"Every time something is new in big-wave surfing, it's either loved or hated," said Sebastian Steudtner behind the wheel of an idling Mercedes in the center of Nazaré, the small fishing town two hours north of Lisbon that is famously home to some of the biggest waves ever ridden. Garrett McNamara set the world record there on an estimated 78-foot wave in 2011; others have caught waves thought to be as tall as 100 feet.
In recent weeks, the village was mostly empty save for media and surfers looking to bag the next viral clip. Steudtner was no different. Born and raised in Germany, he is an outsider in the surfing world. Initially a competitive windsurfer, he started towing into bombs at Jaws before he learned to paddle surf. Now he's based in Nazaré, where he hopes to add to his collection of two TAG Heuer XXL Biggest Wave Awards.
"Nazaré didn't start with paddling, it started with towing," Steudtner said, referring to the practice of using a motorized watercraft to sling surfers into position on waves that are too big and fast to catch on their own power. While tow-in surfing was popularized by big-wave icons like Laird Hamilton, and pushed the limits of what humans could surf, it's often looked down on by purists today. "The waves that were towed got jumped on by the mass media. Nazaré is a media whore. It was the number one thing about surfing in the mass media, so people will naturally hate it—and I was one of them."
Steudtner wasn't alone. As videos of Nazaré spread and records were said to be smashed, many in the surfing community were skeptical, if not outright dismissive of the wave itself.
"To be honest, it doesn't take extraordinary skill to tow into the wave [at Nazaré], but to paddle it when it's very big is super scary and very technical," said Shane Dorian, one of the sport's most beloved figures. Dorian spent 11 years competing on the world tour before turning his full attention to big-wave riding. It was his visits to Nazaré, where he paddled into the wave during peak conditions, that helped change people's minds about the Portuguese break.
Nazaré was initially thought to be more suited for towing, as its pitch is less steep than the likes of Mavericks in California or Jaws in Hawaii. The flatter a wave's face is, the more speed a surfer needs to catch it. With Nazaré's size and the low angle of the face, some jet-powered assistance was needed for the first big wave sessions. In recent years, however, with more sophisticated board designs and improved safety equipment like inflatable vests, elite surfers have been able to paddle into big waves that were previously seen as off-limits.
Now the break finally has its first World Surf League-sanctioned event. On December 20, the Nazaré Challenge put the world's best paddlers in the water with 40-foot swells—and a swarm of rescue personal watercraft (PWCs) ready to swoop in.
"Nazaré is very unique in a lot of different ways but most of all the way it basically is a giant peaky beachbreak," Dorian said. The break is at the end of the Nazaré Canyon, 140-mile undersea chasm that reaches depths of 16,000 feet. Massive swells funnel through trench until they hit the beach at Nazaré, resulting in the most consistent 30-plus-foot wave in the world. Nowhere breaks as big as often as Nazaré, but it's far from perfect.
The same unique geological formations that create Nazaré's unique conditions are part of what make it so particularly challenging for surfers. Most big wave spots have a defined take off zone, thanks to the swells breaking over a reef or point; in those cases, there's a channel on either side of the break to paddle or catch a ride back out in. Since Nazaré breaks off an ever-shifting massive underwater sandbar, the area where the waves break is huge and always changing, and there's no channel to seek refuge.
"Getting back out after catching a wave or wiping out is nearly impossible [on your own]," Dorian says, so PWCs are a fixture in the lineup. Even then, the safety situation at Nazaré is a bit trickier than other spots. "Sometimes when it's big, it's very difficult to get back out and when you are driving the ski it's very easy to lose control with all the massive breaking waves continuously closing out."
Getting caught inside by several tons of water was a rite of passage for every surfer, in every heat at the Nazaré Challenge.
Nazaré veteran and world record-holder Garrett McNamara experienced this challenge firsthand — with near fatal consequences for a fellow surfer.
Still nursing an injury from January, McNamara was at the helm of a PWC running rescues and scooping surfers out of the impact zone after a wipeout or successful ride and back into the lineup. At one point, looking to punch through the shorebreak with season pro Damien Hobgood on the sled, McNamara throttled the PWC to its limit. It wasn't enough.
He had to ditch the 500-pound watercraft as two waves converged from each side and an eight-foot backwash approached from behind. There was nowhere to go. Hobgood took ten-plus feet of Atlantic Ocean on his head, and the PWC missed him by inches. He didn't make it out for his semi-final heat.
By the end of the contest, roughly a quarter of the surfers required medical treatment; third-place finisher Nic Lamb suffered a concussion, but still made it to the podium. Australian Jamie Mitchell spent his share of time underwater but emerged victorious without any major incidents.
With the competition in the books and plenty of drama to drive attention to the event, the inaugural Nazaré Challenge appears to be a success. Even so, the debate among professionals and surf journalists continues. It's not a question of the wave's authenticity; instead, the focus is on whether it's appropriate for a contest.
Decorated big wave surfer Grant "Twiggy" Baker of South Africa took to (where else) Instagram to weigh in. "Nazare as a wave is a phenom, as challenging and beautiful as any big wave I've surfed but the dangers involved seem to [outweigh] the rewards," he wrote.
Even Big Wave Tour commissioner Peter Mel contends that the most desirable conditions for the contest aren't necessary the biggest. "If you get it too big, it's really one of those tow-in-only waves," he said. "The barrier is just now being touched on those bigger paddling waves."
One thing is for sure, though: when the waves rise to record heights at Nazaré, the best surfers will show up to ride them and the whole world will watch.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.