Surf’s up for Rodrigo Koxa … way up.
On November 8, 2017, the 38-year-old Brazilian surfer caught an 80-foot-tall wave in Praia do Norte off the coast of Nazaré, Portugal. On April 28, the World Surf League gave him the Quiksilver XXL Biggest Wave Award padded with a $25,000 prize. Koxa’s ride also broke a Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed.
“I’m just so happy and this is the best day of my life,” Koxa said at the awards. “It’s a dream come true.”
Other winners include surfers Lucas Chianca, Paige Alms, Aaron Gold, and Ian Walsh. British surfer Andrew Cotton, who broke his back after a fall on the same day and in the same place as Koxa’s record-breaking feat, was awarded the Wipeout of the Year Award.
Previously, the record was set by Hawaii’s Garrett McNamara in 2011 with a 78-foot-tall wave off the same coast. Other surfers have said they broke that 2011 record, but Koxa’s wave was confirmed—experts can measure a wave from trough to crest by comparing it with the size of the people surfing it. (Related: “What Surfing Teaches You About Life”)
In the video, a jet ski drags Koxa up the wave. In less extreme waters, surfers usually paddle up waves before standing up and riding them, but since Koxa’s 80-foot-tall roller is too fast, towing in on a jet ski allows him to get closer. The jet ski releases him and in seconds, the powerful waters surge up to him. Koxa barely manages to evade the wave as it rushes like an avalanche behind him.
Koxa is an experienced surfer and escaped unscathed—this time. In 2014, he had a brush with death at the same beach. The experience sent him into a four-month slump where he had nightmares, didn’t travel, and got scared easily.
It’s no coincidence that Koxa and Cotton both rode enormous waves at the same beach on the same day. The beach’s location and geography make it prime territory and a magnet for intrepid surfers. Although one surfer got away from the wave with a broken record, the other barely got away with a broken back.
The waves of Praia do Norte are famous for being among the largest in the world. The beach’s westerly location on the European coast allows it to catch wind, and thus ocean swells, from storms that sweep across the North Atlantic. A deep canyon runs under the surf and points toward the town, which focuses the ocean swells directly toward the lighthouse at the edge of Nazaré. Nazaré Canyon, the underwater abyss, is 130 miles long and as deep as 16,000 feet below the ocean’s surface in some areas. (Related: “Why It’s Important to Save Our Seas’ Pristine Places”)
“The ocean swells get focused in this submarine canyon and have much more energy,” surfer and forecaster Micah Sklut told NPR in 2013. “So, first you’ve got really deep water, and then as it approaches the shore it gets very shallow, and that enables the waves to climb really, really big all of a sudden.”
Nazaré’s undersea geography make it particularly unique, but it’s not the only place to catch a big wave. Other popular surfing spots with towering waves are Teahupo’o in Tahiti, Oahu’s Banzai Pipeline, the Cortes Bank near Los Angeles, and Northern California’s Mavericks.