Searching for the 100 Foot Wave - Andrew Cotton
There are few sports that are both as exhilarating and gut-wrenchingly terrifying as big wave surfing. Whilst most people would consider the prospect of surfing waves the size of four storey buildings (and bigger) as madness, there are surfers who dedicate their lives to seeking out and riding these monster waves.
100 Foot Wave, a new documentary series from HBO, follows big wave surf pioneer Garrett McNamara and his quest to find the ‘Everest’ of surfing - the elusive 100-foot wave. Garret’s quest takes him across the globe, eventually leading him to the epic waves of Nazare in Portugal, helping to push surfing to even greater heights.
Directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker Chris Smith, the series explores the incredible highs and terrifying lows of surfing the biggest waves in the world. The show also focuses on other surfers who came from all over the world to ride the huge waves there, including dryrobe® Ambassador Andrew Cotton. ‘Cotty’ was one of the first to join Garret in Nazare and 100 Foot Wave follows his journey from being a part-time plumber in North Devon to eventually becoming a professional big wave surfer.
We caught up with Cotty to talk about the show…
(Andrew Cotton surfing Nazaré, December 2020. Photo by Leopoldo Castro)
‘100 Foot Wave’ is an exhilarating watch! What kind of response have you had to the series?
It has mainly come out in the States, but I think it is on some other channels who do HBO. I’ve had loads and loads of direct messages and people saying that they loved it, and there's going to be a Season Two.
What was it like watching yourself on screen over the course of ten years? Were there any moments that you’d forgotten about, or anything that really made you cringe looking back?!
Obviously, there's always cringey moments - I don't think anyone's a big fan of watching themselves or listening to their own voice.
It is when you look back and you realise what a special time it was, and when you're in that moment you don't always realise it. Looking back you're like ‘Woah’, it was a magical few years. The way it's edited and how the stories are told highlights that and I feel really lucky to be part of that. I think at the time you don’t really know and you just go with the gut feeling and passion of wanting to surf. But looking back, it was a special time in big wave surfing in Europe.
Looking back, how does it feel to be part of the crew that pioneered Nazaré as a big wave spot?
I would never say pioneer. For me, it’s just really going surfing and I was fortunate to have Garrett as part of the experience. I was just sort of learning and making it up as I went along. So I wasn't really pioneering it, I was just sort of going through the motions.
It was an opportunity and those few years enabled me to make surfing a career, which it probably never would have been. It was always the dream, but it was always on the fringe of trying to make that transition from part-time plumber or part-time surfer, to professional surfer. It definitely did bridge that gap.
Your life seemed to change after you went to Nazaré and hooked up with Garrett McNamara. Do you ever think about how your life would be different if you hadn’t gone to Portugal? What do you think you’d be doing now?
I think it definitely is true to life. We’re all kind of making it up, but you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with. And Europe is a little bit behind within the big wave movement - although we have amazing waves and loads of really good surfers. But like big wave surfers, there weren't that many guys pushing it. So it's hard to get that experience or that knowledge.
So, having that opportunity to work with Garrett for those first few years, it definitely makes you realise what's possible - safety kit, skis, how you approach waves - it was really important. And I saw my big wave surfing improve quite dramatically.
(Andrew Cotton surfing in Ireland 2019. Photo by Dylan TerMorshuizen)
In the show we see Nazaré becoming an increasingly popular spot for big wave surfing. What do you think the show will do for the town now in terms of popularity?
Nazaré is a real summer hotspot so it’s used to tourism, but I think the big wave sort of stuff just makes that tourism more year-round.
There are a lot more people and surfers who spend the winter there so it just gets busier, but that’s what it was always designed to do. It was a tourism project by the local council. It was their enthusiasm and time which sort of paid off. Just from my opinion, I can see it's created loads of small businesses, job opportunities and income for lots of people there. And the Portuguese are super proud of it.
The local community and the local bodyboarders and surfers, they've been surfing there for years. So when you say pioneering, it’s like, well not really, those dudes have been doing it for a long time.
I think Garrett helped them take it to the next level and put Nazaré on a world stage rather than sort of pioneer it.
By its nature big wave surfing is an incredibly risky sport, but why is Nazaré so dangerous compared to other breaks around the world?
There's no safe zone. In any big wave sport usually the wave breaks in one place and it's usually like a reef or a slab. The wave pretty much breaks in the same spot every time and there's a channel, a safe zone. So even on the biggest days, you can just sit in a channel watching the waves, and that’s the thing that Nazaré just doesn't have.
So it's shifting peaks and sometimes your worst experiences or worst moments can be, you might have the ride of your life but you might kick out and then you might be faced with the biggest wave of your life.
That risk is always there, so you need to be extremely experienced, not just as a surfer - you’ve got to be multi-talented. It's not just about surfing, it's about driving the jet ski and safety, which is often the hardest thing. That's probably sometimes more stressful.
The show really demonstrates the importance of teamwork in big wave surfing. Do you think now there will be more respect for the team behind the person riding the epic waves?
Yeah, I think it does. It is a team sport - it's working together to get those moments, but it's kind of hard because surfing is such an individual thing.
It's the surfer who draws the line and makes the wave critical and makes the wave good. But you’re never doing that alone. There are always people behind the scenes. It's like anything I suppose - like Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton wins the race, but it's all the dudes who built the car, all the tech stuff behind the scenes. And I think that's just the case.
Regardless of whether it's me surfing the wave, or me on the jet ski, or being on a team, it's just great to be involved. It’s cool for a show like this to highlight that it's not just about surfing and there are other people doing the safety and the calls on the radio - there are a lot of moving parts.
Your comment “I don’t fear dying, I get more fearful of not being able to surf” has become a stand-out line from the show! Has surfing in Nazaré changed your relationship with fear?
Fear is obviously quite unique to everyone and I kind of like it. I obviously definitely have fears, everyone has. And it's how you sort of process that fear. I've never had a negative experience of really pushing that, like breaking through that. It's always the regret of having that fear and it stops you doing something, that is always the worst. Whereas having that fear and then pushing through that boundary and coming out the other side, that feeling you get is always higher and bigger.
I really respect that, and there's days and there's moments in time when fear’s good to push through, but there's also times where you know when to put the brakes on a little bit. It’s a juggling act, and I’ve had moments when you take bigger risks and other times where you just don't want to risk it as much. But you try not to let it stop you too much.
There’s a new season of the show coming in 2022 - which we can’t wait for! Can you tell us anything about what’s in store for next year?
To be honest, I saw the episodes as they came out so I didn't see anything beforehand. I didn't know how it was going to be edited or how far back it was going to go. Where this first season was focused on Garrett and the backstory of Nazaré, this next season they’d be focusing on more athletes, I guess - I don't know.
It introduced the top sort of guys from Nazaré in that last series now, like Kai, Lucas, Justine and Maya - there's a few other people that were sort of coming into the series so I'm guessing it will be following all of them as well as Garrett.
Do you think we’ll see a 100ft wave surfed soon, and if so do you think it will be at Nazaré?
I think for me the most exciting thing about big wave surfing is that it's just constantly moving and evolving and that's what I've been training for all summer. I think there's lots of people out there who want it and are ready for it.
I think Nazaré probably does produce 100ft waves so if we get the right storm this winter, then there will definitely be a lot of people there wanting to prove themselves. So fingers crossed.
100 Foot Wave is on HBO Max now in the US, with a UK date to be announced.
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Photos by Tom Young unless otherwise stated.