Nazare surfing ban: The public and the damage done
We could see it coming.
The news of Nazare’s surfing ban swarmed the internet faster than a jetski trying to outrun a Praia do Norte whitewater behemoth after a last second rescue. And anyone who’s been following the progressive lockdown measures introduced all over Europe in the face of COVID-19’s second wave of contamination, shouldn’t be surprised.
Just the previous weekend, the Formula 1 race at Portimão racetrack, located in the Algarve region of southern Portugal, had stirred a controversy after an estimated 27,500 attendees gathered to witness Lewis Hamilton’s record breaking 92nd win, allegedly in disregard for the social distancing recommendations by DGS, the official Portuguese state health commission.
In face of the outrage by those who accuse Prime Minister António Costa’s administration of being erratic and politically-biased, as well as by those who demand tighter restrictions and harder punishments for non-compliants, Costa’s Socialist Party administration was quick to respond, barring any spectators from the upcoming Moto GP, due to take place on the same racetrack from November 20th to 22nd.
"What happened at the Grand Prix [of Formula 1, in Portimão] last weekend is absolutely unacceptable and unrepeatable", stated Costa on October 31st, after the decision taken by the Council of Ministers.
In the wake of national TV coverage of Big Thursday, where images of Sitio’s cliffs packed by the thousands all but shadowed the rides of Kai Lenny, Lucas Chumbo, Nic von Rupp, and co. it was clear that surfing was next in line.
The ban order was issued last week by Nazare’s port captain, Zeferino Henriques, after contact with DGS officials. It came the day after the waiting period began for WSL’s Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge, which extends up until March 31st. “The municipality’s civil protection services have questioned the health authorities about the need to establish a contingency plan", Henriques told Lusa Agency. The health delegate's opinion, corroborated by the DGS regional bodies, stated that surfing sessions, "pointed to a real risk to public health, given the high concentration and circulation of people, as happened on the 29th of October."
In spite of the second wave swarming Europe, the measure still took the surfers by surprise, even when acknowledging the authority’s reasons for doing so. Portuguese charger, Nic Von Rupp, one of the so-called Swell of the Century’s standouts, was ironic at first. “I’ve a bag full of some of the greatest waves of my life, so right now the ban isn’t bothering me that much. Had it happened before that swell, I’d be really pissed”, he told Swellnet, before returning to a more reflective mode.
“I understand the authorities. The scene around the fort was crazy, but punishing the surfers for it is aiming at the wrong target, in my opinion. I hope the government reverse the decision, working on ways to prevent the infection of people, not on keeping professionals and recreational surfers from our job and pleasure source. We’re not in danger out there. I mean, not in danger of contamination anyway.”
Since Garrett McNamara put the North Canyon waves on the surfing atlas, the small fishing village on Portugal’s central coast has become a major tourist attraction, drawing increased numbers of curious visitors eager to watch the surfers challenging the world’s biggest waves. And rightfully so. It’s one of nature’s greatest spectacles and the energy emanating from the ocean is absolutely mesmerising. It’s the Portuguese equivalent of Niagara Falls, the Icelandic geysers, the Northern Lights. Suddenly, witnessing waves in excess of fifty feet exploding against Sítio’s cliffs is on everybody’s bucket list, and with today’s forecast accuracy and social media noise, no major swell goes unnoticed. Crowds like those seen on Octobers last week, far from being atypical, are a recurring occurrence and Nazaré has profited from the recently acquired notoriety: tourist income seasonality has flattened, real estate prices rocketed, new and old businesses have flourished.
The central government took notice and in a concerted effort between its official tourism office, Turismo de Portugal, and the Portuguese-led WSL Europe chapter, an impressive promotional stunt was performed in Times Square, New York, where Rodrigo Koxa's 2018 record-breaking wave (estimated height: 24.38 metres), was looped for fifteen days on a thirty metre high screen under the slogan: 'This is the size of a wave in Portugal'. Initiatives such as this, added to the viral effect every XL session has on media, arguably makies Nazaré the most instantly recognisable image of Portugal in the world today, besides that of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.
Obviously enough, the Nazaré council has embraced the opportunity like diamonds were just found at Praia do Norte and Leo DiCaprio was there to collect the gems. In an exclusive interview with Swellnet, the mayor, Walter Chicharro (pronounced shi-sha-ho) outlined some of the investments made by the council, like turning the now iconic fort of St. Michael Archangel into a big wave museum, providing the whole support infrastructure (which includes an ambulance on call, plus firemen and police, civil security and tractors) every time a major swell is underway, a free image bank available for the surfers to use at their request, exclusive fort access for the team spotters, a fully equipped gym for surfers with XXL nominations, a permanent physiotherapy team and free storage for equipment.
Chicharro even admits having gone as far as personally helping some surfers go through the legal process of acquiring real estate in the village. These days, besides G-Mac, chargers Maya Gabeira, Sebastian Steudner, Rafael Tapia, Justine Dupont, and Toby Cunningham, all have properties in Nazaré. But nowhere is the big wave takeover more evident than around the shelter port. Multiple hangars, all sporting the names of different teams sponsors, spread around a harbour meant for more traditional crafts. Fishing boats share their space with powerful PWCs, fishing nets sit next to tow ropes, sleds and boards are everywhere.
In a year of pandemic, with summer vacation revenues highly affected, the big wave season was perceived as an opportunity to balance the losses, and all local authorities know it. When confronted by reporters after Big Thursday’s throng, Walter Chicharro, excused the municipality authorities by claiming difficulty in controlling the movement of people for, "it not being an event, which depends on authorisations and norms of the health entities". On the other hand, "it is complicated, even from a legal point of view, to control the movement of people, because neither the country nor Nazaré are closed", added the mayor.
However, Sítio, the Nazaré neighborhood sitting on top of the headland overlooking Praia do Norte, is relatively easy to manage when it comes to both traffic and pedestrian access, and to Swellnet Chicharro said that, based upon experience of past occasions, all measures were taken to guarantee the recommended social distancing and the use of masks. “But, in truth, we didn’t expect that under the current epidemic situation, this session would attract the highest number of visitors we ever had here, up to 70% of them, comprised of foreigners”, offered the mayor.
On Big Thursday, with TV teams transmitting live crosses from the Swell of the Century, Nazaré made the national news. Playing to the usual narrative during the whole COVID-19 pandemic, these news crosses featured angles that enhanced the crowd number, and included shots of the minority not wearing masks. Shortly after lunchtime, police closed all accesses to Sítio headland, but the damage was done and outrage was running wild amongst the mostly pro-movement restriction population.
Surfing had replaced Formula One as the week’s target of choice. A few days later, the ban was announced.
Surprisingly, the reaction to the news amongst Nazaré regulars has been milder than expected. Or maybe not, given the aforementioned support and steady cooperation dynamic between the surfers and all levels of authorities. Swellnet tried to contact a few of the most consistent names on the Canyon field, and while some, like French hell-girl, Justine Dupont, politely declined commenting, claiming it being “a political thing”, many were those who didn’t bother answering our requests for an opinion. Among those who did, acceptance and comprehension was common ground, like Brazilian Guiness World Record holder, Rodrigo Koxa, who, despite not having turned up for the October swell due to long-scheduled appointments in Brazil, arrived for the Portuguese season just in time to learn about the ban.
Koxa acknowledges that the surf itself is not the problem, but understands the decision in face of the rising number of infections and the need of a proper contingency plan to control the attendance numbers. These views are also shared by experienced PWC pilot and surfer, Sérgio Cosme, and Nazaré Challenge finalist, João de Macedo, who hope the mayor can work out a way to allow not only the training sessions but also the WSL contest. Cosme says he’s even prepared to accept a permanent ban if it comes to it, while Macedo recalls how well the whole surfing situation was dealt with in the initial stages of the pandemic, back in March.
In fact, Portugal was a referential country in relation to surfing concessions during the confinement’s harsher period. A few weeks into lockdown, a task force formed between representatives of the Portuguese Surfing Federation, the National Surfers Association, and the regional office of the World Surf League, approached the authorities and worked out a back-to-water plan that not only allowed for recreational surfing but also permitted a full return to competition.
João Aranha, the tenacious federative president is optimistic about the Nazaré controversy not directly affecting neither the average surfer, nor the compromise assumed with the national health authorities towards local competitions. “It was a successful enterprise. We suffered lots of inspections throughout the season and it all worked fine. There’s not a single case of infection connected with any of our events, or amongst our athletes”, Aranha stated.
With the Nazaré Challenge being the sole event remaining on the calendar, the pressure now is mostly on the council and on the World Surf League, who declined to make any comments. On the other hand, Mayor Chicharro was quick to answer and requested an urgent meeting with the national health department to work on a plan that allows surfing to return to Praia do Norte’s giant waves, both in free surfing and competition. In a statement, the Mayor explained that the goal of the meeting will be to present a Contingency Plan, developed in conjunction with the civil protection, volunteer firefighters, the police and the Captaincy, to limit public access to a maximum of 2,500, sparsely distributed along the lighthouse area, the hillside, and the beach.
“I’d like to say that I understand Captain Zeferino’s decision”, Chicharro said to Swellnet. “Throughout all these past years of building up Nazaré’s as a global product, he has always been of invaluable support and cooperation. His decision to ban surfing wasn’t out of any biased view on the sport or its devotees, but out of a legitimate public health concern. But we’re confident that with a good plan and some reflection, we’ll be able to see some more epic winter sessions this season.”
// JOÃO VALENTE