‘Holding onto your dream,’ pretty much defines Andrew Cotton, who made headlines around the world as the part-time plumber from Cornwall who rode a 100ft monster of a North Atlantic winter-storm wave at Nazaré. Rather than buckling under the responsibility of being a husband and father, the journeyman competition surfer had kicked his big-wave dream into overdrive by grabbing the chance to drive the safety jet-ski for pro charger Garret McNamara at Portugal’s Nazaré, one winter. The skills and teamwork he learnt there laid the foundation for riding the world’s giants, and kicked off a full-time quest to find the World’s next biggest wave…
RISING You’re known for exploring the freezing cold North Atlantic, in winter, searching for the world’s next monster wave – you didn’t like the look of Hawaii, then?
ANDREW COTTON ‘It would be easy for me to go to Jaws in Hawaii but I’d be one of thousands of surfers – it’s hard to get waves, you’re not getting the waves you want, and I saw my surfing progress so much from surfing Nazaré with no one else out there.’
RISING How did you even get into surfing waves the size of three-storey buildings?
AC: ‘Ireland was where my big wave journey started. I travelled a lot when I was working for a surf brand and I noticed that the guys who were kicking ass in the contests were different when the waves were bigger. For big wave surfing you need to have an amount of technical ability – you have to be able to surf – but you don’t have to be the most technical surfer.’
RISING So, what does it take to be a big-wave surfer?
AC ‘You have to be able to read the wave and the ocean, you have to be confident in your ability, know when to commit and when you commit you go – no hesitating. It’s the same with driving the safety ski and that’s just as important. I drove the jet-ski for Garret McNamara for the first two years and saw that as an opportunity to spend time in the water with big waves. Garret’s not superhuman so he can’t surf everyday. Eventually you are going to get to be able to surf the wave or paddle. That was my in – I had been doing stuff in Ireland before that on the small European scale to get the experience.’
RISING It sounds like big-wave surfing is a team sport – why do you need the jetski?
AC ‘There are two different disciplines of big wave surfing: tow-in and paddle surfing. Tow-in is almost like wake-boarding, but it enables you to go from A to B very quickly. There’s a lot of current so you get in the water and you’re trying to paddle but; bang, it takes you and you’re off the peak, the set comes and you’re miles away from it. So you paddle back to the peak and it will go flat again because you’re in the middle of the Atlantic. In Nazaré those waves were massive, so you’d have to be super-lucky to paddle those things.’
RISING How fast would you have to paddle to catch one?
AC Well, sometimes when you are there getting a surfer into position you can be going 40mph on the jet-ski. And he’s flinging off it and leaving going 40mph+…’
‘You can be going 40mph on the jet-ski and the surfer is flinging off it going 40mph+’
RISING How close did you come to packing it all in before Nazaré happened?
AC ‘The struggle was juggling part-time work, kids and then trying to charge a swell at the weekend, that’s when it was tough. There were loads of times where I could have given up and I was told to give up and get a job, but those are the sacrifices you make. It’s not an easy thing to chase but if you put the time in and you are true to yourself – focus, write your goals down and don’t get side-tracked.’
RISING Did you ever try living a ‘normal’ life?
AC ‘I trained as a plumber and got a full-time job and it was just… you’re not working at your passion and straight away I realised the guys I was working with were passionate about plumbing, they loved it! But I was just there to keep my parents happy and because of money, and that wasn’t right.’
RISING How hard is it to be in the right place to ride these giants?
AC ‘The main thing about big wave surfing is that you only get two or three really good storms per winter and it’s about making the most of that small window, and being in the right place at the right time. I have a few spots that I like but the thought of having another one out there that could potentially have bigger waves: that excites me. You have got to get out there and take the time. It’s no good just going somewhere once and then saying: “Oh there’s nothing here.”’
RISING What about the offshore wave in Ireland that you spotted from 8 miles away?
AC ‘I was the first one out there in 2013. It took us 45 minutes to jetski out there one January, two miles from the nearest land. A powerful wave but it was sketchy. I saw world-class waves, I was thinking: “If the rest of the coast is 5ft, why is it 20ft out here?” So I decided to dedicate a winter to it. That’s a story in itself. We got 30% of what I was aiming for but will I go back? Definitely. Do I know a better time to go back? Definitely – every single surf spot has its magical formula that creates the dream conditions – so that’s half the battle.’
RISING Where can big wave surfing go next?
AC ‘Big wave surfing is always evolving – it’s not like climbing a mountain. It’s there, you’ve climbed it, done. But with big wave surfing the next day someone might find a bigger wave, or if not a bigger wave then there’s a bigger storm! And we are still finding these spots; the frontiers. Nazaré is a classic example: it has only been surfed for the past 5-6 years and it’s right on the shore underneath people’s noses. Why haven’t people been surfing there before?’
RISING When you hunt these waves, do you feel under pressure to deliver?
AC ‘I’m not under pressure to deliver; I am under pressure that I have put on myself to be in the right spot, because I want to surf the biggest waves.’
RISING You’re clearly confident in your abilities in the water but you must sense when it’s going to go wrong – don’t you ever think: ‘Oh no, this is it!’
AC ‘If I was going to second guess I wouldn’t surf. In those wipeouts you don’t think like that – you think nothing, you’re in the zone.’
RISING Does that mean you have to be in the correct mindset to face the risks?
AC ‘Someone who’s doing something with consequence, or to an extreme, yeah we’re risk takers but we’re also pretty fucking calculated. And that’s what lets people do it, otherwise you’re going to break your legs, or die really quick! That’s the calculation: is it worth it? Risk versus benefit. Who are you with; is the team strong? The wave: am I going to go too deep? Then you commit – you go: “I’m going to go as deep as I can, do the hardest turn.” That’s the mindset, not: “Oh, I’m going to wipe out, ah, I’m going to drown!” If you think like that everything is just going to go wrong.’
‘In those wipeouts you don’t think like that – you think nothing, you’re in the zone’
RISING What’s been your deepest wipeout?
AC ‘I was surfing a wave a few years ago in Ireland and it was maybe 10ft – I must have gone into a vortex of water that was just going down, both my ears felt like they’d burst, my nose was pissing blood, I thought: “Fuck me this is deep.” I had a buoyancy vest on as well, put in two or three big strokes up and I still wasn’t to the top, and then I was like: “Fuck this is really deep!” And it wasn’t even a bad wipe-out or a heavy beating, just a weird vortex of water off the corner of a ledge or something like that; water is pretty amazing.’
RISING How long can you hold your breath?
AC ‘Five minutes. But I reckon if we did a class now, within a couple of hours I could get you to double the amount of time you can hold your breath for, just by breathing techniques. The body is a pretty amazing machine. If you tune into it and know the switches, and what you’re looking for then it’s surprising how easy it is to push it to its potential. Otherwise you freak out – knowing the signs helps psychologically because when it happens for real you know in the back of your mind that you can hold your breath for that long.’
RISING The waves you ride are heavy, in all senses of the word – why do you put your body on the line, what’s the payoff?
AC ‘I have had the experience on some of the best waves I’ve ever ridden where it’s full slow-motion shit; where it’s a three-second ride but it feels like an hour long – that’s the magic, that’s the reason for the chase for me, but that’s not adrenaline, it’s something else…’
WHAT NEXT? Short of hopping onto a jet-ski and heading to the nearest big wave spot (not recommended for novices) the best way to get a slice of the action is to watch, for free, the story of how Andrew Cotton spent a season hunting big waves off Ireland in Beneath The Surface.