Andrew Cotton is Britain’s leading Big Wave surfer who has experienced the power of the sea in ways most of us simply cannot comprehend.
In this #SeasThePower interview, Andrew shares with William his unique experiences surfing and driving jet-skis in Nazare, home to the biggest wave ever surfed [Andrew was the jet-ski driver on that wave].
PHOTO CREDIT: RED BULL
Andrew, most people would find it terrifying to be in the line-up at Nazare, yet you embrace it. Do you ever feel scared?
Yeah, it can be intimidating. But you have to enjoy it, otherwise there’s no point doing it. And the thing you learn very quickly is that you can’t fight or beat the ocean, you have to go with it. There’s no point thinking ‘I can swim faster, or I’m stronger, or I can hold my breath longer’ - because that’s not the case. In those situations you’ve got to surrender and go with it.
" the thing you learn very quickly is that you can't fight or beat the ocean"
Does that mean you never have doubts when you're out there?
If I’m not feeling it, I’m quite open to not putting pressure on myself, because there’s no need. So if I don’t want to go, I don’t go.
So if it doesn’t feel right, you just don’t go out?
Yeah, you just have to go with your feelings. That comes with experience – in the beginning, when I was first surfing big waves, I would push myself more and make myself do things, which I think is good because you have to find your boundaries and limits, but you’ve got to work out what’s worth it. Is riding a wave worth risking your life? No, definitely not. But that’s not to say I don’t want to push it, because there are certain times when I’m in the mood, when I’m feeling good - and I’m going out, no matter what!
Andrew surfing a big wave in Nazare. Credit: Red Bull
Would you say this is when you’re safest, because you commit 100%?
Absolutely – it’s all about hesitation. If you hesitate for a millisecond in waves like that, it’s dangerous. And it’s not just dangerous for you as a surfer, because generally you’re out there as a team; it’s dangerous for your mates who you’re surfing with, or doing safety for.
" if you hesitate for a millisecond out there, it's dangerous "
When you are doing safety and driving the jet-skis, how do you get out back through those colossal walls of whitewater?
Nazare in particular has refraction, so you have these crosses, and you can pretty much go straight out. You’ll be facing the waves and on one side you’ve got 40 foot of whitewater, and on the other side there’s 2 foot.
The secret is to doing everything slow – there’s no point hacking around full pelt. It’s super slow, calculated. You don’t need to hit anything very fast. I see pictures of guys launching skis off the back of waves and it’s so dangerous, and so unnecessary – you don’t have to do that. It looks great for a photo, but it’s ridiculous! You can punch most waves really quite slow, keep the ski in the water, keep it all slowed down.
As someone who has experienced both surfing and driving jet-skis at Nazare, how would you compare the experience?
For me, the surfing is sometimes the easiest piece. A jet-ski is way more dangerous and there are more consequences; a jet-ski is big, it’s heavy, and if it hits you it can definitely kill you.
It’s also a selfless thing. Surfing can be quite selfish – get out of my way….it’s my priority!…but when you’re driving a ski you’re doing it for someone else, you want that other person to get the best wave, you want to rescue them. You’re doing it for no glory!
The surfer gets the glory, but the jet-ski driver gets him there [and takes him out] Credit: Red Bull
You famously towed Garrett McNamara into the biggest wave ever surfed. Can you tell us about that world record?
It was big and clean, in the days when Nazare was ‘new’ on the map - unlike now when you’ve ten, twenty jet-ski teams racing around everywhere, cutting everyone up! It was just us out there. So you could say that was ideal, but you’re also very much more alone.
Garrett is very vocal and he knows what he wants, and sometimes as a ski driver you have to make your own calls and sometimes you’ve only got milliseconds to react. I remember Garrett wanting to go deeper on that particular wave, and I thought, no, it didn’t feel right. I think if I had put him in deeper he wouldn’t have made the wave, which probably would have changed whether he got the record or not – and he says that now. But then he surfed it perfectly as well!
Andrew honing his jet-ski skills. Credit: Red Bull
As an outdoor swimmer I must admit that I’ve never been a fan of jet-ski’s – I’ve almost been run over a few times by middle-aged men racing close to shore and not looking where they’re going. But at Nazare it was different – the ski drivers there were incredible, weaving in and out of the waves. How do you learn to ride in those conditions?
There are two massive things here – there’s riding a jet-ski at your local beach and there’s riding a jet-ski at Nazare. And you can only learn at Nazare! I was fortunate that Garratt taught me, and I spent a lot of hours out on the water with no one else around; I was at the right place at the right time. I was fortunate to put those hours in and to have that guidance. So I feel lucky for that.
Riding the jet-ski at Nazare is not the sort of thing where you just jump on a jet-ski and off you go; it’s years of understanding the ocean and reading waves and predicting how the wave is going to break, or reform. A lot of the other big waves spots have big channels and they’re much easier to manoeuvre jet-skis around, but in Nazare you’ve got to punch a lot of waves, and at some point you’re going to come off – that’s just part of it and you have to deal with that.
" at some point you're going to come off, and you've got to deal with that "
What does a wipeout at Nazare feel like?
You’re never usually held under for that long – maybe 15 seconds. Nazare is quite a rumbling wave so it’ll push you in quite a long way; because you’re wearing flotation you move with the wave instead of going deep down, whereas some of the waves I surf in Ireland are heavy slabs that push you super deep. They both have for’s and against’s.
Very few people will ever experience conditions anything like that. Can you give us an idea of how it compares to the normal ‘headhigh’ wave?
It’s the power. I don’t think you can even compare it to a wave in the UK, or you get at your local beach. The energy just in the water, even when it’s small, is phenomenal. You can go and surf Nazare when it’s just a couple of feet and you’ll notice the energy – to get a sense of those waves you just multiply by how much bigger it is.
Fascinating, thanks for sharing your experiences – something very few of us will ever share. To finish off, do you have any advice for other people to #SeasThePower?
Surfing, like other things with the ocean, needs specific conditions, and you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines; tomorrow might be flat, it might be windy. So if the conditions are right, just go!
In the iconic surf film Point Break, the heroine Tyler famously says; “big wave riding is for macho assholes with a death wish”. From my conversation with Andrew, I would say he was an anomaly – and from how he describes the other big wave riders he trains with, they are too. They are focused, motivated and methodical, minimising the risks wherever possible. If Andrew doesn’t feel right, he won’t go out, because he knows that to be safe in an environment like that you need total commitment; “a millisecond of hesitation is dangerous.” And to get to the point where you’re looking down a wave that is potentially 100 feet [the height of a 30-storey building] without feeling any fear, requires years of dedication to make sure your mind and body are prepared. Although most of us will never experience anything like that, there are lessons we can learn and apply to our own small-scale adventures; if you don’t feel confident, don’t go out – and if you do go out, commit totally. And if you find yourself in a tricky situation, remember that there’s no point trying to swim faster than the ocean, or using your strength to overpower it - instead, stay calm and #SeasThePower to your advantage.