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Best Big Waves in Europe

Europe isn’t typically renowned for its monster waves. The surfing scene there has plenty to offer, sure, but it probably isn’t viewed in the same way as places like North America or Australia in terms of the multitude of big waves that it serves up. There is, however, one exception; Nazaré. The scene of many of the biggest waves ever surfed, this Portuguese town is an outlier in European surfing, standing alone as the best of the big waves in the continent, and indeed the world. This monster aside, however, there are a number of other very hefty waves littered across the cultural capital of the western world, so let’s have a look at some of the most notable among them. 

Nazaré

Where is it?

Nazaré is a town in Portugal located a little over 100 kilometres from the capital of Lisbon, or a bit over 60 kilometres north of Peniche, the home of the famous Supertubos wave which has long been a feature of the Championship Tour. Getting there is relatively straightforward, requiring a drive of just a little over one hour from the international airport at Lisbon.

The wave

Nazaré is one of the pre-eminent big wave spots in the world, and has been responsible for dishing up many of the biggest waves ever surfed. The wave itself is a product of a huge canyon in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal, through which swell grows before developing into rapidly growing waves as the ocean floor quickly nears the surface. The end product is waves which have in the past reached as much as 100 feet; some of the biggest ever seen, let alone surfed. The globally renowned spot works best on west northwest to northwest swells and long periods, and is typically at its best during the autumn.  

Why is it scary?

To put it simply; size. Far and away the most intimidating thing about Nazaré is its size. If you’ve ever seen an image of someone surfing this wave when it’s at its biggest, the fear associated with it is plain to see. This wave can get so big that often, surfers on it are more visible by the trail they leave behind them by themselves and their board, which are merely a speck on a giant lump of water working its way towards the shore. 

Belharra

Where is it?

Belharra is located in the south-west of France, a region known globally for the powerful shorebreaks found around Hossegor far more than for any big wave spots. Belharra is a little south of Hossegor, three kilometres off the coast of Saint Jean de Luz in the Basque Country.

The wave

Belharra is a fickle beast, requiring very specific conditions to work. When it breaks, it’s courtesy of a shoal between 15 and 20 metres under the surface, but it’s only very rarely that this actually happens. Benjamin Sanchis is recognised as one of the most regular surfers of Belharra, but even he reckons that he’s only surfed it on average about once a year in the 20 years that he’s been going there. When it does break, however, it can get seriously big. Given that it’s only relatively recently been surfed, its actual size potential is still somewhat unknown, but it’s certainly capable of reaching heights in excess of 50 feet. It might not quite reach the literal or figurative heights of Nazaré, but I sure as hell wouldn’t be surfing it.

Why is it scary?

Once again, size is the main reason for the fear factor here. Any wave capable of reaching heights of over 50 feet is invariably capable of damage, while the fickle nature and unpredictability of the wave makes it that little bit scarier. Since it’s surfed so rarely, exactly what this spot is capable of producing is still a little unknown, meaning its potential to exceed what’s viewed as possible in terms of size here is pretty high.

Aileen’s

Where is it?

We head a little further north now, to the chilly waters off the west coast of Ireland. Aileen’s is situated just a few kilometres from the surf town of Lahinch, and just off the famous Cliffs of Moher in County Clare; something which provides a backdrop as stunning as the wave is frightening.

The wave

The bathymetry here is pretty typical; an underwater reef is what creates the wave, forming the Atlantic Ocean swell into a crescent-shaped wave which regularly offers up hollow barrels. Unlike your run of the mill reef breaks though, this one can get up to 50 feet high. The waves breaking at the base of the Cliffs of Moher have for a long time captured the imagination of everyone visiting this iconic site, but it wasn’t until 2005 that it was actually surfed. It was Irishman John McCarthy who rode it on that occasion with the help of some tow-in equipment, and since then it has developed into one of the most well-regarded big wave spots in Europe. 

Why is it scary?

Aileen’s can get huge, so that’s clearly a major reason, but the shape of the wave also makes it arguably even more scary than other waves of a similar size. The face of the wave is super steep and can barrel even at monstrous sizes. This is great in terms of providing some seriously impressive big wave rides, but this force behind the wave means that it has plenty of potential to cause damage.

Europe isn’t traditionally renowned for its big wave spots, with Nazaré being the obvious exception. And while that Portuguese giant remains the crown jewel of big wave surfing in Europe – and in the eyes of many the world – others have more recently come onto the big wave surfing map too. Both Belharra and Aileen’s are more than worthy of sitting alongside some of the best big waves around the world, and slot in behind Nazaré as some of the best big waves in Europe.