people on the roof of the fort lighthouse at Nazaré at sunset, by stefano nicoli

Nazaré’s Waves of Change

Words by Stefano Nicoli & images by Stefano Nicoli



Dino Casimiro was born and raised in Nazaré. He’s the son of a fisherman and is used to saying that this place and the ocean have put a spell on him. He’s walking on the roof of the lighthouse on the Forte do Sao Miguel Arcanjo on a beautiful January afternoon. Visitors are watching the horizon and the waves crashing on the shore of Praia do Norte. Most of them are astonished by the force of nature on display.

“I can’t describe how happy and kind of proud I am when I hear people’s reactions in front of this show that Mother Nature is putting on here”.

It has not always been like that. In fact, Dino was used to hearing other kinds of comments when he said to his fellow citizens that he wanted to surf at Praia do Norte, or when he tried to invite others to visit or surf there.

“My parents used to warn me, saying that I would have died on those waves. The ones who had never been here before told me I was a liar, that it was impossible that there were these kind of waves. But I knew I was right. I saw the same waves in the surf magazines I used to buy. And I was sure: I must share with the world what has always been literally out of my doorstep”.

The people of Nazaré had a complex relationship with the ocean. It was the thing that provided food, but it was also responsible for taking many lives. Before the town harbor was built, around 1980, the fishermen’s boats were landed and sailed right from the beach. Because of the lack of accurate forecasts and the unpredictability of the waves (exacerbated by the underwater canyon that magnifies their power) many died right in front of their relatives who were on the beach waiting and waving at them. Winters were long and harsh, and many families went hungry.

The town enjoyed some life during the summer, New Years Eve, carnival, and Easter when it was a holiday destination, mostly for Portuguese visitors. Locals were so afraid of the swell that just a few of them went to the beach; even fewer swam. The surf scene was almost non-existent. In 2001 the town tried to organize a bodyboard event, but their lack of experience turned it into a failure. In 2002 Paulo Salvador and his friends started the local club to teach, for free, the local kids how to surf and to show the giant waves to the world.
It was the time to make the leap: in 2003 Dino organized with Paulo Caldeira the Special Edition, a contest for bodyboarders. Legend Mike Stewart was there. He recalls, “I was really not so familiar with Nazaré. Dino had mentioned that it got really good and really big waves. Both ended up being true. My first session on Norte beach had an audience of maybe two or three including Dino”. But it was a turning point: “Dino got the right people there and organized some great promotional activities that brought attention and notoriety”.
Meanwhile, the big wave surf movement was growing all over the world. Dino Casimiro, Pedro Pisco, Paulo Caldeira and Paulo Salvador were ready to host big wave surfers. In 2005, while walking towards the cliff of Praia do Norte, Dino saw “the horizon moving”. He knew a giant swell was approaching. He grabbed his camera and waited for the right waves to come. He rushed back home and he started looking all over the internet for somebody to share his photos with. “Garrett was the only one with his contact details on the website and I was familiar with his name, I knew how good he was”. It took five years of emailing, late-night telephone calls, study of the swell, and waiting for the right day to come.

“In 2010, the day Garrett rode his first wave, I was walking down to the Forte. I saw the giant wall of water and I spotted a dot over it. At first, I thought it was a seagull, but then I saw it was actually him. When he finished the ride, alive, was the moment I realized that we had finally made it”.

What happened next is history. The North Canyon Project, heavily backed by the town, helped Garrett to fulfil his dream of riding the biggest waves ever. He entered the Guinness World Records for the 78ft wave he rode in 2011. In 2013 the North Canyon Project was shut down.On 18th of October 2013, Walter Chachirro was elected as new Presidente da Câmara Municipal (the title of Mayor, in Portugal). He thought that Nazaré, even though more popular than ever, hadn’t reached its full potential.

“I do not think it’s been reached yet either” he said during a meeting in his office. Walter Chachirro, another son of Nazaré, is just entering his third and final term in office. “The first thing that I wanted to do was to open up Praia do Norte to every surfer. At the time the only team allowed to tow-in was the local one, with whom Garrett had worked so far. Our goal has always been to host a WSL event here. It has a huge communication platform that can help us to share the brand of Nazaré, give it awareness and recognition. Now surfers come from all over the world and so does the audience. In 2019 tourists of 120 nationalities have visited us. Some come in winter for the big waves and stay here because they enjoy the town, and many of them come back in other seasons”. The big wave surf scene has helped during the hard times of the pandemic.

“In October 2020 the country wasn’t in lockdown yet and that year a WSL event brought more than ten thousand visitors to the town. It helped us get through the next year. We don’t have yet the exact figures of attendance for this year’s Tudor Challenge (held in December 2021), but we are not too far from last year’s”.

Walter Chachirro, Mayor of Nazaré

Other figures show how tourism has grown, pushed by the big wave surfers and enthusiasts. The lighthouse first opened to the public for three months in 2014 and recorded 41,000 visitors. Since 2015 it is open all year round, capping 335,000 visitors in 2019 and reaching the milestone of the millionth visitor in November 2019. In the same year, the town’s funicular cable car recorded the highest number of passengers nationwide. The Praia do Norte brand, a local producer of technical surf equipment and street clothes achieved 300k euros of revenues in 2019. McDonald’s, Burger King, and Aldi supermarkets have all opened in the town between 2021 and 2022, “a sign that there’s the real chance of doing business all through the year”, Mr. Chachirro pointed out. “New opportunities come from the tourism, and the primary sectors are also benefitting from it”.
Most of the locals seem to relish the new life of the town. Luisa, one of them, is grateful for all the changes brought by the big wave frenzy.

“Now most of the shops and restaurants are open all year. There is more money. The summer is a little bit too packed, but the other seasons are beautiful, there’s always somebody around, but not too many. Those who come to visit can still enjoy the true Nazaré”.

The big wave surf scene has brought a new economy to the town, but also put it under more pressure and it has created new issues.
Indeed, the housing market is growing beyond expectations. Real estate agencies have started to hire foreign agents. Capital from abroad is flooding into town like never before. Tax revenues from the real estate market have capped over 3 million euros in 2021, helping the municipality to renovate streets, sidewalks and public buildings.
On the other hand, it is also getting harder for locals to buy properties here. The town administration is facing the matter, very common in other parts of the country too, by developing a local housing project.
“As far as I’m happy with the fact my house value is steadily going up, I’m also aware that it’s getting harder for locals to buy houses here. More and more apartments are rented for holidays. Also, the cost of living is getting higher. It’s very convenient for the tourists, a little less for us,” said a local. “I’m also worried about the environmental impact of the jet ski. They keep going almost non-stop every day. On average, they burn five or six gallons of gas per hour. They have to refuel every four to six hours, depending on the conditions. I’m not sure it’s going to be sustainable in the long run”
“We recognise these issues, we are doing our best to give better perspectives for this town”, said Mr Chachirro.

The goal is to balance old traditions with modernity, business with nature. Right now it seems that the ocean is finally giving back to the town and its inhabitants after taking so much in the past. “The town, its people, its traditions, and its legends have always been here. The ocean with its power it’s always been here too. We are just a grain of sand in a perfect mechanism that has always existed and will always exist. We have to adapt to it,” said Alemao de Maresias, surfer and jet-ski driver for the McNamara team, while watching a perfect set of waves forming behind the Farol. He pointed at the farther one: “Look there, it is where everything comes from. The big mama, the 100ft waves everybody’s chasing will come from there”


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