Portuguese big wave surfer Joana Andrade on the importance of fear: “These waves can kill you, so fear is good because it keeps you aware.”
By Sam Haddad
From the first time she ever surfed, aged 10, Joana Andrade was hooked. Despite the fact it took her a month to stand up, as there were no surf schools or beginner boards back then. She’s now an elite big wave surfer and a regular at Nazaré, one of the most challenging wave spots in the world. As a film about her life, BIG vs SMALL, premieres at the London Surf Film Festival, we chart her extraordinary journey.
On the crest of a cliff, next to a small red lighthouse, a crowd is staring out to sea. A set of huge waves appear on the horizon, their peaks so high they almost blot out the sky. A tiny figure takes off on one and rides down its steep slope, like a snowboarder charging down on a mountain. She eventually gets swallowed by the tail end of the wave’s frothing curl but is soon picked up by her tow-in partner on a jet ski, ready to go again. Meet Joana Andrade. An extraordinary big wave surfer, who was the first Portuguese woman to surf Nazaré, one of the world’s biggest and most mythic surf spots. She is the star of BIG vs SMALL, an award-winning documentary by Finnish filmmaker Minna Dufton, which is playing at the London Surf Film Festival this week; Joana surfing Nazaré is its opening sequence.
Joana is not your typical big wave surfer, usually defined as someone who focuses on riding waves above 20 feet (6.2 metres) high, though in Nazaré they are frequently three times as big as that. This is partly because she’s a woman in a very male-dominated sport within a sport, and in part because she’s incredibly small, just 5ft 1”(156cm), so she looks even more incongruous on the face of a giant wave. But it’s also because when Joana talks about surfing big waves, she speaks with a lot of humility and is far more likely to mention her fear of drowning and how she manages that mentally, than she is to talk with bravado about surfing waves the size of 10-storey buildings.
Now 41, Joana has been surfing since she was 10. She grew up in Cascais, a beach resort town just outside of Lisbon, and was a very energetic child. “I couldn’t sit still for too long,” she says, “So my parents put me in for all kinds of sports, basketball, ballet, horseriding…” “I always did my best, but something drew me to the ocean. The first time I went surfing I felt such a connection, I thought, ‘This is the sport I want to do for my whole life.’” That was despite the fact it took a month for Joana to stand up on a board. “There were no surf schools back then, or good wetsuits or foam beginner boards,” she says. “I started with a short board, so it was not easy in the whitewater. I would fall, get spun like a washing machine, and get cold and frustrated. But there was always a voice inside of me telling me to keep going, and the first time I stood up was amazing.”
But there was a problem. Surfing was the only sport her parents had explicitly told her not to do, as it didn’t have a great reputation back in the early 90s, and, in her mother’s eyes at least, it wasn’t something girls or women did. This meant she had to sneak out to surf when she was meant to be at school, often stashing her board under old cars in the neighbourhood so her parents wouldn’t find out. Of course, this was before decent wave forecasting and long before surf prediction apps, so she and her friends would often get the bus to surf spots and then find the conditions weren’t right, leaving them to wait hours for a bus home. “It was always an adventure,” she says.
Eventually her parents discovered her secret, but it wasn’t until she won her first national junior title that they began to properly accept her passion for surfing. Though even now her mum doesn’t especially approve of Joana big wave surfing and admits she finds it quite “reckless”. When she was surfing back in the 90s, did Joana experience much sexism? “It wasn’t common to see women in the water back then, there were maybe only four or five in the whole of Portugal. But actually, it was ok, I always got a lot of support,” she says. “In the contests there was discrimination though. The women were always put out in the bad conditions [until recently event organisers always saved the best surf for the men], and the prize money was much lower for women too.” Surfing was clearly her life’s passion, but this lack of funding and support on the women’s contest scene made her question whether it could ever be a legitimate career path for her. “It wasn’t easy in the beginning, for any woman, not just me,” she says.
But in time she picked up sponsors including Rip Curl, which helped her travel to enter competitions. In contests, she found she always performed better when the waves were bigger. One day in 2012, she went up the coast to the fishing village of Nazaré, where an American surfer called Garrett McNamara had started to come every winter to surf big waves, instead of frequenting the usual spots such as Jaws in Hawaii or Mavericks in California.
No one had managed to surf Nazaré before that, it was deemed too dangerous and too fast to paddle into, but when Garrett came over and started using jet skis, which allow surfers to be towed into waves that would be too fast to otherwise catch, it cemented Portugal on the global big wave map. Today most of the biggest waves ever surfed (and measured) have been ridden at Nazaré, including two by women, Justine Dupont from France and Maya Gabeira from Brazil; Maya also nearly died at Nazaré in a wipeout in 2013 and faced some sexist criticism from some male surfers at the time for being out there in the first place.
When Joana first watched Garrett surf at Nazaré, she thought it was “crazy” and something she’d never want or even be able to do. “It looked like another sport entirely,” she says, “But there was also this other voice inside me which said, ‘Maybe, you should try it? So, I came home thinking, ‘Why not?’” She started to train hard physically and mentally. At first, not for Nazaré necessarily, but to be able to surf bigger waves and start being towed in. After a year, she called Garrett up and said she’d love to surf Nazaré one day. His response? “Ok great, it’s the perfect moment as a big swell is coming tomorrow!” Joana hadn’t expected that and ideally wanted more time, but she decided to go for it. Unsurprisingly she didn’t sleep much that night. “I was super nervous and had so many doubts about whether I should be doing it, whether I would drown… But as soon as I got in the water, I felt so peaceful and relaxed. I was scared but at the same time calm,” she says. It was that feeling that made her realise she wanted to surf more big waves in the future.
“These waves can kill you, there are always accidents here, so fear is good because it keeps you aware. But in a dangerous situation you also need to be calm and not panic,” she says. How does she stop that fear becoming panic? She says a lot of it comes down to preparation. Rather than the kamikaze risk-takers they might be stereotyped as, big wave surfers are actually meticulous planners, from the jetski to the aerated life vests they inflate when they wipeout, everything is triple-checked. Which Joana says she finds calming.
But she’s also spent a lot of time working on her mental strength, through breathing and meditation. She trains in an “underwater gym” once a week to practise holding her breath to cope with the monster wipeouts she faces when surfing big waves. And in the documentary BIG vs SMALL, we witness her going to Finland to get tips on the mental side of breath holding from the World Champion freediver Johanna Nordblad. They descend under the ice of a frozen lake in the dark and it looks terrifying. Joana agrees it was, but it also helped her a lot. “It was a scary but beautiful experience,” she says. “Johanna encouraged me to hold my breath longer, to be more aware and in control and not to panic. She gave me a lot of easy tools, especially for big waves and the cold water, but also for life,” she says.
Would she recommend that surfers who want to improve at the sport work on their breath holding, as they might practise press ups to help with their pop up? “Definitely, it’s one of the most useful tools we have.” That first time at Nazaré, she surfed the biggest wave of the day and led the news headlines up and down the country. She would later be awarded a prestigious Billabong XXL Ride of the Year Award for the wave. Though she notes the men’s equivalent award got a far higher prize sum (from 2019 the Big Wave Awards prize money has been equal for men and women). She’s ridden there every winter since, except for one year when she injured her foot, and is now bringing on the next generation of women surfers through her surf school. Will any of them go to Nazaré? “I don’t want to push them too early, though I am training one girl from Italy who wants to be a big wave rider,” she says. Opening doors for others, that she had to break through, and looking all the more happy for that.