Andrew Cotton first entered the water as a child to help treat his asthma. Now he’s famous for his breathtaking battles with the forces of nature.
The 35-year-old is one of the world’s leading big-wave surfers, earning global fame when he tackled a monster break off the Portuguese coast last year.
It measured 60 feet – higher than four London double-decker buses – and he flew through it at 40 mph before being enveloped by the swell of water seconds later.
“It depends on each wave but the ride is usually about five to 10 seconds,” the Englishman explains. “The bigger the wave, the faster they move, and you can get up to 40 mph. But unlike a car there isn’t smooth tarmac – it’s like driving over a road riddled with potholes at that speed.”
Cotton compares the surreal feeling of surviving that magnitude of wave to a tennis player who returns lightning-quick serves with apparent ease.
“Often these things happen in slow motion, you can somehow break them down. So when the lip of a wave is coming over me, it looks super fast but I see it in slow motion. It enables me to make millisecond decisions. All my best waves I’ve seen in slow motion,” he says.
“And the other thing is the noise. While everyone else watching will tell you the noise of the wave is a deafening roar, I don’t hear the noise. It sounds a bit hippie-ish but you’re in the zone. You’re not thinking about who you need to email or what you’re having for your tea, you’re right in the moment. And it’s not often in life that we’re in the moment.”
Before catching that big wave in Praia de Norte in February 2014, which came just months after another spectacular ride, his dreams were in danger of crashing down around him as sponsors dissipated and he started to contemplate finding another way to support his wife and two young kids.
But the worldwide coverage he received has helped him become virtually a full-time professional surfer, landing sponsorship deals with British brewer Sharp’s as well as energy drink maker Red Bull – the former of which is running a competition offering people the opportunity to surf with Cotton.
His effort put him on a shortlist for surfing’s Oscars, the Billabong XXL awards, for the biggest wave.
“I remember at the time of that wave I was like, ‘This is it,’” he recalls. “I’m a qualified plumber and I thought, ‘I’m going to have to get a proper job.’ That wave rescued my career at a point where I was thinking I better sack it all off.”
Cotton first entered the water on a surfboard at the age of eight and was enamored with it immediately – the dreams of a life on the professional surfing circuit steadily kicked in.
“Contest surfing is the traditional route,” he says. “You do the local events, national, European and so on. The problem was I struggled in even the local events, so that particular dream was dashed pretty quickly.
“But I realized I was actually quite good in the big surf, and then the internet changed how we view stuff and people increasingly wanted to watch videos of guys testing themselves. So I thought I can actually be a pro surfer in the big waves.”
Cotton is in the infancy of his career as a big-wave surfer. By comparison, Garrett McNamara, who holds the official world record for the biggest wave surfed at 78 feet – which Cotton towed him onto – turns 48 this year.
In his sport, experience and a knowledge of the ocean are key attributes. And if you have those, it’s not as dangerous as it may seem – though he will always ring his wife Katy, who doesn’t surf, to tell her he’s okay after a big ride.
Some of the best surfers in history have lost their lives in big waves – in 1994, then trailblazer Mark Foo drowned in a mere 20-foot swell in San Francisco.
“I’m not an adrenalin junkie whatsoever and the risk is measured,” says Cotton, who has a seven-year-old daughter Honey and son Ace (named after the surfing legend Ace Cool) .
“I have the best safety team in the world around me, an inflatable safety vest and I have a good understanding of the sea,” he adds – revealing that he is more scared of public speaking than towering waves.
“So each time I do it I understand what I’m getting myself into. It’s actually not that dangerous. Okay, it’s dangerous as it’s Mother Nature, but it’s a calculated risk.”
The backup crew in place means Cotton is always confident of being lifted out of the water after being wiped out by a wave, and he has a calm approach to the washing-machine effect of being shaken up in the churning water.
Rather than battle to get to the surface, he allows himself to be ridden out – though there have been testing moments.
“Facing a wave of say two, four or six feet is scary, so you can imagine what having a 60-foot wave above you is like. You have to ride that, believe in yourself and believe in your team. You just have to go with it.”
That’s what the big-wave surfers do – following the biggest breaks around the globe.
Hawaii and Australia were once seen as surfing meccas, but European beaches – notably in Ireland and Portugal – have become increasingly popular.
“Everywhere has big waves,” says Cotton, though he insists he is not obsessed with measuring them or riding the biggest wave of all time.
“That wave in Praia de Norte is one of the biggest waves I’ve ridden. Some people said it was 80 feet but I think Billabong measured it at 60. I just love being in the waves, in the sea. It’s one of the best places to be.”