Andrew Cotton is on a crackly mobile phone line from Nazaré, Portugal, where he’s settling into a month’s training ahead of the winter big-wave surfing season. “It’s been amazing. I want to give myself the best start possible to do well,” he says. The ocean off the coast of Nazaré has played a pivotal role in Cotton’s career. After all, it was here in 2014 that he became a major big-wave star.
Then, as storm Brigid surged across the Atlantic, churning through the 200km-long, up to 5km-deep underwater canyon that ends at the seaside town, images of the tiny figure of Cotton barrelling down the face of a monster 60ft wave were beamed around the world. That moment, and its aftermath, set in motion a dream the British surfer is still chasing, searching for an elusive monster with the potential to be the biggest wave ever surfed.
Once the media spray over his Nazaré moment had cleared, Cotton shifted his focus to the next target. “I wanted to be more than a wave in 2014,” Cotton recalls. “It’s quite a personal thing, but you can’t live off one wave forever.”
His imagination was drawn to an isolated point off the west coast of Ireland, to the memory of a wave crest glimpsed far out to sea, and to the possibility of a breaker that might go beyond anything experienced before.
“You can see this wave on the horizon, just capping from a few points around the coast,” he says. “We first spotted it back in 2013. It’s one of those places that has always intrigued me. I’d always wanted to go out and investigate it.”
In the wake of his Nazaré experience, Cotton decided that finding and taming this elusive giant, in a place no one up until then had thought to look, had to be his next challenge.
He determined he was going to devote the entirety of his 2015/2016 season to the mission. “It captivated me,” he says. “I just thought it was now or never. It’s that feeling that you could be missing out if you don’t get your shit together and do it. If you don’t, you’ll never know.”
The results of the season-long quest, in the company of a group of like-minded surfers and filmmakers, are documented in the short film, Beneath the Surface: Chasing a Secret Slab.
But, while Cotton and his cohorts experienced tantalising moments where the wave threatened to deliver on the potential glimpsed from afar, in the end, like a creature from myth, it retreated into the foam and mist.
It’s why, on the end of the crackly line from Portugal and on the cusp on a new season, Cotton insists he’s ready to drop everything to once again journey to the west of Ireland and into the unknown.
“It’s unfinished business,” he says. “It was a particularly bad winter for Ireland; it wasn’t good across the whole Atlantic. Ultimately, it was a huge disappointment, especially because I set my goals and my sights so high, based on what I thought we would get, and what I had in that vision. But I’m not going to forget about it – it’s on the radar. You build up a profile [of the wave’s behaviour]; you know it’s there. I’m glad I put all that effort and all that time into it because now I know when to go back.”
Collaborating with Cotton in building the wave’s profile and trying to predict its next potentially record-breaking appearance is Ben Freeston of surf forecasting company Magic Seaweed. The former surfer founded the site more than 15 years ago, first as an aid in his own quest to find the best waves, before eventually developing it into the world’s most used wave predictor, a resource accessed by 1.5 million surfers worldwide.
Cotton’s reclusive wave off the west of Ireland was a source of instant fascination for the Devon-based analyst. “This wave is unique, and what’s unique about it is its exposure,” he says. “It’s hugely affected by the wind from almost every direction. It’s not amazingly far off the coast but it’s far enough off that there’s no shelter. There’s no cliff giving it a bit of a shelter, no headland.”
The coastline nearest to the wave’s location is mountainous, however. “That bit of coast… you can see all of those mountains and they extend out to sea. This one, where ‘Cotty’s’ wave is, just happens to be under the sea, 1.8-3m under the surface. It’s a continuation of that rugged, undulating coastline just out to sea… far out to sea.
“A lot of the famous spots in Ireland, Scotland and the UK rely on the waves bending out of the way of the wind. This thing doesn’t. It stands proud in the middle of ocean and when the conditions are right, the swell hits very, very hard, which is why the waves are so big. That’s what we’re so excited about.”
While Cotton’s 2016 search for the right conditions wasn’t conducted in a total vacuum – “The first thing we did was go through 35 years of satellite data for winds across the North Atlantic,” says Freeston – the forecaster believes they now have a wealth of data with which to more accurately predict when the right opportunity might present itself.
“We’ve learned a lot more about how much wind it can tolerate,” he says. “So we know what the wind window looks like. Finding those windows will never get easier, but we’re in a better position now, so Cotty can say, ‘I’m not gonna go three times in the winter, I’m going to wait for these very specific surf conditions.’”
Cotton is convinced the data accumulated across his search this year will eventually bear fruit. “The research was really important. Obviously it would have been great to just turn up and find it firing and we score it straight away. But that’s not reality. You have to put the time in; there’s no way around it. You can’t go to the headland and check it, it’s quite a way out. So you have to put the time in and figure it out. It will pay off.”
However Freeston admits that being able to forecast the next event is still far from an exact science. “It might not occur in any one of the next three winters, but it will happen,” he says. “However, the challenge remains that if we tell him to go, he will be driving away from great surf in other locations and we can’t guarantee to be totally right.
It’s a phenomenal responsibility for us on the data side. These guys might get two or three strikes a winter. Then once every three or four winters, they might score a wave that makes their career. And it’s not a long career, so these projects are nail-biting. We’re rolling the dice, but now we’ve got a better idea how to roll them.”
And, according to the Magic Seaweed boss, rolling a double six will occur when a complex set of meteorological variables come together. “We want to see a storm coming out of the Labrador Sea between Greenland and Canada,” he says. “As that storm comes around at the south of Greenland, there’s a phenomenon there called the ‘tip jet’ [when cyclones meet with the island’s mass on their northward journey across the Atlantic Ocean, causing air flow to be distorted and winds to speed up dramatically]. These tip jets drive huge amounts of energy. It’s almost a spit swell across the Atlantic.”
The result is a major storm that sweeps rapidly across the North Atlantic. Seething with power, the first barrier is Ireland’s west coast – and Cotton’s undersea ridge where the surging ocean is lifted into towering, waves.
“By the time the swells hit this reef they can be 20 or 30ft, with incredible power, and they can double in size on the reef,” says Freeston.
“Even though we have no data for a wave this size, we can speculate that a wave twice the size of what we saw in the film is possible [30-40ft]. It’s possible that [with the right conditions] it could be the biggest on the planet.”
It’s a daunting prospect, but one Cotton relishes, even though he admits the wave and its unforgiving location have the potential for enormous risk. “That place is eerie, dark and scary but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he says.
“It’s embedded in us, that response to danger: it’s scary, it’s bad, don’t go near it. But I think sometimes those are good things. Danger is quite a good thing, and it’s good because being on the edge is healthy.
“It’s being outside your comfort zone,” he adds. “Some people like being in their comfort zone all the time and others like to push beyond that… these things do make me scared, I do have fear, but there is nothing wrong with that. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
And he is relishing the chance to once again find himself being hauled by jetski to the edge of the precipice. “I wouldn’t say it’s an adrenalin rush,” he says of the point of no return at the top of a wave. “It really is more like existing completely in the moment. Those things that you get anxious about, the fear of something… when you are there, of course it’s scary, but you have to be in that moment and you’ve got to want it.“
And when that existence meets with success? “It’s a relief, and a sense that this is what life is about. It feels amazing,” he insists. “You can’t believe what an opportunity you’ve had. You are in the ocean and this is everything you’ve ever wanted out of life, to surf like this and be making a film or a movie. It’s like a dream.”
For the moment, the dream of the world’s biggest wave is going to have to wait. This winter Cotton will take part in the WSL Big Wave Tour, and preparation for it has brought him to Portugal. But when the conditions are right he knows the call will come.
“It a bit like Avengers Assemble,” he laughs. “If I spoke to any of the guys and said this spot is going to be 40, 50ft or more and perfect, everyone would be ‘right, let’s go’. No one is going to say ‘oh no, I’ve got something else on’. Now that we’ve put the time and effort in, we will do this. If it’s on, it is on.