As the biggest swell of winter swept into Praia do Norte in Nazare in Portugal on Thursday, an international group of extreme surfers was waiting eagerly to ride waves of up to 20 metres.
By sunrise a curious crowd had massed around the lighthouse perched at the top of the cliff above the beach, which faces west into the Atlantic almost 120 kilometres north of Lisbon. The weather forecast had promised exceptional waves.
On the rocky promontory, the crowd quivered every time a roller exploded with a deafening roar. The power released by these monstrous waves was such that their spray soaked cliff-top spectators dozens of metres above sea level.
Nazare is famous for its record-breaking surf. In November 2011 American Garrett McNamara rode a wave estimated at 78 feet (23.77 metres) high, a world record.
In the fishing port below, the tension among the surfers preparing to challenge the giant waves contrasts with the tranquility of fishermen furling their nets.
"When the ocean is so violent, we do not go out," says Jose, a 69-year-old fisherman. "Surfers give our town a new image, but they are daredevils. I would not put my boat out in waves half this size."
Brazilian surfer Marcelo Luna dons his wetsuit padded with a life jacket and back protectors and prepares with deep breathing, long stretches, precise movements. The 33-year-old performs rituals to relieve the pressure before facing the fury of the Atlantic.
"Before getting on the board, we feel a mixture of fear and joy because these are the moments we look forward to, here in Nazare, we are facing the most dangerous waves in the world. We cannot afford to make a mistake. It takes a lot of skill to come back in one piece," he says.
For several hours, a dozen surfers crisscross the aquatic Alps off Nazare, determined to live their moment of glory.
"It was certainly one of the most beautiful sessions of the year and everyone is safe and sound," said 51-year-old Australian Ross Clarke-Jones, one of the pioneers of big-wave, or XXL, surfing who had heeded the favourable forecasts and arrived from Hawaii a few hours earlier.
German surfer Sebastian Steudtner also made the most of the conditions.
"When you take the wave, you are more focused on what you do rather than on your performance. You feel the power of the elements," said the 32-year-old.
© 2018 AFP