Hugo Vau, a humble man riding the waves of all waves

The Portuguese surfer who rode Big Mama, the biggest wave ever seen. “There was fear, but I filled my mind with gratitude for that moment”.


Pubblicato il 13/02/2018
Ultima modifica il 13/02/2018 alle ore 11:59

“Surf a 35-metre wave? It’s like snowboarding down a mountain chased by an avalanche”. Hugo Vau, 40 years old, Portuguese of Lisbon fell in love with the sea at the tender age of 5, bought his first board at 16, a fisherman during the summer in the Azores and an extreme surfer during the winter, is the man who in Praia do Norte in Nazaré, on the west coast of Lusitana, surfed “Big Mama”, the highest wave in the world (the record is in the process of ratification). The roar of that avalanche of water still vibrates in his ears.  

 

Hugo carries the sign of the sea on his face. He is dressed in dark colors, shades of black, grey and blue, the colors of the Ocean. He speaks English, really fast, moving his hands around and transmitting a sense of strength and, at the same time of shyness. He speaks of passion, respect for nature, luck and the dream of finding a piece of land, build a house and live a decent life. He seems almost like a man of other times. He is not a giant, on the contrary. Yet he goes out to challenge hell (but he naturally speaks of it as Heaven). He invites me to go with him to Nazarè, the mecca of surfing giant waves, riding a jet-ski, that in tow-in surfing transports and launches the most daring surfers on the peaks of the ocean. “Relax, it’s safe” he tells me. After all, this is how he started: on a jet-ski. Just by looking at what he does, with these powered horses on the crests would be a good reason to stay on the ground.  

 

Where were you born and where do you live?  

«I was born in Lisbon in 1976, but 8 years ago I moved to the Azores. It is a magical place, with a unique nature. Here the quality of life is high, time runs slower here, and you have time to do everything with more harmony. There are beautiful mountains and you are close to the sea. You can cross the street and dive into the water. I started to organize my life here with a tourist company and as a professional fisherman…». 

 

And then surfing arrived.  

«It has always been there, but five years ago things started to change. The seasons in Nazarè have become more and more challenging: at the beginning I spent only two months in Nazarè, October and November, but now things have changed at the behest of my sponsors. My career became more solid and I started to train more. In the last two years I have spent at least 5 months in Nasrid».  

 

Where did you go before?  

«I would fish during the summer and take tourists on excursion, showing them how to fish in a sustainable way. And I was also involved in other related activities. I lived like ants that accumulate in summer to be able to eat in winter».  

 

Is yours a family of fishermen? Of sailors? Of surfer?  

«No. Nobody in my family was a fisherman, sailor or surfer. My dad, my mother, are “land-people”, born in the inner city of Portugal. The passion for fishing was born around the age of 5, the first time I saw the sea. I became a good swimmer, I started doing swimming races. I was attracted by the sea, by the ocean, a pure love that only a child can have. I can say that I followed my childhood passion».  

 

When did your passion for surfing start?  

«I bought my first board when I was about 16 years old. I had asked my parents for it for Christmas when I was about 12. I toed the line, got good grades at school and then, when Christmas came, under the tree I saw a small square box. Hey, what is this? I asked my parents. When I opened it, to my surprise, I received a bodyboard. Not exactly what I wanted, but I went on with bodyboarding until I was 16 till I met this girl named Sophia, who was a big traveler and had gone to Brazil, she sold me her board».  

 

When did you arrive in Nazarè?  

«I arrived in Praia de Norte in 2005, but there were no giant waves, they were normal, 2 or 3 meters. I had a friend who lived there. And then, in 2007, I came back in a different way....».  

 

How so?  

«In 2003 I went to Mexico and saw for the first-time tow-in surfing on jet-skis, which allows to surf massive waves in a safe way. So, back in Portugal I bought a jet-ski and I started to practice without having any previous training. It can be said that I was a pioneer of this kind of activity. But I slowly grew into it, getting better and better at it. In 2007, the mayor invited me to take care of the safety at sea of the competitors in a race, and I continued to do so, even in the following seasons. And then in November 2011 I received a phone call from Garrett McNamara (an extreme surfing record-man from Hawaii), who invited me to join his team, taking care of his safety in the water in a contest called Nazarè Tow-in Trial. And then, one Sunday, Garrett, after having seen me in action, asked me if I wanted to take part in the race as a surfer. Why not? I told him. And since then I have never stopped».  

 

And then Big Mama arrived.  

«Ever since my passion began seven years ago I realized that in Nazarè in winter there would be the biggest waves in the world and that it wasn’t necessary to go elsewhere. So Garrett, Andrew Cotton and I spent 4 consecutive years out in the water alone, without anybody else, just us training for the big one. We have seen huge yet impossible-to-ride waves. Of course, in recent years I have hoped to see the highest wave ever. I waited, and in the end, it happened».  

 

Did you realize it was the right day from the forecasts?  

«Yes. The storm arrived, the first day the waves got bigger and continued to grow during the night. The next day they dropped a little bit, but at the end of the day something special happened, something unique. A magical moment… the color of the water, of the sky; everything was golden».  

 

And you rode Big Mama....  

«Usually we only see the surfer riding the wave, without realizing that behind this man there is actually a team without which it would be impossible for the surfer do what he is doing. At that moment there was Alex Botelho, who was watching my back and Marcelo Lena in case I needed back up, that is, he was ready to intervene with a second jet-ski and on the ground, there was Jorge Jesus Leal, who took care of the images and with the radio pointed out the waves, indicating the best position».  

 

How is it to ride such a massive wave?  

«It’s like snowboarding down a mountain, but with something extra. With an avalanche behind your shoulders...”. He laughs, and tells me about the magic moment...».  

 

The magic moment?  

«Often people don’t realize how special and, at the same time, difficult it is to put together all the pieces of the puzzle, the magic of a moment that lasts only a few seconds. Think of the wave that formed 2 thousand miles away from the coast, in the middle of the ocean and that arrives to the shore. When you’re surfing you have to think that the wave is coming from far away and that its energy will be broken forever. When I am riding it, I feel I’m storing its energy and the very existence of that wave in my soul and mind. You become part of the whole thing, you connect with nature. For me it is something very spiritual: I’m connected to the ocean.... And I also believe that I’m there not only because I want it to...».  

 

Can you explain?  

«Every day a thousand waves break, it is destiny to catch the right one, it means that it had to go that way. And when it goes like that, the perfect moment takes shape, and all the pieces come together perfectly. Everything moves in one direction. It’s a gift».  

 

A gift?  

«What else could it have been? The week before I was invited to Mavericks in Northern California to shoot a video for the Olympic Channel, which is every surfer’s dream. And Alex had been invited to a competition in Mavericks. However, I had seen the forecasts and knew that the right day was coming, so I told Olympic Channel to grant me another 12 hours-time to decide and, that the next day I would have given my answer. The next day I saw that the forecasts were solid and so I said that I would not go. And it went the same way with Alex, four hours before the confirmation limit of the race, the predictions were horrible, so much so that the race was cancelled and so, also Alex did not go. But three hours later conditions in Mavericks had changed and become among the best of all times. I think it was nature that decided for us, that made us stay in Nazarè. It’s crazy, if you think about it. You bet everything you got in twenty seconds.... All your dedication, patience, work, all the perfect and not so perfect waves that you’ve surfed, the lives of people, yours. It is the magic of the moment, the strength of nature to which everything is connected».  

 

What does it take to surf Big Mama? Passion, technique, physical power?  

«Mainly a passion for surfing and love for the sea. Obviously, you also need to be physically and mentally prepared, you need to feel comfortable with yourself and feel good».  

 

Is there space for fear on the wave?  

«There is. I try to protect myself by not thinking about the ugly things of the past or the ones that can happen to me in the future: I concentrate on the present moment and try to fill my mind with the thought of gratitude that I have for being there, for living that moment...».  

 

How does your girlfriend feel about it?  

«Eh, it’s much harder for her. She follows me live on the monitor, but on the ground, you don’t have control of anything and this makes you feel worse. She supports me, she understands my passion, she has accepted me.... Well, she can’t but do so».  

 

What is the Ocean for you?  

«It’s everything. It makes me feel like I am in a better place, I’m in peace, quiet, wholly happy. It’s my place, I prefer to be at sea rather than elsewhere.  

Has Big Mama changed your life?» 

 

There is the media exposure. I understand those 19/20-year olds who become rich and famous and then lose themselves: there is a risk that it will happen if you lack values. We must be cautious. That’s why I’m doing my best to stay humble and to remain myself. I surfed Big Mama but I’m always the same old Hugo.  

 

(Translated by Anna Martinelli)  

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