“Surfing has saved me from the dark side of the night”
The first Portuguese woman to charge Praia do Norte’s now infamous mammoth waves, Joana Andrade, is the star of Director, Minna Dufton’s, epic new tale of overcoming colossal fears, personal discovery and healing recovery.
Big Vs Small, currently touring in cinemas throughout the UK, is also a love letter to the obvious might and emotional power of Nazaré, with Joana’s deep, personal experiences running parallel to her big wave hunting at Praia do Grande. We chatted to Joana fresh off the film tour and en-route to surf the huge swells currently hitting Praia do Norte.
I catch Joana Andrade, one of Portugal’s most established and treasured athletes, finishing off packing up and ready to drive to Nazaré. Joana, who calls Ericera’s World Surfing Reserve home, has been a steady presence in surfing over the years, with a powerful backstory that was recently captured by filmmaker, Minna Dufton.
Big VS Small, now a multi-award winning film, is an independent documentary chronicling the powerful journey of Joana overcoming her fear of drowning by facing her anxieties head-on. Highlighting that Joana’s relatively diminutive stature of 156cm tall is no hindrance to surfing Praia do Norte’s often 50ft waves, it’s impossible not to feel inspired watching the movie. Following Joana as she heads to Finland in search of free-diving training beneath the inky blackness of the ice with Finnish free diving World Champion, Johanna Nordblad, Minna Dufton also uncovers Joana’s own personal struggles and journey to heal from past traumas. Joana not only faces her fears above the water, but powerfully explores a route to healing and personal peace beneath the thick ice of the frozen Finnish lakes. A balance of noise and stillness, of power and peace is beautifully conveyed in Big Vs Small, with the rumbling roar of Nazaré’s shock-and-awe power contrasting intensely with the still ice caps of Finland and calming presence of Joahanna.
Joana met Minna after being inspired by Portugal’s eclectic surf scene. Feeling “a strong connection…she told me, you know what? Maybe…I want to do a documentary about you. I was like, whoa! A documentary about me? But, I’m a person that likes challenges…”. That becomes abundantly clear in Big Vs Small, as peers of Joana credit her inspiring ability to surpass challenges. From handling her family’s disapproval of her surfing pursuits, to recovering from her past traumas and shaking off any naysayers doubting her ability to surf big waves because of her size, she’s taken it all in her stride.
What is so interesting and brilliant too, in Big Vs Small, is to see the light shine upon a Portuguese surfer at Nazaré. So often, the first names on your lips may be of Brazilians, Rodrigo Koxa and Maya Gabeira, Frenchwoman, Justine Du Pont, Englishmen, Andrew Cotton and Tom Butler, and German Sebastian Steudtner (also holder of the current Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed, at Praia do Norte in 2020 at 86ft).
Where are the other Joana Andrades I wonder, and how do we see more Portuguese women charging Nazaré? “Surfing big waves is not for everyone, you know? You need to like to take risks. You need to like to challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone” Joana explains to me. “You are dealing with death, life and death, you know? Not too many people like to feel like this, you need to be a little bit crazy, in a good way, to surf these kind of waves.” She also cites the fact that “you need a team and you need money…I have a surf school (Progress Surf School) who sponsor my journey…you need to have your team, you need to have your materials, you need to have your goals. And you need to have sponsors for this. It’s not for everyone, not everyone likes big waves. You have to have it in your blood…But I think more and more we see girls, they want to push their limits…and to understand what fear really is…”.
The central message of fear, and facing fear in such a raw, nearly coarse way, by submerging herself beneath the glacial lake in Heinola, is a central message of Big Vs Small, and how Joana is thereby able to use fear to her advantage. “The reality is, fear, when you start to understand it, is a good feeling…Most people confuse fear and panic…people need to understand and embrace the fear to do this (surf big waves), and have to accept that fear. We have this courage, this power to change, you know?”
Dufton carefully and delicately handles telling Joana’s story, and during Joana’s path to Finland, uncovers the abuse she suffered as a child. “It’s not easy to show my heart to the world.” Joana tells me. Heading to the ethereally beautiful and icy Finland to meet Joahanna, the multiple freediving record holder who believes she can teach anyone to hold their breath for over 2.5 minutes, it’s seemingly a joining of two kindred spirits. “I like to learn from fighters” Joana explains in the film, and her lessons as she sinks beneath the ice with Johanna taught her about “how the body works, how I can breathe, how I can control, how I can be more calm…More and more I know we forget to breathe in this life…when we start to understand the power of the breathing, it’s amazing.”
Taking her learnings back home to Portugal, it’s clear Johanna’s lessons impact her confidence and ability in the water. Dufton’s exploration of how the microcosm of women’s big wave surfing and Joana have positively impacted the local culture in the town is a great scene, when a group of local widowers (of whom there have historically been many in Nazaré as their husbands were lost to the dangerous surges) are happily sharing drinks discussing. The mayor of the town credits big wave surfers as “changing the narrative” in the village, a friend of Joana’s agreeing that she has “changed the local way of thinking and their world view”.
Nazaré, formerly a relatively sleepy and quiet fishing town, is now one of surfing’s most famous names, with many big wave surfers making the pilgrimage to Praia do Norte to experience arguably the biggest waves on earth. Over the past few years, the growth in surfing, introduction of visas for self-proclaimed ‘digital nomads’ alongside the re-opening of travel has seen Portugal increasingly become a new home to many. Joana explains to me the impact upon local towns, of course coming with its positive benefits, but equally, a situation that she believes needs careful monitoring. “Here, the problem, especially with digital nomads, and the Covid situation, it’s fucked up a little bit….we don’t have more places to live, you know, it’s the prices. They have become super high, and the locals don’t have the money to live…I think this is a big problem, I think the government needs to fix it.”
Now aged 42, Joana’s career has seen her graduate from competitive circuit to the big wave arena, with the Billabong XXL Award nominee continuing to push the limits of big wave surfing and inspiring the next generation, including Portuguese ripper, Teresa Bonvalot, who is beginning to dip a toe into the big wave arena. Joana’s honest happiness in the water is palpable in Big Vs Small, and though she is now one of big wave surfing’s most accomplished athletes, there is modesty as she discusses her current goals, telling me “I don’t want to win records or to be in the Guinness World Records. I just want to surf my waves and enjoy it. I don’t do this for obligation, you know, but just to feel my soul…”.