Daredevil surfers risk lives at world’s most dangerous surf competition

Maya Gabeira, from Brazil, rides a wave during the Nazaré Big Wave Challenge (Picture: AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Getting swept up in a wave as tall as a 10-storey building sounds like most people’s worst nightmare.

But for surfers in Praia do Norte in Nazaré, Portugal, seeking out mega-waves is all part of the thrill.

Every year, world-class athletes head to the Portuguese coast to compete in the Big Wave Challenge, which took place on Monday.

The surfers hit speeds of up to 50 mph when riding the waves.

Many of this year’s hopefuls were seeking out an elusive 100-foot wave – which, if surfed successfully, would secure them a world record.

The competition can take place anytime between 1 November and 31 March, which is ‘big wave season’ on the Portuguese coast.

Fans atop a cliff watch Clement Roseyro, from France, ride a wave during the Nazare Big Wave Challenge surfing tournament at Praia do Norte, or North Beach, in Nazare, Portugal, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

Fans atop a cliff watch Clement Roseyro, from France, compete in the Big Wave Challenge (Picture: AP Photo/Armando Franca)

The event organisers carefully monitor the weather and the ocean throughout the season.

The exact date of the Big Wave Challenge is confirmed only a few days before the event.

When the conditions line up perfectly, the organisers issue a green alert and the world’s top surfers rush to the sleepy Portuguese town to ride the legendary giant waves.

The world’s biggest waves

This year, waves swelled up to 35 feet high – about the same height as a three-storey building.

The biggest wave ever recorded at Nazaré reached over 80 feet.

Nine teams made up of two members competed in 40 minute heats in Monday’s competition.

The surfers used jet skis to reach the massive waves, with one team member towing the other along.

Spectators lined nearby cliffs to watch the action.

Fans watch the surfing action from a cliff during the TUDOR Nazare Tow Surfing Challenge on January 22, 2024 in Nazare, Portugal.

The event attracts the world’s best – and bravest – surfers (Picture: Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Brazil’s Lucas Chianca and Pedro Scooby swept to victory, with Chianca pulling off an impressive layback turn on one of the waves.

Chianca is a five-time winner at Nazaré .

‘This place is magical; Nazaré has given me everything in my life,’ the Brazilian surfer said.

‘This win is probably the most special to me because we were a 100 percent Brazilian team.’

Lucas Chianca of Brazil surfs during the TUDOR Nazare Tow Surfing Challenge on January 22, 2024 in Nazare, Portugal.

Lucas Chianca of Brazil won the competition for the fifth time (Picture: Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images)

His teammate Scooby was called at the last minute to replace Kai Lenny, who had to pull out due to an injury.

The momentous win was a huge surprise for the 35-year-old.

‘I can’t believe two days ago I was super sick on my couch in Rio De Janeiro,’ Scooby said.

‘My mum took care of me, and Lucas encouraged me, and I decided to come. I put all my energy into this, and our team worked really well to take the win.’

Brazil’s Maya Gabeira won Women’s Best Performance.

Maya Gabeira, from Brazil, rides a wave during the Nazare Big Wave Challenge surfing tournament at Praia do Norte, or North Beach, in Nazare, Portugal, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

Maya Gabeira, from Brazil, returned to surfing following an injury (Picture: AP Photo/Armando Franca)

‘I’ve been injured for what seems like forever now, so it was great to compete again, and to get the win is a great way to come back,’ she said.

How safe is surfing?

It wasn’t plain sailing for all competitors. One surfer, João de Macedo, fell off his board while riding a wave.

The Nazaré waves are some of the most dangerous in the world.

Lucas Chianca, from Brazil, gets airborne exiting a wave during the Nazare Big Wave Challenge surfing tournament at Praia do Norte, or North Beach, in Nazare, Portugal, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

Chianca performed flips and turns on the mega waves (Picture: AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Two surfers have had to be resuscitated after attempting to scale the giant waves at previous competitions, and in 2020, British surfer Andrew Cottons suffered a serious back injury.

In 2023, Brazilian surfer Marcio Freire died while trying to ride Nazare’s waves.

Freire featured in the 2016 documentary Mad Dogs about big wave surfing in Maui, Hawaii, which, along with Nazaré, is the best place in the world to surf giant waves.

Record-breaking waves

Waves need to be at least 25 feet high to count as a ‘big wave’.

World record holder Sebastian Steudtner rides a huge wave Praia do Norte beach as onlookers watch from the cliffside.

Surfer Sebastian Steudtner hold the world record for the biggest wave ever surfed (Picture: Hugo Amaral / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

The world record for the biggest wave ever surfed is held by Germany’s Sebastian Steudtner, who surfed an 86 feet high wave at Praia do Norte in Nazaré in 2020.

Nazaré became famous for big wave surfing in 2011 when Hawaii surfer Garett McNamara was invited to the town by a local bodyboarder. Before then, it was a sleepy fishing town.