At the end of last week we kicked off the first in our series of in-depth interviews profiling the British Big Wave Surfers leading the charge, with a conversation with St Ives’ Tom Lowe, who has just qualified for the WSL Big Wave World Tour. Next up, we’ve got Andrew Cotton.
Andrew Cotton’s sense of fear is calibrated differently to most. Usually one’s perception of risk will prevent you from entering a shit-your-self situation, but a few will take their chances and just go do it anyway. Some call them adrenalin junkies, but Cotton seems to be more of a solidly stoical optimist with an affinity for big wave folly.
Having picked up injuries to both legs from his first ever wave at Mavericks in January, he’s no stranger to being busted by lorry crash force. But when risk is relative to your level of preparation, Cotty’s strategy of hoping for the best and preparing for the worst is potentially the answer to pushing boundaries sustainably; because being unprepared always means trouble.
So what if all goes wrong anyway? What If your ski starts sucking in foam rather than water and you’re sat stationary in the path of a Nazaré monster?
Cotty regales his tales of surfing Mavericks for the first time and why Portugal’s biggest wave spot is so bloody difficult.
WL: Cotty I’m curious; how did you decide that big wave surfing was a good risk to take, as apposed to a bad one?
AC: I think surfing, as a sport, is risky, if you look at the statistics of people who hurt themselves in the ocean. Most of my injuries have been from 2ft surfs you know. But I don’t see big wave surfing as risky at all, as long as you know what you’re doing, if you have the experience and the knowledge. I’ve been surfing for something like 30 years; I’ve trained with some of the best in the world. But I suppose it’s a bit like me jumping into a Formula One racing car isn’t it, I wouldn’t have a clue and then there would be risk.
WL: So if it does go wrong and you find yourself skimming down the face of a 60ft wave, is anything going through your mind?
AC: Not a great deal to be honest. It is what it is, you can’t think. A bit of acceptance, you’re in the zone. Your body goes limp because you can’t fight it. The key is not to panic, if you start thinking too much…
WL: How was it charging Mavericks for the first time in January?
AC: I’d wanted to go out there for quite some time and then everything came together, it looked like there was a good swell. And then I injured myself quite badly, so it wasn’t the best trip!
I was really fortunate you know. It was one of the bigger swells of the year at Mavericks. I paddled out with Peter Mel, and Jamie Mitchell was injured so he was doing water safety. It was my first time so it was great to get their experience.
The tide was quite high so it was quiet when the swell was coming in; it was only me, Pete and this other guy out there. A 30ft set came and Pete got the first wave then I got the second. It was my first there, brand new board and the wave just sort of bottomed out. I went straight down, I should’ve put in more of a rail and at the bottom I just overbalanced and fell. I got absolutely smashed. And that was it; my session was over.
WL: How did you feel when you popped back up to the surface?
AC: I hyper-extended the backs of both my legs. I wear a brace on one [in the water], which locked so that saved my left knee, my bad knee. But my good knee just fully hyper extended. I thought I’d done the ligaments in but there was the boat and I didn’t want to leave so I just sat on the boat for the rest of the day. Then my knee swelled up massive and out of the water I couldn’t even rest on it.
I’ve snapped ligaments and stuff before and that’s painful, but this was definitely on a par. So that was the trip cut short and I flew back to the UK to get it scanned. Luckily I’d just ruptured the capsule on my knee which holds it all together and the bones had kind of been pushed out the back of my knee. They call it Bakers Knee or something, and I had a bruised bone, but all the ligaments were in place so it was just a case of two months rest.
WL: That’s frustrating timing! Did rehabilitation help get you back to fitness?
AC: Yeah I’m just about done with that and am back in the sea now. It was such bad luck. I’d bought two boards from Rusty for Mavericks specially made and they’d been sitting in California for like, two years. That was the first wave I’d got on the 10 footer and that was it, so they’re still sitting there waiting to be properly surfed!
WL: Knowing there’s a ski looking for you when you’re underwater must be a huge psychological boost, how are you coordinating with your crew during a big day?
AC: It depends on the day and it depends what we’re doing, tow surfing or paddling. So we’re usually on one ski doing safety for each other, then we rotate. If we are towing and it’s the biggest day ever then we have like, one tow ski and two safety teams and you coordinate via radio. We practice and change the ski position, so you’re surfing into the ski rather than being chased by it. I work with the same people; I’ve been working with them for some time now and that definitely helps.
WL: Do you stick together when you travel or share time with other safety teams at different spots?
AC: Surfing’s quite a small community and there’s only a handful of guys who travel out to surf other waves, or have the budget to do that so you’re generally working with the same sort of people. And everyone has his or her own little spots. So yeah it’s generally the same sort of people and you help each other out. I’ll help people out when they come to Portugal or Ireland and vice versa you know. That’s what it was like in the US with Jamie and Peter.
We’re all learning and that’s constant. You can’t know every spot but it is nice to be around people who do. Once I said like, ‘I wanna go to Mavericks’ and I got to go there with Jamie. They know it inside out, they know where the best line-up is, where the best waves are; it all helps. And that knowledge, it can take years to build up. If you can get that knowledge in a day, it makes it a lot easier.
WL: Nazaré made its debut on the WSL Big Wave Tour last December, what makes it such a difficult spot?
AC:The waves come straight in and you get them crossing, so when you get a line of white water coming in it’ll be 10ft high, but with 10ft cross-waves as well, so if you’re driving a ski you have got to be on it. Nothing is straightforward.
There’s also so much water moving and the waves are so heavy that the foam affects the skis. They work by sucking water in and propelling it out. But if your ski is sucking in foam, you’re not going anywhere. That can be tough, getting the power in the skis at the right time. It’s just a tricky place, there’s no channel. Even at places like Escondido there’s usually a few channels and that doesn’t happen at Nazaré. Then you’ve got a cross current which might take you down the beach rather than straight out. It’s pretty magical.
WL: Obviously a bunch of guys took a real beating. Tom Butler mentioned in an interview afterwards that he was pretty unimpressed with the contest’s safety coordination. Do you think there was room for improvement?
AC: The WSL brought their own safety crew and they’re all super experienced lifeguards and watermen. Some of them were locals and they flew the others in from Hawaii. It’s not like there are loads of guys who can drive their own way. And all the other guys who do have the experience were in the surf. Nazaré is tricky and even the most experienced of us can have a shocker.
Garratt McNamara was doing safety for me and I got caught inside and was there for about 12 minutes. When you are trying to get out back and you‘re caught inside on a jet ski with a 10ft board and you’re hanging off the back, it’s tough you know.
A couple of guys got hurt, but no one died. I’d say in the scheme of things, it was pretty successful. It’s a tough job and I don’t think you can knock it. If it were easy everyone would be doing it.
WL: Were any lessons learnt from the Nazaré Challenge?
Getting out the back, the big water walls are tough. It’s fine when you’re not in a heat, then you can take your time because there’s no rush. But when you have 40 minutes and you catch a wave but then get caught inside for 25 minutes it puts the pressure on. So you might not make the best decisions you can. It calls for a different strategy maybe.
WL: So what’s on your to-do list for 2017?
AC: I’m looking for that wave you know, the one that might get you an XXL nomination or Ride of the Year or something. Hopefully it’ll come my way.