Waves Are Hard To Measure. Then There’s Politics. Just Ask Hugo Vau – Forbes

On January 17, 2018, Hugo Vau was in the right spot at the right time to do what no other surfer had done before: Ride a wave measuring more than 100 feet in height. To the surfing world, that barrier is the equivalent of Sir Roger Bannister’s sub 4-minute mile in 1954, or Eliud Kipchoge’s sub 2-hour marathon in 2019.

Vau’s ride happened at the Praia do Norte beach, Nazare, Portugal, in a place offshore where the biggest waves break, called Big Mama. Nazare features the largest waves in the world, from October through March, because of a unique channel there at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean that amplifies powerful swells to two or three times their normal height.

We recently caught up with Vau in Lisbon, where he lives with his two-year-old son. Following are edited excerpts from a longer phone conversation.

Jim Clash: Tell me about your epic ride in 2018.

Hugo Vau: We were in an area called Big Mama where the waves don’t usually break. Most of the other teams had left for the day. They called on the [walkie-talkie] radio, saying there was a set of three huge swells coming – and to go for the second. It was super-windy, so I told my jet ski guy, Alex [Botelho], that we would need to use the wave as a shelter. I towed-in from the right side. The swell started to build, and build, and the center created that shelter.

As soon as I let go of the [tow-in] rope, despite the harsh conditions, the water suddenly became like silk. I was able to phase in, and when I went deeper, I was able to see the entire wave. It was the biggest thing I had ever seen in my life.

I just focused on the drop. It was half past 4 p.m., and the sun was behind us. The [wave’s] shadow over me was like Everest, at least 300 feet. It was the fastest I had ever been on a board, too, in that endless drop. I knew that if I were caught by this wave, I would disappear. The energy and power was so immense it was almost un-measurable, crazy.

When the thing finally broke, I thought I was done because I was totally covered with the foam and spray from the wind, and couldn’t see anything. It had broken top to bottom, a perfect one, not in the middle and mushy, as so often happens in such wind.

Other teams had arrived, and were in the traditional spot where the waves usually break at Nazare. They were wondering why we were there, so far outside. It was Justine [DuPont], Fred David and some others.

They were all yelling, saying the wave was like in another dimension. It was a special ride for me. I had waited seven years for that 20-second interval between swells.

Clash: Why was this wave not judged to be a world record? Seems cut and dry.

Vau: Bill Sharp [founder of World Surf League’s Big Wave Awards] said this was tragic because we just got one angle of the wave, and it’s not super sharp. What can I tell you? They’ve given the record to surfers with one angle before, but their images were sharper.

In the beginning it was so clear, the size of my wave. Imagine the record then was Garrett’s [McNamara] – 78 feet. My wave was not just a few feet more, but like 37 feet! It’s very weird the way they were giving records, and still is. It’s always been super-controversial.

The Navy engineers even sent me the data, the registrations of the buoys, etc, for both Garrett’s record and my wave. The numbers indicated that this wave was two or three times as big as anything ever recorded. That says a lot. Interesting they [WSL] didn’t even put that wave in the “Biggest Wave” category that year, but in the “Best Ride Of The Year.”

It was tough for me at first because the size difference was so obvious, not just for me but for my team. Everybody was a bit shocked in the surf community. But the spiritual side of that ride is what mattered most, the oneness with nature. Both Laird Hamilton and Greg Noll have surfed huge waves that have not been filmed. So I guess my wave has become one of the most mythical moments in surf. That’s a story that will prevail long into the future, I think [laughs], the stories we dream of as kids.

Clash: Any letdown after you had done it, surfed that dream wave?

Vau: The day after, I went out but I didn’t want to surf because the waves seemed small in comparison, and those waves were considered the biggest of the year! Even to surf another giant like that for me will not be the same. It’s like if you climb Everest, then climb it 10 more times. It will never be the same as the first one.

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