Big-Wave Surfer Carlos Burle on the Dramatic Rescue and Ride at Nazaré

Last Monday Brazilian Carlos Burle almost lost his tow partner, Maya Gabeira, then rode what many are calling the biggest wave in the history of surfing in Nazaré, Portugal. The official measurements aren’t in yet, but however the numbers fall, it is not a ride, or a day that will soon be forgotten. Almost as soon as the photos and videos hit the Internet, controversy sprang up, first about the whether or not Gabeira should have been surfing at all, then about the size of the famous wave and whether or not his ride “counted” because he was eventually caught by the white water. Adventure slogged through the media storm and caught Burle at home in Brazil where he is taking a much deserved break. He was kind enough to answer questions in his fluent but idiomatic English.

A: Hi Carlos! It seems like you’ve been on the scene for a while now. How old are you?

Carlos Burle: I’ll be 46 on November 9th.

A: Do you have a training regimen?

CB: I have a very strict training regime. I do cardio, power stretching, lifting weights, functional exercises, surfing, stand-up paddle, and tow-in surf.

A: Most of us have only seen what happened on the day of the swell but can you tell me about the planning and preparation that went into getting to prepared for the swell?

CB: One of the most important things is that we arrived early in Nazaré. We needed to get to know the waves and all the logistics to get to surf them. During two weeks we trained in different sized waves and talked to all the locals, surfers, and people, and to the Zon North Canyon team, lead by Hawaiian Garrett McNamara. The hospitality was great and we heard so many pieces of advice that they each had to give us. All the training and the talking to the locals that are much more experienced on that wave gave us all the information and preparation that we needed for that day.

A: Why did you choose Nazaré over some of the other European big-wave spots?

CB: For the size of the waves and because we knew that in Nazaré we could count on great infrastructure that Red Bull had created for the surfers.

A: What were you feeling when you first checked the waves in the morning of the big day?

CB: I was very happy and excited when I checked and saw that the wind direction was good. When surfing big waves, we need calm winds or winds blowing offshore. When I realized that all the factors—wave sizes and wind—were good, I knew that we would surf some really big waves! There was adrenaline running through my body and I was so excited, but the most important thing before surfing big waves, and this is what I did, is to keep your focus and stay calm to make the best decisions and judgements.

A: How long was your session and how many waves did you catch?

CB: I just rode one wave. On the day before, the wind was still uncertain for Monday, October 28. All the forecasts were predicting the biggest swell for the past ten years. Nobody had witnessed a combination of size and period like that before in Portugal. Usually the swell gets to Europe with shorter intervals. I was really anxious to check the winds early in that morning, because that was our only doubt. When I saw the offshore winds blowing freshly from the Southeast I knew that we would score huge waves.

We had a team of four surfers. I’m the oldest and a kind of a mentor for them, so while we drove the Jet Skis to head out to the waves, I was thinking about what our strategy would be. When we got to the peak where the waves were breaking we confirmed the size of the swell. It was huge! My body changed to auto-pilot. I knew it because the way I felt! So I said to them: “Ok, guys! Let’s start! I want to make sure everybody has a chance to surf before the onshore winds picks up.”

A: Did you all get some waves?

CB: Felipe “Gordo” Cesarano was the first to ride a wave. We both got back screaming because of the power of it. While I was driving the ski (even) I felt how powerful the waves were. Doing everything surgically right was a mission! After that we changed partners, and Maya came to my ski. I told them all to trust their feelings and abilities because wanted them to be confident. A huge set came and a beautiful, monstrous left was asking to be ridden. I said to Maya: “Here’s your wave!” I’ve never seen a woman get in to a wave that size. She managed to ride it for a long time before she hit a bump and fell. What happened next was terrible. She vanished under the set. I knew that I had to rush through the beach break.

Because of the magnitude of the swell and its size, the power of the beach break was a nightmare. What saved her is the fact that she trains really hard, so she managed to deal with that whole set of white water monsters and get closer to the beach. I managed to get close to her and give her the rescue board for her to climb on the ski. Quickly I realized that she wouldn’t be able to do it. So I screamed to her: “Grab the rope!” At that point I didn’t want to go around again. Using her last energy she grabbed the rope, and we slowly moved a couple of meters towards the beach. But that was it for her. After the next wave she was seen floating, face down on the surface.

A: How do you react to someone who is unconscious in a situation that dangerous?

CB: The emergency command was on. One more wave hit her, and I tried to keep my eyes close to where she was. When she showed up again, I rushed to her, jumped from the ski and grabbed her. Thank God we were able to make it to the shore with the help of a lifeguard named Nuno. We managed to do CPR and bring her back. It was a big drama but after she headed to the ambulance safely I knew that I had to go back in the water for Pedro Scooby and Felipe Cesarano. I wanted to check if everything was ok.

Felipe got two huge waves and was happy. So I asked Scooby if he wanted to surf.

He said: “For sure!”

I towed him into his biggest wave ever and he nailed it but ended up losing his board. By that point the wind was strange and the surface was very crispy [editors note: he probably meant “choppy”]. All the teams were talking about finishing the session. The Portuguese military authority sent a message by radio telling everybody to leave the water. So I asked Pedro Scooby to tow me into a wave. We practice our whole lives to face waves like that and I didn’t want to miss that opportunity. That’s when that wave came. It was right in the corner where the power of the ocean emerges from a depth of 5km, directly to hit the cliff.

A: How would you compare Praia do Norte to some of the other big-wave spots you have surfed?

CB: Praia do Norte has some unique aspects. The fact that it breaks very close to a cliff and at a super dangerous beach break, for starters. These, and other elements combined, build the wave height and the power of the waves. It might not be the best wave to ride, but it’s definitely a world-record breaking wave. 

A: Did you think about dying when you were out on the water?

CB: No, I didn’t. Never. But I knew that risk existed. This risk is always there. We have to work before and during the session to minimize this risk.

A: Mentally, was it difficult to go from dragging your partner up the beach and watching her be resuscitated to going back out and catching a wave?

CB: After I saw Maya Gabeira breathing and well taken care of in the ambulance I was less worried. Then I got back in the water to finish the mission I had, which was to take care of the other two guys, Pedro Scooby and Felipe Cesarano, and also to ride a wave. I had a mission to accomplish: I was the leader of that team, the one responsible for the others. When I’m in charge no person gets left behind.

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A: How important is luck for a surfer in waves that are as large as the ones your surfed in Nazaré?

CB: Luck plays a very important role on picking and getting the best and the biggest wave of the day. But riding it is about knowledge and experience.

A: Laird Hamilton has called your ride a “wipe out” and a “failed attempt.” Do you have a response to that?

CB: Unfortunately, he wasn’t there and has never been there before, so it’s hard for him to make the best judgement about what happened that day. Therefore, I only have to say that his comments were very well received, but they are a result of theory and not from a solid background of someone who has experience on that wave. As I said, it’s a very unique wave. I rode it perfectly on the biggest and strongest part of it. And I didn’t get thrown to into the furious beach break or the rocks. I made it safely to the channel.

A: People have been questioning your tow partner Maya’s ability to surf waves of that size, what are your thoughts on the matter?

CB: She has been training very hard to improve her skills and to be able to face waves like this. We’re accepting all the criticism. It’s a chance to improve even more. She’s not taking it for granted. It’s the other way around. But she wants to surf these waves really bad and has been working really hard for it.

A: The relationship between tow partners seems very interesting and complicated. Can you talk a little about your towing relationship to Maya?

CB: It’s like any other relationship.  Sometimes I miss someone with more knowledge by my side. But partnership is not about yourself. It’s about a team. And for me, there’s a thought that goes beyond anything: I’m giving back my part to the sport that has given so much to me. It’s a very good felling. It makes me stronger to go against all the prejudice!

A: How much responsibility do tow partners have to keep each other safe?

CB: As much as one can have over the other. It’s important to keep in mind that all final decisions are made by the surfer. No one drags you out there and forces you to ride a giant wave. In tow surfing, it is the surfer that makes the last call on riding a wave by dropping the rope. And when he’s already on the wave, riding it, the surfer makes all the decisions based on his or her skills and experience. It’s a team sport, but at the same time, when you’re riding, it’s individuality that counts. We are apart.

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