Grant Baker has won the Nazare Challenge in a day that has yet again nudged big wave performance into a new realm. The South African former Big Wave Tour (BWT) World Champion claimed his fourth career BWT event win in perfect and powerful 40-foot waves.
"I've just had an incredible six weeks here in Nazaré with my wife and baby and surfed every day," Baker said. "I love this place and this wave. That wave that came to me in the Final...I had been waiting for that for a long time. It came straight to me and capped a perfect day."
Baker scored 11,000 points for a win and moved to the top of the BWT ratings. With two remaining events at Mavericks and Jaws, Baker is now in prime position to claim his third BWT World Title. The 45-year-old veteran claimed an extra 10% on top of the usual 10000 points for a win when a silver coefficient, a rating that reflects the size, power and perfection of the conditions, was applied today.
"We were really hoping for a day that was super competitive and for people to see just how good Nazaré is for paddling," BWT Commissioner Mike Parsons said. "It's obviously known for its massive tow waves, but to see these guys paddling into 20ft. plus waves on the Hawaiian scale and get barreled was amazing."
Natxo Gonzalez, who finished third, and runner-up Lucas Chianca were two surfers that rode huge barrels throughout the day. Not only did those waves help the two secure them valuable BWT ratings points, but it also showed the performance potential that Nazaré can offer.
"It was the best I've seen Nazaré and I surfed one of the craziest waves of my life," Gonzalez said. "To do it in front of thousands of people and surrounded by my friends and family makes this a dream day." Gonzalez's huge backdoor barrel in his Semifinal scored a perfect 10. Nazare pioneer Garrett McNamara later called it, "The greatest thing I've seen at Nazaré."
Another surfer to push the tuberiding boundaries was Lucas Chianca. Just 23, the same age as Gonzalez, the defending event champion was the day's standout, until Baker's heroics in the Final pushed him into second. His consistency was reflected in his heat totals of 23.31, 25.63 and 22.31 and like Gonzales he also backdoored a huge left in his Semifinal to push what is possible paddling Nazaré.
"Whether it's tow or paddle, I'm always looking for a line for the barrel and today that came with one of the biggest barrels of my life," the Brazilian said. "I wanted to defend my title and I came close today and am still really stoked. This is the start of my dream to become a World Champion."
Russell Bierke was another surfer who proved that big-wave surfing's upward trajectory is assured. The 21-year-old Australian was BWA Performer of the Year Qualifier and finished sixth despite breaking a finger in his Round 1 heat.
"This was my first BWT event and, I'll be honest, the one I was least looking forwards too." Bierke said. "I hadn't surfed here until last week and even then I suffered a major wipeout. So to finish in the Final is amazing. The whole day has been intense, but an incredible experience."
The Final was rounded up by two Portuguese surfers; Alex Botelho and the veteran Joao De Macedo. Both rode some of the biggest waves of the day and in De Macedo's case endured one of its heaviest wipeouts. Their performances further evidenced just how Nazaré and Portugal are becoming a force for good in big wave surfing.
"It's an honor to represent all the Portugal surfers," said De Macedo. "I was solo there for a while, but now there is so many great Portugal big wave surfers and more coming through. The performance level today showed what this place is capable of and I'd like to thank each competitor for playing their part."
Ian Walsh, who bowed out in the Semifinal after a dominant Round One performance, agreed. "Every surfer today was ready to swing on the biggest wave that came their way. You also have to remember that the bigger the wave you catch and the more successful the ride is, then the more punishment that is gonna come your way."
In a day with so many incredible waves ridden successfully that meant there was just as many heavy wipeouts. Rodrigo Koxa, who holds the Guinness World Record for the largest wave ever surfed at Nazaré, perhaps went through the most horrific.
"I thought I was going to die," said the 39-year-old Brazilian. "After falling off I didn't have time to pull my cord and then I felt the inflatable vest lifted up over my head. Just as was I trying to relax underwater, I felt the next wave hit me. My jacket and contest was ripped off and it was easily the longest I have ever been held under."
However due to the incredible fitness levels of the athletes and the phenomenal efforts of the dedicated water safety team, no serious injuries were incurred today. What we did see instead was a remarkably intense and truly dramatic day of competitive big-wave surfing at it's very best.