‘100 Foot Wave’: Why a Mad 2020 Scramble to the Cliffs of Nazaré Left the World’s Best Surfers High and Dry

The rush to Portugal as the remnants of Hurricane Epsilon approach proves worthy, but the pandemic-era logistics tell another story

100 foot wave hbo
"100 Foot Wave" (HBO)

HBO’s “100 Foot Wave” offers few visual clues the world outside of the compelling docuseries was in the grips of a 100-year pandemic that will kill millions of people. 

The show’s hero and protagonist, Garrett McNamara, was not filmed wearing a mask despite the close quarters of many scenes that are featured in Season 2’s first and second episodes. And he was by no means alone.

But COVID-restricted plane rides to Portugal were soon required as rare early season conditions at Nazaré prompted a reunion of the world’s best big-wave surfers. They included McNamara, Ian Cosenza, Lucas “Chumbo” Chianca and Kai Lenny. 

“We saw this big swell on the map,” McNamara said from his house in O’ahu, Hawaii. “It was the best-looking swell that I’ve seen, with the best conditions. And it looked like it was going to be the best waves we’ve ever seen.”

The rush to Nazaré in October 2020 as the remnants of Hurricane Epsilon approach proved worthy, indeed, with some of the biggest waves in the decade since McNamara’s discovery of the spot providing ample fodder for the sport’s biggest stars.

But the logistics told another story. The first sign of trouble came when McNamara’s young daughter broke down crying at the news she wouldn’t be allowed to accompany her mother to the traditional viewing locale for the day’s surfing, on the lighthouse at the top of Nazaré’s majestic cliffs.

The tensions mounted from there.

“The hype of this swell was so intense,” Lenny said. “It was the biggest swell ever.”

Germany’s Sebastian Steudtner soon rode a wave that had the hordes drawn to the lighthouse cliffs that day roaring like a surfing crowd had rarely roared before. 

Guinness World Records would eventually mark Steudtner’s wave as the biggest ever ridden at 86 feet, a record that still stands. Officials number the Nazaré crowd at 30,000.

Chianca then caught a similarly massive wave, and said the reaction was unlike anything he’d experienced before.

“As soon as he got off the wave, the cliffs were like ‘YAHHH,’” recalled Cosenza, who was providing the tow for Chianca. “Everybody is screaming.”

“It was like Brazil versus France in the final of the World Cup,” Chianca said.

Other veterans of the Nazaré scene had never seen anything like it. But it wasn’t only the crowd on the banks. The number of surfers and accompanying jet skis in the water created a logjam at the lineups and a dangerous snowball effect for the process of swooping in and grabbing a surfer after their ride — or after they had wiped out. 

“I think it surprised everyone how many people turned up in October,” McNamara tow partner and big-wave star Andrew Cotton said. “That many jet skis, that many people. And everyone’s hungry. Everyone wants it.”

Whether it was the opportunity for thrills, fame, fortune or the anticipation and bottled up energy from lockdown, the early crests of the biggest waves had a crowd of as many as six jet skis poised in the hopes that magic was at hand. The radio channels of the teams’ walkie-talkies were also overcrowded and becoming jammed with interference.

“The energy in the water was very intense,” Chianca said. “You could see that everybody in the water was feeling a heavier, more tense energy.”

“We were in the middle of a pandemic, you know,” McNamara’s wife and spotter, Nicole, said. “People were scared during that time. Now you have these big scary waves coming. So I think it just increased everybody’s fear and survival mode.”

A significant police presence grew and began erecting barricades to limit the flow of people coming into the area, which had become an “astronomical amount,” according to Nicole McNamara.

It became apparent the lack of social distancing in such a massive crowd had the real potential to spoil a good thing as news coverage of the event spread globally.

“You can’t have football matches, there’s no crowds, and then you got 30,000 people on the cliff, watching people surf,” Cotton said. “So then the city hall had to juggle that.”

One week later, a surfing ban was put into effect, a prohibition that lasted six weeks and emptied Nazaré of many of its surfers who flock there in the colder months to catch waves that grow to reach the height of tall buildings. Even Nazaré pioneer Garrett left.

As “100 Foot Wave” shows, some surfers tested the rules. But the local police force proved mostly up to the task, doling out warnings and fines to nearly anyone who entered the waters.

“Now the cliff looks exactly what it looked like before Garrett,” a local said.

“100 Foot Wave” airs Sundays on HBO and streams on HBO Max.