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From Novelty To Near Death: The Nazaré Tow Challenge

Big wave surfing has progressed a lot in the last decade or so. 

We don’t really need to thank tow ropes for that. 

The shit that people are doing via the strength of their own arms—like Twiggy’s wave last year at Jaws, Billy Kemper’s wave at Jaws this year, Russell Bierke’s approach in general—is legitimately hard to comprehend. 

Meanwhile, tow surfing is far past its glory days of people smoking meth and whipping into closeouts at Mav’s or an unclothed Laird Hamilton saving lives. It seems to have morphed into the best choice for those who are more interested in getting in the Guinness Book Of World Records than getting in a barrel and, on that note, the Nazaré Tow Challenge was held in 37-53.9 foot waves today. 

The format featured ten teams of two surfers—besides the one-woman team of Justine Dupont. There were a total of six heats, an hour-long a piece, and each team surfed three times. Both team members had to get waves in each heat and there was a priority system to keep things in check. To account for her lack of a partner, Justine was only allowed to surf for 30 minutes during her heats. At the end of the day, the surfers would get together and choose a winner. 

In other words: It was a televised tow session that happened to award people with some money at the end. And it was very fun to watch—other than the incident at the end of the day. 

Surfing big Nazare is always a risk, and that risk is both magnified and mitigated in a competition. It’s magnified by the fact that people are more willing to take chances in order to win. It’s mitigated by a comprehensive safety system. The WSL doesn’t want anybody to die. 

They’re very much alright with you pushing it, though. 

There were some bold lines drawn today. A few proper carves. A lot of little ollies. Thanks to some dark corner of the human psyche, the Challenge was at its most compelling when people were getting smoked—which was often. Wipeouts always have and always will get the eyeballs. Eric Ribiero had to get pulled from the water and Francisco Porcella blasted his eardrum, but for the most part, the sketchy situations all seemed to be under control within moments. 

Until the incident. 

At the end of the last heat of the day, Alex Botelho got knocked off his ski by a wave. He was unconscious by the time the safety team was able to grab him. The broadcast showed a crew on the beach pumping his chest. It was eery and intense—the commentators didn’t know what to say and they eventually cut the stream for the day. 

Then the WSL went silent. Their social media channels became congested with viewers asking for an update. I was fortunate enough to talk to a friend on the scene and learn that Alex was OK, but they left a lot of people to wonder. Sharing information before it can be 100% confirmed is probably the worst thing you could do as an organization in that situation. But leaving your audience in the dark like that is also way up there. 

Hours later, the League confirmed that Alex was alive and in the hospital. That snippet of information was conveniently paired with an edit that was designed to perform well on social media. 

The good news: As of right now, we have no reason to believe that Alex won’t make a full recovery. He’s a great surfer in any waves and, by all accounts, a great guy. Heal up, Alex. And know that the entire surf community has your back. For real. 

Switching gears, in terms of performance, the day’s standouts were easy to identify. As is the case in any situation involving rope, straps and risque thrills, you must keep an eye on the “Young Bulls”—the aptly named team of Kai Lenny and Lucas Chianca. Kai (kinda) stomped a full rotation chop hop and I’m pretty sure Lucas would have attempted a floater if given the chance. If tow surfing has a future, it’s in their hands. I’d definitely watch. That shit is wild. 

Justine Dupont and Maya Gabeira also deserve mentions—both got some bombs. Maybe things didn’t look so Equal By Nature at Jaws, but they definitely seemed Equal By Engine here. These gals would go on anything, and they surfed their waves beautifully. It’s fucking great to see. 

At the end of the day, the surfers got together to pick a winning team, no doubt sobered by the experience of nearly losing a friend. It was decided that Kai and Chumbo won, and that was it for the 2020 Nazaré Challenge—an event that will be remembered for novelty surfing and a near-death experience.

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