The Big Waves at Nazaré


The view from Nazaré’s sitio

It didn’t matter that I only put my feet in the water in Nazaré, Portugal. My entire body has been in the Atlantic Ocean many, many times. But the ocean is  a little different in this point on the map where professional surfers break World Records. I was more than a little awed by my stop in this town.

First, a little history into this charming seaside town.

As in Fatima, a vision of the Virgin Mary plays into Nazaré’s history. Legend holds that in 1182, a nobleman was hunting a deer on horseback. As he chased the deer on the Sitio of Nazaré (the clifftop area), he realized that the deer had plunged over the edge and that he was destined to do the same. Then, miraculously, the Blessed Virgin appeared before him and his horse was able to stop before they followed the deer’s demise over the cliff.

Grateful for his miraculous survival, he ordered a chapel to be built on the spot where he was saved. Beautiful tiles inside tell the tale and more recently, a statue along the road to the lighthouse pays homage to that part of Nazaré’s history along with its modern-day fame as having some of the biggest waves in the world.


Several world records for surfing (both men’s & women’s) have been set here. I wish I had a postcard of the picture I saw inside the lighthouse/surfing monument at the top of the cliff. In that picture, you can see a gigantic wave coming toward the lighthouse, ready to engulf it completely. The waves get to 100-ft high here!

Here’s the famous picture of Garrett McNamara riding the wave toward shore. This lighthouse is on top of the cliff overlooking my earlier snapshot of the beach below!

Why? Why is Nazaré home to some of the world’s biggest waves? It has to do with the canyon beneath the ocean off the point here.

At its deepest, the Nazaré Canyon is 16,000 feet from the ocean’s surface, compared to the Grand Canyon’s depth of 6,000 feet at its lowest point. What this means is that as these deep waves roll in along a 130-mile long canyon funnel, rather than dissipate as they encounter a gradual shallow ocean floor,  the large waves hit shallow ground closer to shore, pushing the water higher with the impact.

Garrett McNamara, a Hawaiian surfer, rode in on a 78-foot wave in 2011, setting a world record. It is believed he surfed in on a 100-foot wave as well, though it was argued that there was no concrete measurement of the wave. In 2017, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa was recorded as the world record coasted in on an 80-foot. He braved this after a near-fatal surf in the same spot three years earlier.


Garrett McNamara’s surfboard

Only the most elite, experienced surfers can surf Nazaré’s North Point. It requires special wet suits and jet skis to take the surfers out into the ocean. It would be virtually impossible for surfers to paddle out to these fast-moving waves.


These waves are dangerous! They have been known to kill or injure both surfers and beachgoers alike. Many surfers have suffered concussions, broken bones, black eyes, and near-drowning in Nazaré. Surfing is always dangerous, but with these fast-moving big waves, it’s even harder to get out of harm’s way, and all too easy to get dragged beneath the water for minutes at a time.

Portuguese inhabitants of Nazaré know to stay away from the beaches in winter when the waves get high. Perhaps the Blessed Virgin Mary will watch over them, like she did the nobleman who almost plunged over the cliff in the 12th century. But there’s no guarantee of safety when you face Mother Nature in one of earth’s most dangerous places. Only the most experienced surfers even try.

Are you drawn to extreme sports?



19 responses to “The Big Waves at Nazaré

  1. I’m not drawn to extreme sports but I do love to watch surfers ride those amazing waves. Great post, thanks

  2. I will leave the extreme sports to the experts who dare to go where no one has gone before or few have tried. I still remember the time we were walking along the ocean on the North Shore of Oahu and a wave came out of nowhere and slammed us – scary, wet and sandy experience to never experience again. Sounds like a beautiful area to explore and watch the waves from afar. Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

    • Oh my gosh. I can only imagine! I would love to watch the surfers at Nazare, but wonder where a safe spot would be since the waves sometimes top the cliff there. I’ll leave it to the experts, too.

  3. Wow this is pretty amazing! I have heard Portugal has some of the best surf conditions in the world. I love hanging out in the south, in the Algarve, but definitely would like to take a surf lesson soon! Not on a 100-foot wave though!

  4. The surfing in Portugal is legendary. It’s actually the first place I surfed which was a TOTAL fail… I mean the waves weren’t as big as they are in that photo of the giant wave in Nazare! But it was pretty rough and definitely put me off surfing for a while haha

    • I’m impressed! I saw some people taking surf lessons at Cascais, closer to Lisbon, but I can imagine that the waves might still be rough. But bravo to you for trying! In Portugal, no less!

  5. I had no idea Portugal was synonymous with monster waves! I imagine it would be a thrill to watch but I’m also sensitive and would likely be too anxious to watch surfers tackle such rough waves. I’ll just stick to normal sightseeing. 😉

  6. I’ve never tried surfing and I’m not sure I’d be any good given my track record in skiiing but I would try on maybe some baby waves haha. I am into extreme sports though – I’ve been skydiving and just got my scuba diving certification. I also would do just about anything that involved jumping out of or off something haha.

  7. Yeah, that’s a big scary wave. Wowzers! There were a couple of spots like that in San Diego, but not nearly as intense. Rose Canyon funnels surf into Scripps Pier and big waves crash at Sunset Cliffs and Breakers. We love going on the Peregrine Tides when the sun and moon align and the moon is at its perigee (point of closest approach). This is a long way of saying full moons in the spring. Low tides pull the water 3′ lower than normal and expose all kinds of tide pools. High tides have the waves crashing against the cliffs, especially if there is a winter storm out in the Pacific.

  8. That’s a gigantic wave! It’s scary to stroll along the beach with those waves. Surely though, that’s a paradise for surfers…

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