Andrew Cotton: The fine line in going big
Finding yourself at the mercy of the ocean is the most humbling experience a surfer can go through. Being outmatched by Mother Nature puts a surfer at the crossroads, asking themselves, 'How much do I want this?'
The reckoning is constant, especially as ever-larger waves are being ridden which involve a corresponding increase in risk. No longer does 'conquering fear' cut it; when the waves are coming out of the sky, you've also gotta play it smart.
One man who can attest to this is British big wave surfer Andrew Cotton.
The humble Englishman approaches his craft holistically. He, like his peers, knows that turning up with a kamikaze demeanour and a mentality forged of steel alone is a quick way to a short career.
The swell recently witnessed by so many on the now-famous cliffs of Nazaré is being hailed as the swell of the decade. Yet, along with oversized waves — and the bold surfers whose sessions will be revisited for some time to come — there was a sprinkling of drama.
Or was there?
A week after that day Alex Mitcheson had the chance to chat with Andrew, asking how he approaches modern-day Nazaré and what might be next on the horizon for big wave surfers.
Swellnet: Hey Andrew, to start with can you perhaps fill in the gaps as to how a plumber from North Devon is now surfing some of the world’s largest waves?
Andrew Cotton: (laughs) Well, I’ve always been a surfer. I guess the journey began when I left school and for a little over ten years worked in the surf industry. I had periods in board manufacturing, but mostly sales and repping, which allowed me so much time to go surfing, as well as travel — it was the dream job.
At 25 I decided to become a plumber after a bit of pressure from family and friends — also to earn some proper money — and ended up doing that for five years. It was shit though; I’d gone from surfing a lot to only on the weekends.
I then decided to reinvent myself and become a lifeguard, work seasonally and reignite my passion. I began to set goals. As a kid growing up, big wave surfing was never a full-time thing, it was just a bunch of hardy guys taking on big stuff. I didn’t want to go down the competition route, so I just began focussing on swells in Europe.
You started to connect the dots?
Yeah…as a kid growing up in Europe, especially England, we always thought you had to go to Hawaii, Australia, or America to surf big waves. I simply couldn’t afford it all the time. I started meeting some surfers from Ireland and other spots; slowly realising that we do have big waves here in Europe. I decided to brush up on my jet ski skills and did one of the first K38 safety courses in the UK. This put me in contact with Garrett McNamara, he’d come over to Portugal and needed a reliable ski driver, and it pretty much just snowballed from there really.
How has Nazaré as a big wave scene developed over the last ten years?
When I first joined Garrett in Nazaré back in 2010, there was no-one there surfing it. Every day was the same, not a single person. Now that’s changed.
What you have to understand is that it was a tourism initiative; the local community, council etcetera knew what they had and simply wanted to get it out there. They were experiencing great summers but lacklustre winters. They saw what they had in Peniche with a steady flow of year-round tourism hinged on surfing, and they wanted to emulate it. This is when they brought in Garrett, making some short movies and putting forward a strong plan.
Put simply: It’s bloody worked. There were something like 20,000 people on the cliffs the other week — it was insane.
Some of the images and clips being beamed around the globe appeared to depict chaos and perhaps even a bit of drama out in the line-up — is that a fair representation?
No, it’s not. I think all things considered it was fairly organised. Everyone out there has mutual respect for one another, whether you see that in the media or not.
Sure, we’re all trying to get the biggest and best waves but, we all know at the same time we as a group are progressing the sport. When a wave comes, because it’s never a definite left or definite right, or even a definite peak, there will be room for error.
Describe to us what it is like to ride one of these waves.
Well, last year we did some research work with some students from Galicia in Northern Spain. Through GPS we were able to analyse our speeds on some of the biggest waves. We were topping out around the 75 km/h mark. The waves we were surfing just recently we were certainly going faster than that. It’s not even like you are surfing — you are fucking flying.
To keep control, keep yourself composed, and even just hold a line, is so much harder than you can get your head around. The wave face is often choppy, although you can find smooth pockets of the wave— it’s still super gnarly. It’s the hardest straight line you will ever surf! (laughs)
In 2017 you broke your back at Nazaré. In 2018 you completely tore the ACL on you right knee at Punta Galea. Are you wary of future injuries, and do you think big wave surfing requires its pound of flesh, regardless?
The injury thing does play in the back of your mind. The way I have been overcoming this though is to just train harder. I’ve been in the gym so much more and doing heaps of strength and conditioning stuff. I’ve come to the mindset that I don’t just want to ride these waves I want to properly surf them.
I know I’m going to take a few beatings and being mentally prepared for those is key. Being hesitant and having doubts is a one-way ticket to disaster. I’ve started to be a bit less gung-ho in my approach and put more consideration into making the waves I go on. I used to push myself to be in the running for awards, taking on big waves with a criteria in my head. I don’t do that anymore. My focus is now to be on every swell, enjoy it, get one more wave, make every wave — maybe if I do all those things then the recognition might follow.
What are the three biggest components of your training for supersized Nazaré?
Endurance and strength: I’ve been cycling a lot and getting into different forms of squatting so I can handle the high-speed chop without fatiguing.
Mobility and movement: Having a good range of movement but not being too flexible. This has helped with my injuries in my back and knee, keeping those parts strong and mobile.
Mind and breathwork. Having a healthy mind and following that along with good breathing technique I think is pretty key and ties in with everything else.
You’ve taken up foiling in the last couple of years. Do you see it becoming a tangible part of big wave surfing?
Yeah 100%, it’s just a matter of time. My desire to take up foiling was based in the theory this was how we were going to successfully surf a hundred-foot wave — on a foil.
I’ve spent a lot of time learning the physics behind it, realising how hard it is and then also the kinds of speeds you are capable of. Last season I foiled a lot in the beginning but slowed up as I was having some heavy whiplash-related injuries from it. You are going so fast and above the water it opens up a whole new realm of injury.
I want to improve before I have any further inklings to take on the big stuff. It is super inspiring to see the likes of Kai [Lenny] and Laird [Hamilton] riding open ocean swell lines, meaning you could have so much fun at somewhere like Nazaré before it even hits the beach. Let’s see, but it will open up a whole new series of scenarios around accidents.
Screen icon Steve McQueen is quoted as saying: 'Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.' Do you look at big wave surfing in the same way?
I think everything else is preparing. All those hours and hours I’ve spent training and cycling around my home in Devon: it’s all for those few seconds on a wave the other week. It does make you think, 'Am I insane? What am I doing?! I’ve spent nearly every waking hour the last three years training, cycling and rehabbing for ten seconds!'
It's such a weird thing, because so much effort is put into it and the swells might not even come.
Do you think the rush is like a drug in a sense, and that it’s addictive and keeps you coming back?
Yeah of course. It’s good, and you want it again. After the good sessions, I look at it and feel it’s all worth it. If the day comes and when I have doubts, then that might be time to pull the plug. And nobody is surfing big waves for the money side of things either. At the moment, though, it always leads to a 'yes' for me — that’s why I continue.
// ALEX MITCHESON