French big wave surfer Justine Dupont rode a huge left in the morning of the inaugural Nazaré Tow Challenge in February 2020, winning the Best Female Performance award for her efforts. As the former Women’s CT surfer accepted her award in a ceremony at the iconic lighthouse that evening, she paid tribute to fellow women’s division competitor Maya Gabeira. “This time it was me, next time it will be Maya…”
Her sentiments would turn out to be more prophetic than she realised, and a controversial decision to awarding Gabeira the Guinness World Record for a wave she rode during that event, rather than Justine, lead her to decline her invitation to surf in WSL’s Euro Cup of Surfing in September in protest.
We caught up with Justine just before a session at Nazaré in November to about life, world records, women’s big wave surfing and of course… death.
WL: How’s the Atlantic big wave season been going so far?
JD: I’ve been in Nazaré surfing all the swells, training with my team. I’ve got more people in my group these days, I’m really well surrounded with great lifeguards and surfers, helping me to try and constantly improve and build confidence. We had that huge swell in October, and Garrett towed me on some bombs, I’m getting to know him a bit more. Taking the rope with him, gaining his trust and surfing some bombs with him driving, was pretty epic.
“Women, men, I don’t really care… If they want to surf, that’s great”
Has the Nazaré scene changed much in time you’ve been there?
This is my fifth winter I think, since I first came. These days there’re maybe more people in the water… but way more people interested around and about the town, on the cliffs, that have all come to watch. There are way more photographers, it’s really grown as a tourist spectacle.
Are there more women in the water on big days?
There are more people so that probably means a few more women in the water, I guess. But you know what? I don’t really care too much; women, men, whatever. If the person wants to surf and is happy about it, that’s great. The gender really doesn’t matter to me.
With more teams, is it more dangerous?
Every winter, everything improves and progresses, but it really depends on the people involved. I’m improving my team, but other people, they do whatever they want. I don’t know, and I don’t really want to know. We’re working on safety, getting the best equipment possible. I’m working with Manera on some wetsuits, because obviously that’s really important too, in cold water. I’m using a helmet now too. The goal is to be as safety orientated as possible, while having the most fun possible, still being able to perform.
Alex Botelho’s accident during the Tow Challenge shocked a lot of people. Has that changed your approach? Do you think about dying?
I’m really tired of that question… I don’t really know what to say. I don’t think about the consequences; I’m a surfer I want to surf the best waves possible. The risks are the risks, when you cross the street, there’s a risk. Maybe you’ll live until 100 if you’re cautious. If you’re totally crazy, you might not live very long… but you’re gonna have a lot of fun in the process. It’s a balance I suppose.
“If you finish your wave underwater, if you have to pull some (air) canisters, if you put your team in a trickier position, I don’t know if you can call it a success”
How do you reflect on missing out on the Guinness World Record a few months back, and some of the controversy surrounding measuring big waves?
I don’t care. I’m happy with the awards I got, the Performance of the Year award, because it’s voted for by the other surfers. Surfing is all about performance. The World Record is something else, it’s more about politics than surfing, and I’m not really interested in that.
You made a point about you finished your wave, whereas Maya’s was incomplete.
It’s tricky, I don’t know. At least for me it’s my goal. I’m not gonna call a wave a success if I don’t make it. It’s a tricky line between not finishing a wave, a wipeout and a complete ride. If you finish your wave underwater, if you have to pull some (air) canisters, if you put your team in a trickier position, I don’t know if you can call it a success.
“The World Record is more about politics than surfing, and I’m not really interested in that…”
What’s the goal for this winter?
I’m looking to improving my line, my surfing in general; barrels, slabs, small waves. I’m trying to surf more different waves, don’t know if I can name them, but some big slabs in here Portugal. I’ll go to Jaws for the event, if that happens I’ll be there, to hopefully paddle some big ones there, maybe even tow. It would be great to score a swell in Ireland, I saw that crazy footage of Conor. But Nazaré is so consistent, it’s been a crazy early season. I’ll definitely be based here and trying to surf as much as possible and do well in the comp here. I’m not thinking about winning, I just want to be proud of myself and the team, I want to get the best line. Winning the Tow Challenge is not a goal as such, but it would be a good outcome.