited but also nervous at the same time. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this story, nothing was guaranteed. The swell could die overnight, the wind could be onshore, Traversa just might not be feeling it or there could be many other reasons why this mission might not work out. At first light the next day Jamie and I were parked up in the top car park overlooking the waves on a grey ominous morning. First impressions were not ideal, although I had never been here before in person so had no idea what to expect. There were waves, but the Atlantic seemed more of a churned up cauldron of swell than the clean groomed lines were had been hoping for. We had a message that Thomas, who was travelling in his newly acquired camper van with wife Sophie and their two children, was down at the harbour trying to sort out a jet ski to run safety.
We headed down to the harbour to suss out the vibe. To ride a wave like Nazaré, you have to be in the right frame of mind. In my books there can be no influence from the camera crew to send a rider out into such a life threatening situation just to score the shot. This has to be about the rider feeling right, feeling confident and not being pushed by sponsors or guilt that they should be doing anything out of their comfort zone. Apparently there was a tow-in surfing competition being held today and our safety ski driver might be tied up. Thomas was looking a little flustered, so I decided to leave him be. We all decided to move down to the beach parking area in front of Nazaré to reassess conditions.
Down at the beach, the waves were huge but still confused. Mathieu, the local amongst us, was doubtful it was on, but I could tell Thomas and Jamie had their heart set on scoring it for ‘The Windsurf Project’ and Bridgestone, so we decided to wait at least until mid-afternoon to see if a change in the wind and tide would turn in our favour. By midday the tow-in competition kicked off and it was pretty amazing to watch the tow teams in action, especially the skill and resilience of the ski guys flying in and out of 20-30 foot waves.
On the windsurfing side of things, the conditions kept looking kind of half decent and when the sun occasionally broke through the clouds the murky Atlantic would light up and the wind would veer offshore. But then the clouds would roll back in and we had this kind of side-shore un-sailable chaos. Big gnarly waves, a huge rip on the inside and exactly the sort of conditions not to be toyed with. Lots of risk, but not really so much reward for what was on offer. It was a tough decision but by 2:30 p.m. we had to opt for Plan B…a quick forty minute drive down to Peniche and another famous surf break, Supertubes! I was actually happy with the call. I had managed to see enough of Nazaré to know I want to return on a bigger and better day, so why risk a gnarly situation on a cloudy day with pretty ugly waves.
Thirty minutes down the highway we broke free of the clouds and drove out into beautiful clear sunshine. We arrived in Peniche around 3:30 p.m., and immediately drove up to a spot on the roadside and had to hike 500 metres through the dunes to check the conditions. Compared to the huge gnarly churned up mess at Nazaré, we were suddenly faced with amazing turquoise water, side-offshore winds and beautiful clean peeling waves. From the possibility of big wave utter carnage we had now switched to Plan B which was looking like down-the-line playful perfection. I’d love to have shot Nazaré naturally, but the compensation for missing out on that was not at all bad especially with Traversa as our designated sailor. If you had rocked up on any other trip to find these conditions you would be ecstatic and it was just what we all needed after the disappointment of missing out on Nazaré.
Thomas wasted no time rigging while the camera crew assembled all the gear to capture the session to best effect. Traversa obviously loves to sail big waves, but he is equally happy ripping apart a head to logo-high punchy beach break like this. The weird thing was that aside from a few surfers we were totally alone. Not another windsurfer to be seen with these amazing conditions right in front of us. Alone on the water, Thomas sailed until dark, picking off any wave he wanted and ripping most of them to shreds.
It was an outstanding session no doubt about it and by the time he had finished we were all on a high despite no Nazaré. Plan B was for most mere mortals a Plan A! We had just set the bar so high that it was still slightly disappointing to have missed out on Nazaré. But looking back, scoring an un-sailed mythical wave in Lisbon and perfect Supertubes we had scored pretty sick conditions for ‘The Windsurf Project’ and Bridgestone.
“That’s windsurfing, we waited in Nazaré but it did not pick up. There are so many things that need to come together for that place to work. We waited as long as possible but it wasn’t to be. We thought it would improve. In the end we drove to Peniche. We were all a bit frustrated, but when we arrived we were rewarded back with blue skies and perfect waves up to logo high and powerful. It was a really good way to save the day. I love this kind of session. I was alone with a perfect beach break to play with. It was great for manoeuvres and aerials. I caught a tonne of waves. I always try to go to uncrowded places because I like to catch a lot of waves. It was warm, sunny and just beautiful. It was not the most extreme sailing, but if I could sail sessions like that for the rest of my life that would be just perfect. I like big waves. but you can only do one or two days with all the adrenaline. These kind of conditions are just fun and it is nice to have the mix. Luckily with ‘The Windsurf Project’ we were able to capture it all on film.”
I always try to go to uncrowded places because I like to catch a lot of waves.