Andrew Cotton: The fine line in going big

Alex Mitcheson
Talking Heads

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.

Cotty at Nazare, November 2017, drawing what appears to be an incredible line around the peak mere seconds before it broke his back (Hugo Silva/Red Bull)

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.

'From little things big things grow' (João Vidinha/Adrenaline Drone Footage)

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

Comments

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Tuesday, 17 Nov 2020 at 4:20pm

I still don’t understand how crew can survive getting flogged by a wave of that dimension. Then try getting your head around the idea of doing it with a very , very recently broken back.....WTF ?

ojackojacko's picture
ojackojacko's picture
ojackojacko commented Tuesday, 17 Nov 2020 at 4:33pm

agree blowin. the equipment, skill, preparation etc are obviously world class but i'm still amazed more haven't drowned there

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Tuesday, 17 Nov 2020 at 4:44pm

He seems really grounded for what he is doing. Kudos.

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Tuesday, 17 Nov 2020 at 4:51pm

Skis on hand are the reason people don’t drown.

Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch commented Tuesday, 17 Nov 2020 at 6:00pm

No disrespect to this fine waterman, but I admit I was excited to come and read this article before I realised it wasn't Andrew Cotter – he of Olive and Mabel fame.

factotum's picture
factotum's picture
factotum commented Tuesday, 17 Nov 2020 at 7:53pm

Cotton Sox!

Not bad for a clubbie!

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Tuesday, 17 Nov 2020 at 8:00pm

A potential bigger problem for these big wave riders who make a livelihood off Nazaré is the boredom factor from the audience.

I mean that last mega-hype swell produced how many memorable rides at Nazare?
One 92 footer looks like the last 81 footer, looks like a 62 footer from last year etc etc.

At some point the novelty value ceases and it all just becomes one blurred giant mush burger with people getting towed in and aiming for the shoulder.

Maybe they will find a way to lift the ceiling ?

Spooky doom music and Nazare seems a played out genre to me.

Ben Harding's picture
Ben Harding's picture
Ben Harding commented Tuesday, 17 Nov 2020 at 8:50pm

I agree, it all looks the same, year in year out. Even seeing Italo out there really didn't make it any more appealing or novel and just reaffirmed my disinterest in it. I think the hype/mania surrounding Nazare is pure marketing, and marketing alone. We are all seeing the same thing, over and over again. To the point of desensitization, and when that happens, it's all over emotionally unfortunately. Mad respect to them all the same.

Edit: I did love seeing the sheer size/form of the inside section and wondering what it would be like to get trapped in the shorey. The footage of that looked absolutely wild.

Cetus's picture
Cetus's picture
Cetus commented Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020 at 11:31pm

Somehow I don't think that's gonna be they're thinking about when towing in during the next swell...

Baracus2280's picture
Baracus2280's picture
Baracus2280 commented Monday, 23 Nov 2020 at 9:07am

Much respect for these chargers but as a spectator I'd have to agree. I could watch massive Cloudbreak, Mullaghmore, Teahupoʻo, The Right etc all day though.

Michael Bourne's picture
Michael Bourne's picture
Michael Bourne commented Tuesday, 17 Nov 2020 at 11:30pm

'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.'

Great to see surfers, although very late in the scheme of things, are beginning to catch on with weight training. Especially as size, power and so a need for increased speed increases. And even more especially if turning, maneuvering is wanted. Which the fans will want. I introduced and discussed all of the above many times on here. The usual suspects often felt the need to assert their lack of knowledge and experience in the subjects. I'm surprized the mention of the importance of squatting/core/backstrength wasn't deleted by ben or stuart here as it was in the past.

https://www.swellnet.com/news/surfpolitik/2014/01/22/ski-and-rope-towing...

Here the inexeperienced author for some reason, had no option but to assert his lack of knowledge.

'But if he were required to increase this range of motion it would require flexibility training.'

No, it would just require practising the thing that requires the new range of motion, and the range of motion would increase as the skill did. Too much flexibility was highlighted as a hindrance to athletic performance ages ago. Think grand prix, jalopy.... in Bali.

Again blowjabber, what do you think of the current research and literature? And the past?'

How do you earn your living?'

https://www.swellnet.com/news/surfpolitik/2015/05/27/matt-grainger-and-h...

Surfers can learn much from Alpine Downhill Racers, who, men and women alike, do more than double the speed, whilst dispaying incredible turning and edgework, incredible reflexes and reaction times, and deal with much more radical g forces. The Alpine skiers have long valued building glutes/quad/ham/lower back, or as elite athletes recognise, core, the engine room, and have reaped the rewards. Or surfers can stick their heads in the snow, and ignore the obvious as has been tradition.

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5202057#:~:text=Th....

Still, its been a snails pace, but times are changing.

https://www.swellnet.com/news/talking-heads/2020/10/20/cris-mills-the-su...

'Shame you only had time to skim the surface of such an important and interesting topic for surfers .. I imagine it’d be appropriate for many on Swellnet.

Thanks'

'Epic and efficiently presented summation MB. I dig it! I especially like the combo of hypers and hanging knee raises. That could do some wonders for a spine.

Everything you've written truly resonates with me. Thanks for taking the time to write and reading the article (largely taken out of context!)

-cris'

JackStance's picture
JackStance's picture
JackStance commented Thursday, 19 Nov 2020 at 6:50pm

That was fuckin amazing

Breathe. Murdoch's empire will one day fail to control our minds.

Bnkref's picture
Bnkref's picture
Bnkref commented Sunday, 22 Nov 2020 at 1:47pm

x2. Have always been a big fan of watching that sport in the winter olympics. Those guys are on the edge of disaster the whole race. And when they crash it's mayhem.

billythekid's picture
billythekid's picture
billythekid commented Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020 at 6:28am

I only like big wave surfing when you can see them paddle in. Otherwise, yeah I get it’s difficult etc, but a tow in is a bit of a yawn

san Guine's picture
san Guine's picture
san Guine commented Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020 at 8:50am

I went there on a 20-30 foot (??) swell a couple of years ago and it is a sight to behold, the guys paddling got creamed. However after 2 hours watching I was done, the novelty does wear thin after a bit. Full kudos to the chargers who take it on, as there is nowhere to hide when those mega sets come through.

D-Rex's picture
D-Rex's picture
D-Rex commented Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020 at 9:16am

Modesty becomes you, MB.

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020 at 9:48am

Didn't Al Byrne get complimented on his bottom turns at Pipe and said it was due to powerboat skiing (but side on, like surfing) on the water in NZ? That stuff would build up core and crouching/squat muscles (MB apologies for no idea of names apart from: abs and glutes)

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020 at 10:11am

Good memory, VJ:

NDC's picture
NDC's picture
NDC commented Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020 at 5:58pm

Wow... they a ganging high speed turns there hey

I remember experimenting with skurfing as a kid in the 80s. I reckon we were doing half the boat speed they were in that vid and I couldn’t get the board onto a rail and have it bite. My board would just keep going in a straight line and I would face plant and skim/tumble across the water - I figured surfboards just weren’t designed for that level of speed ... just goes to show what good technique does and how important it is

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020 at 10:17am

Legend. Thanks Stu.

Current Affair's picture
Current Affair's picture
Current Affair commented Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020 at 8:55pm

Cheers - Didn't realise how amazing Al Byrne was as a human. Going to watch that a few times. Now, all we need is a boat and someone stupid enough to tow us around.

views from the cockpit's picture
views from the cockpit's picture
views from the ... commented Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020 at 9:52pm

x 2 Current!
His comments re near death experience and its positive psychological outcomes resonate deep with me.
And your skurfing experiences too.

Michael Bourne's picture
Michael Bourne's picture
Michael Bourne commented Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020 at 10:49pm

Of course, going over well over 100kph, up to around 140kph, attacking relentlessly, maximum intensity, zero down time, wanting more and more power and speed, on concrete, comes at a price. No matter how fit and strong. Lindsay Vonn was the gun, a machine, a training legend.

Most people can't hold a squat position for very long under zero load, let alone dealing with the forces Alpine downhill racers deal with. Surfers have been shocking at it. I've watched world champs in a gym in NE NSW. Naah. I've trained and seen plenty of highly respected surfers in the gym. Its great when they realise getting stronger, growing muscle is a benefit, both for performance and injury protection. And longevity. But now its changing for the better. Still a long way to go. Lots to learn, but awesome examples.

Ther is no such thing as 'isolation' exercises. The body is a mechanical chain. A chassis. With motors. One weak spot creates havoc. I love it when inexperienced trainers tell me that they don't like isolation exercises, or machines, say tri extensions, or leg extensions for example. When done properly, the whole body is engaged, or the effort is weak. I'll guarrantee anyone that I'll have you dripping in sweat, exhausted, every muscle, when your triceps are screaming. Thats whats going on in the videos below. Thats intensity, what it takes to perform at that level. Zero weak spots, or they'll quickly be exposed and fail, setting the whole effort up for failure. Surfers, just like the subject of this article, are learning that. And its great that they are finally understanding flexibilty, the very real weakness, limiting power transmission if over done. Again, grandprix v jalopy. Which corners better.? Which accelerates harder, brakes faster, gets more power down. Its not a soft, comfy ride to really perform.

Try not to knee jerk, or reflex react at this. Enjoy the demonstration below. And the experience of the real deal price. Or bounce off the walls some more.

I'm going to do a workout, then its lockdown.

toneranger's picture
toneranger's picture
toneranger commented Saturday, 21 Nov 2020 at 10:42am

Re.Al Byrne.Can remember seeing some footage of his sourcing on the Yarra around mid seventies.my friend Ted Bainbridge was in the boat and may even have taken the footage for all I know.the group of us watching were totally blown out.pretty sure he was in the last scenes of Harry Hodges movie Liquid Gold surfing barrelling Pumping Station with Mick Pierce who said if only Harry had got down earlier they were making most of them

toneranger's picture
toneranger's picture
toneranger commented Saturday, 21 Nov 2020 at 10:43am

Oops sourcing should read skurfing

dangerouskook2000's picture
dangerouskook2000's picture
dangerouskook2000 commented Monday, 23 Nov 2020 at 7:53pm

She's hot