River deep, mountain high: Explaining Nazare

Stu Nettle
Swellnet Analysis

EDIT: With the Nazare Tow Challenge due to begin at 7pm tonight AEST, here's a timely reprise to a popular article. Why, when there are a million waves in the world, does Nazare break like no other?

Each year from November to March, the eyes of the surfing world focus on a small stretch of ocean offshore from Praia de Norte, Nazare, in north-western Portugal.

It's during those months that large north-west swells sweep down from the North Atlantic striking the western shores of Europe sparking up all the marquee big wave spots. The actual wave size depends on storm position, direction, and other variables, and yet Nazare will almost always be the largest of the bunch.

In fact, Praia de Norte is widely regarded as having the largest rideable waves in the world.

And the reason for the extraordinary size? Whether it be WSL commentators or surf journalists, we’re told it’s because of the Nazare Canyon - a deep trench cutting through the adjacent continental shelf. The incoming swell supposedly travels up the canyon striking Praia de Norte without losing any of its energy to the shallow continental shelf.

Yet when we look at the location of Nazare Canyon, particularly as it relates to Praia de Norte, doubt is thrown on that theory.

The predominant swell direction for big Nazare is from the northwestern quadrant. The big winter swells sweep down from the North Atlantic striking the Portuguese coast at an angle.

Yet Nazare Canyon lies to the south of Praia de Norte, meaning much of the energy in those big winter swells won’t even pass over Nazare Canyon, let alone travel along it.

So then, what’s happening at Praia de Norte? If the swells don’t pass over the canyon how do they get so damn big?

Winter swells come from the northwest, yet Nazare Canyon is to the southwest of Praia de Norte

It’s important to note that, despite Nazare Canyon being located to the southwest of Praia de Norte, the head of the canyon comes to within a kilometre of where the surfers ride the waves.

Detailed bathymetric charts show that the takeoff zone at Praia de Norte is between 15 and 20 metres deep, yet immediately to the south, at the canyon head, the depth is 125 metres. In fact, at one location, the seabed rises 70 vertical metres in just 140 horizontal metres. That’s a rise of 1:2, which is extremely rare on the ocean floor.

It’s this extreme difference in water depth that creates the extraordinary waves at Nazare.

Despite Nazare Canyon being to the southwest, its head reaches to within a kilometre of Praia de Norte (Instituto Hidrográfico)

Before continuing, we need to point out that Nazare breaks unlike other big waves such as Jaws or Mavericks. Rather than having a single line of swell approaching the coast, Nazare is characterised by swell lines that run at angles. It achieves its extraordinary height by a process called constructive interference: those swell lines move toward each other and where they meet - i.e where they interfere with each other - the size increases.

Outside of the science lab we call it a wedge.

The typical set up for a wedge is a groyne or headland reflecting a swell back into the lineup. Yet a similar thing can happen when swells refract around an underwater rise. At Praia de Norte, northwest swells slow upon approaching the coast, yet just to the south the same swell retains it's open ocean speed due to the depth at the canyon head. This causes the swell line to refract towards the shallow area.

Swell from the northwest slows over the shallow shelf, yet to the south where the water is deeper the swell moves faster, thereby bending it towards the shallow water

The result is a swell that originally came from a northwest angle starts to bend and move towards the northeast across the Praia de Norte surf zone. And where the refracted swell interferes with the incoming northwest swell is where the wedges, ridiculously oversized wedges, occur.

Click to see drone footage of the Nazare wedge in full effect

Therefore, it's not swell travelling up the canyon that creates the size at Nazare, but the sharp change in depth immediately south of the headland.

And it also explains why wave size can be hard be so hard to forecast at Nazare. It’s not one swell the forecasters are concerned with, but the collision of two swells. Add to that the myriad angles of refraction and interference and you have the potential for a vast range of swell heights.


shoredump's picture
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shoredump Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 7:29pm

It will be interesting to see what it does with this WNW angle. Less tall peaky ones and more walls and closeouts you would imagine

crg's picture
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crg Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 7:34pm

Thanks Stu, that answers a few questions I'd had in my head for awhile about the position of the canyon being actually south of the break. Always fascinates me how certain elements come together to make a singularly unique wave.
There's a spot just north of Mavericks, a kind of left cove which will be 4-6 ft when Mavs starts to break on the inside reef about 12 ft, you can literally sit there on your shortboard and watch the same swell lines triple the size a few hundred metres away.

tux's picture
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tux Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 8:02am

Places in Hawaii are the same you can be surfing just to the side of Pipe and its 3-4 foot and guys are pulling into 12 footers just down the beach

blindboy's picture
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blindboy Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 7:35pm

You should have been a science teacher Stu!

stunet's picture
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stunet Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 8:12pm

Ha ha ha...

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upnorth Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 7:45pm

That's cool, love seeing bathymetric charts explaining places like Nazare. Is something similar happening at Hossegor? Often hear the Capbreton canyon credited with channeling swell into La Graviere but I'm pretty sure the canyon is further south and again aligned southwest.

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thermalben Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 6:01am

I've never studied Hossegor closely, but a quick glance of the bathy data shows that the canyon does indeed reach closest to the coast immediately offshore from La Graviere

This chart shows the head of the canyon best - light blue contours denote the 20m depth mark.

The canyon extends W, almost W/NW before swinging SW back, and then W/NW as it broadens into the Bay of Biscay upon reaching the continental shelf - trace the contours as you would a topographical map, and you can see the shape of the canyon clearly.

Also interesting to note the cross-section highlighted (about 16km offshore) - water depths are 432m at the head of the canyon, but rises steeply either side to about 110m depth. That is the source of some pretty serious swell focussing directly into Hossegor.

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upnorth Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 9:14am

Thanks for that. Could be mistaken but from the second chart I'd say La Graviere is about half way up Lac d'Hossegor so about 500m north of the head of the canyon. This is the discrepancy I mentioned but must be that swell funneled in NE from 16km offshore just hits the mark.

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thermalben Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 9:27am

Indeed you are correct, my measurements were out.

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indo-dreaming Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 8:20pm

I have no interest in Nazare and get bored after watching a few waves, but this is a good article i lobe these in depth kinda of articles.

Would love to see more on different breaks.

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redmondo Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 8:28pm

Very enlightening thank you.

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velocityjohnno Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 8:58pm

Do you think, at the end of the last ice age (13,000 years ago roughly) - with sea level much lower and landmasses extending much closer toward the end of the continental shelves - do you think there were far more large, powerful waves like Nazare, Hawaii or the Canaries?

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upnorth Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 10:39pm

I've seen rudimentary bathymetric charts showing how the land (seabed) lay at the end of the last ice age but it'd be interesting to see more detail. A starting off point could be anywhere where the continental shelf appears at around 120m current depth.
I like the fact that the North Sea was a populated landmass around the last ice age ie relatively recently. Fishermen pulling up worked bone artefacts, Orox and Mammoth bone 50 miles out makes things feel pretty temporary.

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Westofthelake Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 9:53pm

Great analysis Stu. Timely and easy to understand.

"Outside of the science lab we call it a wedge."

Swellnet has a Science lab?

That's worth my subscription right there.

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scroty Wednesday, 12 Feb 2020 at 7:47am

Science lab - or Ponds Institute?

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northeasterly Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 9:48am

Thanks for this. Really interesting. Will be watching Nazare peaks tonight with interest. Maybe not as peaky as usual with all that west in the swell.

It's probably been done before but I'd love to see why Pipeline is so powerful and breaks so hard. The swells seem confused on the outer reefs of Pipe but then seem to focus on the peak like a magnifying glass. Is there any charts/diagrams like your Nazare ones above that show the bathymetry of the outer reefs of Pipeline?

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Seacliffs Saturday, 15 Feb 2020 at 9:37pm

The behaviour of bunch of breaks is explained here:

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memlasurf Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 11:14am

Interesting you say 1:2 is rare in the Ocean which by inference the grades are generally a lot flatter? Are tropical reefs also generally flatter than that as doing a bit of snorkelling around Cloudbreak there are some serious drop offs.

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Island Bay Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 11:39am

Fiji has some very steep reef drops. Mini Cloudbreak (left off Momi Bay pass) scared the bejeezus out of me. Paddled 20m outside the lineup, and the water was black!

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memlasurf Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 11:47am

Yeah snorkelling over the top of some of those areas is weird. Beautiful colours, shallow waters then black. When you dive next to those drop offs it like being in outer space and I only got down about 15 foot.

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velocityjohnno Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 4:33pm

He he, there's some stuff like that out on the Abrolhos. Sends a shiver down the spine!

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rooftop Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 2:14pm

Thanks Stu. Excellent explainer.

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Smitdoggie Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 4:02pm

Fascinating article - very well done and well written!

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Garryh Monday, 19 Nov 2018 at 12:56pm

Being a mere mortal...I'm sorry but I can't possibly imagine how anyone could be interested in surfing the "wedge" at Nazare. Does anyone reading this have any desire at all to tackle this mountain?

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Blowin Monday, 19 Nov 2018 at 1:13pm

Nice article.


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cjac6077 Monday, 19 Nov 2018 at 1:14pm
stunet's picture
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stunet Monday, 19 Nov 2018 at 1:18pm

And be forced to live on the Sunshine Coast? No thanks...

Though coursework with Phil Jarratt and Tom Wegener looks inviting.

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truebluebasher Tuesday, 18 Feb 2020 at 12:01pm

Great job Stu.
See Ghoulish Bottom of Canyon feed time!

Here's a rare map revealing warmer Mediterranean outflow mixing with currents.
Mediterranean riches fill the Portugeuse Canyons + North Current feeds Nazarre.

Sardines thrive on this Chlorophyll (re: Big Wave Canyons)
100m deep, upwelling in moonlight & mid winter swells raise the prized Sardines.
2000 years, Big Wave surfers risk all to feed Nazare townsfolk (100's wiped out)
# 1 swellnet exclusive..."The Biggest Wave Surfers of all time."
(Part 1) 'Eyes on the Prize'.

Phoenicians protected by Eyes of Horus on boats to see the Fish & frighten enemies.
It is believed they arrived to claim Nazare Big Wave around 2,000 years ago.
382 Tsunami
400 Christian Monks
711 Spanish Christians /King Roderic arrives at Monte de Sao Bartolemeu (Nazare)
1182 Their statue of Mary was left hidden in The Altar.(The end of Sea side Stairs)
1179 Pope Alexander accepts Portugal King's independence.

1182 The Point of Miracle.
Mayor chases Deer in heavy Fog & almost over the cliff's edge. (The Point of Miracle)
(Political Postcard)
Mary protects all from the sea : Royal Fleet / Fishermen. (As Mayor's Witnesses)
This Picture is of a brave new world...Don't fear the Big Waves, Mary will save you.
(Still now, Local Nazare Surfer's say God...Oops! Mary saves me from Wipeout!) True!
Note: Fishermen are surfing off the Point (Protected) in Big September Swells







1199 King Alfonso hands Knighthoods to top crewmen & Mary protects them.
During this era Beaches were Formed..
1300's Surf Fishing + Now Surf Tourism mix was already established.
1300's (Late) & on was no beach.
1400's Default estuary port with no beach thru to late 1700's.(re: 1542)
1504 Tsunami (S/W off Spain)
1531 Tsunami (Lisbon)
1542 A rare Beach reappearance (Sudden beaches reappear thru time)

Nazarre Tsunamis would empty the bay, trapping Surfers in Canyon as a target.
PS. Surfers on local surf craft would have Surfed Tsunamis (Bigger than 2000's era)
End of Part One and already today's non Tsunami Big Wave Claims seem fanciful.
tbb salutes & awards Original Big Wave Surfers of Nazare. {R.I.P}

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truebluebasher Tuesday, 18 Feb 2020 at 3:11pm

"The Biggest Wave Surfers of all time."
(Part 2) 'Aye! The Big One'
1722 Tsunami (Algarve) Tavira a Caravel crew surviving.

1755 Tsunami (Lisbon) "The Big One"

100ft Tsunami takes out Lisbon then ramps Nazare Surf fisher's Big Nov Swell.
The many Surfers out on Nov 1st early morn would have surfed largest Nazare waves...
WR Cybernauts are overshadowed by iconic paddle in Nazare Big Wave surfers

1761Tsunamai (Lisbon) Follow up.

1780 Beach returns a decade later as in after the 1500's Tsunamis.
Beach holds around 50 huts
1807 French invaders burn village & surfcraft (Napoleonic Wars)
1803-1815 Scots Guard are positioned thru-out Portugal
1850's UK bodysurfing Holidays & Scottish Fishermen migration.

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truebluebasher Tuesday, 18 Feb 2020 at 2:34pm

"The Biggest Wave Surfers of all time"
(Part 3) The New Wave Surf Culture.
All live on the beach...Gromz bodysurf slammin' shorie to toughen up for boat crews.
The Women are Wave Spotters on Patrol + Haul in Surfcraft + Catch (Dry-Cook)
Women wear up to 7 sets of petticoats + Tie on Aprons. (Also Position on cliffs)
Each layer of clothing is used as Semaphore to count the set waves & flag danger.
Each lifted Petticoat signals the next wave & the Apron eg: [WARNING] Close out set.
The Turban scarf can also be waved + (2 / 3) can tie as a default rescue line.
Surf Chix wear black 'when' Husband or Son is Wiped Out! (A lot of Nazare Goths)
Films show these widows could flap their Black capes to signal fishermen.
Wipeouts were often & Women in (Black) were seen as key central village keepers.

Menfolk wore Check Flannel Shirts with neck & wrist cuffs / Strictly 'No Pockets'
No button ups but Original Wettie tab designs...(Essentially a rescue wettie)
Design kept water out & improved survival on Big Nazare Wipe-outs.
Instead they kept fishing gear in Goblins (Tailed Beanies)
Boardies in Summer & Drawstring ankle Cuffs in winter.
Photo of real deal Big Wave Surfer with his Custom Big Wave Nazare Surf Craft
A 6 x Wrap belt as with Women's scarves were default life lines.
A crew 8-20 could tie a quick rescue line of considerable length.

Local Phoenicians surfed Pintails & The Scottish surfed Square Tails.
Both surfcraft had huge rocker with curved prows to surf steep Nazarre waveface

Surfing the Biggest Nazare lineup rewards the best & biggest sardine Hauls...
Seine Surfing involves the crew edging the canyon on Nazare's big right hand break.
Waiting for the birds to signal which set wave
The Linesman then paddles into the lineup timing the sets with birds. (Bigger = Better)
Sardines sit 100m down & old nets weren't that long. You had to surf them out!
The linesman needs to surf the large face into the channel circling back to the crew.

See Feature Canyon (Photo) Sardine outlet companions biggest Wave Peak.

The crew then ziplock the epic haul & repeat around 6-7 x per session.
Timing with Moonlit headland patrols, they'd Surf the Right hander
Yes! Fishermen in tiny local made wooden dinghys surfed Biggest Nazare at night.
Prime sardines were heavy & Surfcraft needed a swing off Set waves to clear lineup.
This tow surfing of sardines would act as a braking device for Paddle crew
These mass wipeouts were the norm in Nazare...Fishermen pushing their luck...

No exact timeline of surfing Big Nazare, pictures indicate at least 800 years ago.
Given Phoenicians had the perfect designed craft for Nazare, could add 1000 years.

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truebluebasher Wednesday, 19 Feb 2020 at 4:07pm

"The Biggest Wave Surfers of all time."
(Part 4) Pro Big Wave Surf Slaves...(Censored Version)
1885 The Sardine Factory (Co/Op) / 1893 Hot Baths
1893 Fishing Regulation / 1897 Career Boats (Catraios) are Banned
1901 Seawall / 1903 Lighthouse + Fog Siren / 1908 Motorboat + Life Boat
1911 Nazareth becomes Nazare / 1917 Boat Ramp / 1928 Trawlers
& Evil Sardine Co'Op runs the town, some say still today.
More Fishermen were made to surf the Big Right for bigger company payloads.
This was considered a death wish ...nothing more than Big Wave Slaves for the Boss.
1929 First of the Nazare Surf Films Praia de Pescadores.(Surf Panoramas & Culture)

1930 2nd film "Maria do Mar" exposes the Pro Big Wave Slave trade...
Part 2 [10:00] The Signals > Wipe Out > Alarm Bell > Hill Scramble > Rescue Crew
The film shows Ocean Suicide to beach frolicking...real hard core Surflick.

1931 (4123) Surf Fishermen / 1950 pop 9,240 (2,000) Surf Fishermen
1952 Pro Big Wave Surfer's Slave Film "Nazare" (Was heavily edited by State)
Surflick Poster shows Big Nazare Right with blood dripping off Surfer's hands.
'Nazare' The Censored version of The Pro Big Wave Surf Slaves.

1959 Nazare (Great quality downtown Shorie Surf Fishing Promo)

Film Nazare TV Swansong for the Surf Fishermen (Big Surf scenes in the Town)

1974 -(50 boats) > 1978 (10 boats)
1975 Film shows Nazare crew winding down..
1889-1977 (155 deaths) Films leave no 2nd guessing as to how & where they died.
1985 Port / Marina (Surf Fishermen era is by way of Tourist Interpretation on Beach)
Port was designed to rid fishermen off the beach for tourist trade takeover.
Fishermen & Widows conjure up unhappy past...(Surf Tourism Wiped out local crew)
1995 Nazare Port Fishing Sardine Quotas
1995-200,000 T / 2005-100,000 T / 2015-13,000 T /2016- 1,500 T / 2017 >> Less
Restricted by EU Quotas...Nazare now imports 60% of Sardines
Now also Banned from Big Wave Nazare Fishing Season.(Sardines)
New Millionaire Surf blowins say some old salts still surf / share the right.
Big big wave hunters / Sight seeing / Charter Fishing price old salts out of own port.

Portuguese Plan last ditch effort with rogue inside Reefs to circumvent catch limits.
Fisherman argue the Artificial Reefs are Add ons others say they attract reserve hauls.
2009 Artificial Reef lies just off the back right shoulder of Nazare Peak.
12 reef formation will lie on inside S/W west swell lines...(Needs examination!)

truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher Wednesday, 19 Feb 2020 at 7:45pm

"The Biggest Wave Surfers of all Time"
(Part 5) Free Spirited Waving.
Body Surfing skills were learnt young on Slam Shorebreak
All Past Fishermen needed to Bodysurf Big Nazare or die (That Simple!)
1870'S + 1920's Wealthy UK Bodysurfers started visiting & Cliff climbing.
1930 Film (Above) shows amazing lighting Speed Free Dune scramble+Beach Play.
1950's Flippers afforded the wealthy extra outta beach surfing
1960's Wealthy Euro Bodysurfers crowds begin pushing the Fishermen outta town.

1970's -1980's docos showed the dare devils crowding front stair case in big surf.
The dangerous narrow paths are renowned for trapping spectators in wash zones.
Big Wave spectating / Patrols are an age old Nazare custom...(Nothing new about it!)

1990's-Bodysurfing Main Beach Nazare as always draws the Biggest Crowds.

2002 Nazare Surf Club.

2013 Beachcombers could almost walk around a playful Nazare Headland.

2015 Bodysurfing The Big Right...No Astronaut, Shuttle, Space Station or Satellites.

2017 Wave Watchers stepped off the edge into The Big Nazare Lineup.
Slacklining the causeway...No Astronauts, Shuttle, Space Station or Satellites.


2018/19 - Beach Soccer / Hand Ball (Stadium/beach) draws a healthy crowd.

Ignore fake headlines...Crowds prefer Soccer or bodysurfing Nazare Main beach!
Clearly Fishing then Bodysurfing put Nazare on the Map less so the Big Waves.

truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher Thursday, 20 Feb 2020 at 2:43am

"The Biggest Wave Surfers of all time"
(Part 6 Final) The Royal Wave.
It's no secret that history regards Surfboard riding as an elite Sport.
1920's Portuguese regard Foreign Paipo riding as a Royal Pastime.
1950's Flippers, again some plush toy not affordable to locals
1960's Surfboards were toys bought back by the rich on French Holidays.
1960-2000 wetsuits were Royal Astronaut's gowns.
1968 'Nazare' Surf Flick is a display of wealth by jet setting US Boardriders.

Oz & Hawaiian surfers jetted in (Note 1960-70's Jet Travel was for elite classes)

2003 The Local Body Boarders worked up to Nazare Big Peak.
2011 Jetski surfs Nazare with boardrider in tow...(Rich Oil Barron Era!)
Astronaut Celebs/Women/Kite/Skim/Sail/Skate/Violin boarders get a pizza slice each.

2020 Recall recent Contest buried in Fog but no Lighthouse Fog Siren sounded?
Yes it very much works & often! Did WSL Crowds compromise international Shipping.
2015 (Flashback) 'Death on Demand' by Jim Kelly (Novel) Story 47
WR Nazare surfer ignores Fog Siren and wipes out and no body is found. (Spooky!)

A few years on & Headland has all but crumbled to bits (Next gen will see nothing!)
Mooseman is a metaphor for big hooved surfers stomping Nazare into the ground.

Surf Museum prides toxic alien pods but no 1000yrs Big Wave Surfcraft or Culture.

Hero Surfie Deer Head grotesquely mocks Town's 1000 yr Big Wave Surfing Culture
Nazare Defence Association: "Nazarenes do not see themselves in this work, which has been more of a laughing stock than a source of pride. It causes astonishment, fright and comedy, elicits comments for less honourable reasons and is an unnecessary expenditure of public money when the situation of chamber is in great debt. You must remove the work and return it, and have nothing to spoil the landscape...(All say Aye!)

Mayor's old school Big Wave Slaves have been Whitewashed & terminated by Aliens.
Mayor's new Point of Miracle unleashes fake heroes upon his brave new World.
2011 Sir Gareth slays Beast with trusty Space Shuttle. (Town Population =15,158)
2019 Nazare is drowning in a sea of Toxic debris (Town Population = 8,993)
Not joke, the Canyon is full of Plastic & WSL comp fails in wiping Nazare off the Map?
Still more than enough to retract every fake Surf Media & Tourist headline of past 10 years!

So! Massive worldwide fake WSL Surfing hysteria only frightens 6,000 from the town.
The only Surf Shop in town has a 70% off sale...pretty sure it closed in 2018.
It is the Young Men of Nazare that are fleeing the WSL Leggo Castle.
Imported Sardines, Imported Surfing & Fake Museum erasing Local Surf culture.

Mayor of Nazare even knows why someone on the otherside of the world sees fit to write Nazare's surf history. Why? Nazarenes are brainwashed to forget surf slavery.
A curse on those who stir up the lost souls that Mary vowed to protect.

Mayor wants Milky Bar Kid Surf Heroes like on the Bubble Gum Wrappers!
Just make sure no one touches the waves or gets wet! Just say it! Pretend Surfing!
Howzabout the Mayor hose out that Toxic filth he calls a surf museum & restocks it with epic Local Big Wave History to restore pride in the young folk of his town. Mostly as it would actually mean something to them & reward the town endlessly. Perhaps more people wish to experience the wild raw beauty untouched as nature intended & maybe the Jet Ski fuel fumes, noise & visual pollution are a turn off...who could have guessed?

swellnetonians will share their thoughts on how last Milky Bar comp went down.
Seems like you me we all skipped town at the Mayor's Point of Miracle!

No time for Surf Slave gossip when Tour Guide is a WSL big wave Hero!