General view of Nazare lighthouse during a surf session at Praia do Norte  on January 3, 2018 in Nazare, Portugal. (Octavio Passos/Getty Images)
General view of Nazare lighthouse during a surf session at Praia do Norte on January 3, 2018 in Nazare, Portugal. (Octavio Passos/Getty Images)

NAZARE, Portugal – You have to crouch low a bit and take a couple of awkward steps to get through the narrow passage in the centuries-old Fort of San Miguel Arcanjo. It’s darker on the other side, so it may take a moment for the eyes to adjust to the soft light of the interior room. And when they do: Surfboards. Surfboards everywhere.

Hanging along the rough, gray-stoned walls are about a dozen boards, radiating neon greens and reds into the otherwise solemn space.

(Lee Ferran)

If the incongruous set-up resembles some kind of new-age shrine, that’s because it basically is. What was once a rugged battlement guarding the tip of a cliff in Nazare, Portugal from 16th century Atlantic pirates is now a sort of holy place for an unusual kind of devotee: those followers of the biggest waves in the world.

And now a new high priest has been crowed at Nazare after on Saturday the World Surf League confirmed that Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa had tamed an 80-foot monster wave — the biggest ever surfed, as far as we know. Koxa caught the ride in Nazare in November, but it took until now to confirm the feat, which was caught on low-resolution video.

Upon receiving the recognition, Koxa reportedly revealed that he had almost died in Nazare a few years before the wave, but came back to settle the score.

“Now I’m just so happy and this is the best day of my life,” he said.

With his ride, Koxa knocked off the previous world record-holder, American Garrett McNamara, who set the bar in 2011 on a 78-foot wave in — where else? — Nazare.

The monster breaks are the result of a massive underwater canyon that runs diagonally toward the shore, crossing just to the north of the old fort. Detailed diagrams in another room of the fort show that at its deepest, the heart of the canyon drops more than a mile below the surface not far from shore. But the gash in the earth ends suddenly in walls nearly a three-quarters of a mile tall, causing the huge swells to trip over themselves, resulting in walls of water that only the best and boldest (or the extremely stupid) try to ride.

(Lee Ferran)

Before its discovery as a big wave Mecca, Nazare, about 100 miles north of Lisbon, was for centuries known as a small fishing village. The town is divided in two by the cliff rising perpendicular to the shore. Both parts of the town exist as gentle mazes of charming, stone streets lined by white-walled buildings. A beachfront promenade on the lower, southern side welcomes ambling tourists and locals soaking in the sun and gives a false impression of calm waters offshore.

(Lee Ferran)

On the higher northern side, however, is the most striking site. There, a tall, slender finger of land called the Sitio pokes out into the Atlantic. It’s on the edge of this point that the old fort rests, now with a quaint lighthouse on its roof. It’s a romantic foreground for watching the monster waves crash tumble with murderous rage just beyond.

On the day Koxa was crowned the new big wave champion, the American surfer McNamara reminisced on Facebook about his first impressions of Nazare before it exploded on the world’s stage.

“I knew we had just found the biggest wave in the world,” he wrote. “For years there was no one out and not a single soul at the light house. Most days I was the only surfer in the town and would surf alone… There is no big wave surf spot that deserves to have the record besides Nazare. She is challenging, majestic, massive and every other adjective that has to do with being monstrous and mysterious. So, so special!!!”

In the end, he lauded Koxa, a former roommate, and congratulated him on his achievement.


But McNamara is unlikely to be sitting idly by, now officially in second place.

I visited Nazare in February, during what appeared to be a lull in the big wave action — though those I saw still were some of the biggest I’d witnessed in person.

(Lee Ferran)

One evening, after getting a tip from a friend, I went to a seafood restaurant that was rumored to be one of McNamara’s favorite haunts. I was expecting to see a signed photograph maybe, but when I asked about the big wave legend, a waiter simply said, “Oh, he was here before, maybe come back tomorrow.”

I didn’t expect McNamara to actually be in Nazare at the time, but when I returned the next day, there he was, with an American television crew in tow.

When I introduced myself, he politely chatted for a moment and then retired to the restaurant’s upper floor. Koxa’s big ride was well-known by then, if not confirmed to be a record-breaker.

McNamara, it seems, was already getting to the business of watching and waiting for the next big one. There are certainly worse places to do that than Nazare.

(Lee Ferran)

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.