Updated Monday, February 25, 2013 at 09:56 AM
NAZARE, Portugal — The big ones typically come only once a year, in the winter. Whipped up by powerful storms in the North Atlantic, they roll for days toward Europe, rising to seemingly impossible heights before crashing on the shores of Praia do Norte, a beach along the Portuguese coast just north of this picturesque fishing town.
“It is like an earthquake,” said Pedro Pisco, a city hall administrator from this old fishing port, a few miles away from Praia do Norte. “When it breaks, you can feel the earth shaking under your feet.”
Nazare has seen some bad times, with the decline of its once-prosperous fishing industry and an exodus of local youth. And that was before the euro crisis and the deep slump in the Portuguese economy.
But thanks to a photo that electrified the world last month — showing surfer Garett McNamara setting a world record by streaking down the face of an estimated 100-foot breaker — the city is now busily trying to cash in on its moment of fame to promote itself and its now famous beach, Praia do Norte, as a pre-eminent big wave surfing spot.
The waves here have long been compared to invincible enemies, killing fishermen, vacationers and frequently inundating streets and shops. There is even a spot called “the reef of widows,” where by legend the wives of fishermen would watch their husbands drowning after waves had destroyed their boats.
Dino Casimiro, a 35-year-old body-boarder from Nazare, is an ardent admirer of the waves and one of the major initiators of the city’s image makeover.
“For many years, we didn’t know if the waves were surfable or not,” said Casimiro, a physical-education teacher in several local schools. “They were too big.”
In 2010, with the town’s big-wave fame spreading, several of the biggest names in surfing — including McNamara, who lives in Hawaii, and Kelly Slater, Shane Dorian and Tiago Pires, the Portuguese surf champion — came to Praia do Norte.
“Praia do Norte is the best secret in the world,” McNamara said by telephone from Hawaii. “There is nowhere in the world where you can be so close to the giant waves.”
The project, called the “Zon North Canyon show” and developed with McNamara, was aimed at promoting him and the town. It was sponsored by Zon, Portugal’s main media holding company, after McNamara broke his first world record here by surfing a 78-foot wave.
Then last month McNamara spent about 30 seconds on the face of a giant wave still spoken of with awe by other surfers.
“It was like riding a mountain, like snowboarding down a giant mountain,” he said.
There are big wave spots far from land, like Cortes Bank 100 miles west of San Diego, Calif. But there are very few in coastal areas, because the gently sloping continental shelf normally flattens out the giants, gradually sapping their strength before they can reach land. But this small part of the Portuguese coast sits at the end of a giant funnel called the “canyon of Nazare,” 130 miles long and 16,000 feet deep (at its deepest), that points like an arrow toward the town.
As a child, Casimiro says he would look at the waves almost every day from the 16th-century fortress and its lighthouse set atop a cliff overlooking Praia do Norte.
“Just looking at the waves scares you,” he said. “They are very strong, powerful and hollow.”
In 2005, he bought a camera, took pictures of the most impressive waves at Praia do Norte and sent one to McNamara.
“Garett called me at 3 a.m. once,” Casimiro said. “He had seen the forecast.”
The swells are picked up by a midocean buoy several days before they come ashore, enabling big-wave surfers like McNamara to scramble to Nazare in time to catch them. In recent years, McNamara has caught high waves in places like Tahiti, Hawaii and even on the coast of south-central Alaska, where he surfed tsunami waves formed by calving glaciers.
But Nazare, he said, holds a special place in his heart. “It’s a place for everybody to go enjoy, it doesn’t matter if you surf or not,” he said.
Some days, when he surfs Praia do Norte, the children of the local school interrupt classes to watch him streaking down the breathtakingly high mountains of water.
In April, McNamara and the city will inaugurate a “High Performance Center” to teach people the dangers of the sea and to promote surfing and environmental protection.
Pisco also plans to turn the fortress and its adjoining lighthouse into a museum of the big wave with a panoramic viewpoint.
To Mane / Nazare Qualifica / The Associated Press
U.S. surfer Garett McNamara rides a 100-foot wave off Praia do Norte beach in Nazare, Portugal, on Jan. 28, breaking his own world record.