Russell Bierke and Conor Maguire Interview: Surfing XL Nazare for the First Time

Jason Lock

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Updated 322d ago

It's no surprise that the world's best big wave surfers now descend on Nazare for its winter season. Last year, the biggest wave in the world was surfed at Praia do Norte and the majority of big wave awards were divided between Jaws and Portugal's power-house.

Yes, the world sees Maverick's. It sees Cortez Bank and Dungeons. The Right and Punta de Lobos, Shipstern's Bluff, Puerto Escondido and etc etc, but for sheer consistency, for volume and risk vs reward, for (maybe) accolades, the thinking is, you go to Jaws (and ohhhh, have you seen it over the past few days?) or you go to Nazare.

Conor on a huge drop.

Conor on a huge drop.

© 2019 - Vitor Estrelinha

That's not to say those other spots are any less intense. They remain legit, of course. But the way awards (and, therefore, pay checks) are heading, plus the attention of the global surf media, it is one or the other at this moment in time.

And, for most Euro chargers, Nazare is fairly easy to get to compared to, well, everywhere else. But Nazare also draws an international crowd, everyone seeking to huck and swing on something colossal, or just to see if the wave lives up to the hype, or is it just a big ol' mushburger.

Perhaps two of the most dedicated, next gen big wave surfers are Ireland's Conor Maguire and Oz's Russell Bierke, who have just surfed Nazare for the first time. The exploits of both Conor and Russ are well-known, Conor a hard-grafting and humble hellman – helping put Mullaghmore on the map. And, Russ, winner of Cape Fear and already a staple of the big wave scene at the tender age of 20.

We thought it's time to check in with the new blood of the big wave contingent to get their thoughts on Nazare, paddling or towing and whether they think this mutant is legit, or not. Dig in.

What brought you both to Nazare?
CM: Nazare is so close to home for me that I thought I might as well head over on a swell and give it a go. Carlos Burle and Lucas Chumbo were in Ireland for a wee bit and said the swell heading there looked huge and good to tow, with the following days lining up to be dreamy to paddle. Russ was planning on coming over to get a few surfs in before the contest started so it worked out pretty well.

RB: I flew over to get some practice in before I had to surf a heat out there, and it’s pretty much the best training you can get to start the northern hemi winter off. I was hanging with Conor in Aus and he said he was keen to go check it out as well. It was pretty cool having another first timer to analyse the place with.

Russ, arms-wide into a scoop.

Russ, arms-wide into a scoop.

© 2019 - Vitor Estrelinha

What was your perception of the wave before you got here?
RB: From what I’d heard and seen it just seemed like chaos. I wasn’t sure if the reward would make up for the risk of surfing it. 

CM: I heard so many mixed reviews from people who've surfed there. One common feature in everyone's stories was a near death experience which wasn't exactly ideal mental prep [laughs]. I definitely wasn't expecting to get the wave of my life so I kept an open mind and was pretty excited to make up my own mind on Nazare. I knew being thrown into such an uncomfortable position would be really good training for other big waves around the world so I was actually really looking forward to it. One common feature in everyone's stories was a near death experience which wasn't exactly ideal mental prep

Has that perception changed?
CM: Towing Nazare is pretty much exactly as I expected. Too many emotions to fit in one sentence. I was absolutely shitting my pants and really didn't want to let go of the rope. Just sitting on a ski in such an unruly ocean is terrifying. I was absolutely shitting my pants and really didn't want to let go of the rope It was my turn after Russ' horrific wipeout and to be honest, I just wanted to go back to the harbour. Carlos ended up convincing me I'd be alright and whipped me into the biggest wave of my life. I aimed for the shoulder and pulled off the back. I expected to be ecstatic and full of adrenalin like I would be after a huge keg at Mully but I just felt scared. For me, the risk doesn't feel worth the reward towing out there. 

Not taking anything away from the people that do tow when it gets XXL. The training, commitment and teamwork involved in towing there is to be admired. 

Paddling on the other hand was a lot more fun than I expected. The constantly shifting, and seemingly unpredictable peaks seemed to conform to a pattern instead of being totally chaotic and unorganised like I originally thought.

The drops were a lot steeper than I imagined and really exciting on a big board. Positioning for the wave was pretty intimidating. You had to sit quite far under the wave to catch it as it moves so fast. This of course means you're getting a few sets on the head, ending up with you twiddling your thumbs on the beach. 

RB: I feel like the risk vs reward towing is still a bit off for me. It almost felt more like snowboarding than surfing, I love snowboarding but I don’t like avalanches that much [laughs]. I love snowboarding but I don’t like avalanches that muchI was really surprised by how much fun I had paddling the place, even though it was half the size of the tow day it seemed way more challenging and exciting. It’s definitely more organised than I expected it to be, but there’s still no sign of a channel. 



© 2019 - Vitor Estrelinha

Conor, how does it compare to a huge tube, like Mully – and how do you prep for surfing Nazare compared to Mully?
For me personally, a big tube at Mullaghmore is 100 times more exhilarating than anything I experienced at Nazare. I do love Mully more than any other wave on earth so it might be an unfair comparison [laughs].

My preparation at home is a lot different because I obviously live there so everything is already prepped months in advance. I'm ready to go anytime Mully breaks. Whereas at Nazare, everything was new, I was borrowing boards and didn't feel as fully prepared or confident as I would at home.

In saying that, Carlos and Lucas really looked after us and made sure we had everything we needed and lent some very welcomed knowledge. Having the Red Bull garage as a base there was also a massive help. Having the whole team together in one building made it feel like a joint effort. Everyone was looking out for each other.

Russ – you must’ve travelled a way to get here, has Nazare been on your bucket list?
I think the fact Nazare is on the other side of the world has stopped me from going there sooner, I’ve always been keen to check it out but I was more drawn to other waves. The contest looming was just what I needed to actually get over here and do it. 

So, what are your overall impressions of the wave?
RB: It’s definitely one of a kind! There’s a lot more perfect big waves out there, but in terms of size, power and consistency - this place wins for sure. In two weeks here I rode more big waves than I have all year. There’s a lot more perfect big waves out there, but in terms of size, power and consistency - this place wins for sureThe hardest part about big wave surfing is how infrequent we get to actually ride big waves, so to have a spot where you can dial in boards and technique day after day is pretty special.

CM: Well, I received more beatings in a week at Nazare than I have in my whole time surfing I'd say. You paddle out expecting to get nailed and if you manage to catch a wave before that happens then it's a good session.

I found this to be amazing mental preparation as I had my worst nightmare at Mullaghmore occur over and over in the same day so I sort of became desensitised to it by the end of our time there. 

Having the opportunity to ride huge boards day after day is also really beneficial. I usually only ride anything over 6'4' a handful of times a year. There you can get your equipment so dialled in after a week and become so comfortable in waves of consequence at the same time. The drops are also way more vertical than I expected so it's really good practice for other big wave spots around the globe.

Conor about to get a drilling.

Conor about to get a drilling.

© 2019 - Vitor Estrelinha

What do you make of people saying it’s just a big mushburger and not legit at all?
RB: To be honest, for a while, I thought it was just a big mushburger as well. I was pretty surprised to get out there and be looking at vertical drops on some. It’s actually a really intimidating takeoff and you have to be so far under the wave to catch it. I think the conditions in the contest surprised a lot of people around the world. I did see one or two waves on the tow day that looked like a hell of a keg, if you were lucky enough to be in the spot and had the balls to pull in

CM: I heard Nazare was a pretty sick wave up to 10-15 foot but I thought it was just a mushburger at any size after that. The paddle days leading up to the contest definitely changed my opinion. I think most people's views shifted when they saw Natxo's mental wave there. I still kind of think it's a mushburger on 90 per cent of waves when it's tow size but it does demand a lot of respect. I did see one or two waves on the tow day that looked like a hell of a keg, if you were lucky enough to be in the spot and had the balls to pull in.

Paddle or tow?
CM: Paddle all the way. Paddling Nazare is still relatively new ground and there's a lot more to be done out there, which is pretty exciting. Catching the wave with your own two arms is a lot more rewarding than relying on a ski driver to pick a wave you might not even want to be on [laughs]. 

RB: Paddle! I feel like there’s way more of a limit to be pushed paddling, it’s all on you to catch the wave. Whereas towing generally comes down to the driver and it’s more of a lottery with who gets the best waves. There’s definitely a time and place to tow but I look forward to paddle sessions more. 

In terms of the mechanics of Nazare, did you study much about the wave before surfing it, or just go all in?
RB: I’ve talked to people about the lineup and seen a fair bit of footage, but I definitely didn’t study it like I do for most new waves I surf. It just seemed so foreign I figured I may as well feel it out when I’m there. 

CM: I usually like to watch video after video of a wave I'm going there for the first to time to see how I will approach it. I watched one video just before taking off in Dublin and decided it just seemed like survival so I pretty much just went all in and hoped for the best.

How’s the safety operation out there?
RB: Having a safety team is the only way we can surf that wave at size, it’s more important than at any other wave. The crew are so switched on, sometimes it seems harder to drive a ski in there than to surf the waves. 

CM: Yeah, the guys were pretty on it safety wise. You kind of need to be there. The ski drivers are absolutely next level. Navigating the turbulence on the inside is hectic. It's exactly how you'd imagine an oversized beach break to be.

It's so scary to be on the back of sled whilst a ski is punching huge lumps of whitewater. I pretty much just closed my eyes until I was out back again. It would be next to impossible to surf there without a ski looking out for you and bringing back though the walls of whitewater.

So many people have described the wipeouts there as the most violent of all-time, what do you think?
CM: It's not soft anyway that's for sure. The initial slap is nowhere near as violent as Mullaghmore but the wave rolls you along underwater for much longer. The wave doesn't lose it's energy until it reaches the beach. When the wave finally lets you go, another one is straight on your head until you're on the sand. It's physically and mentally exhausting. 

I had some pretty big sets land on my head whilst paddling but thankfully I didn't fall on a tow wave. I might be singing a different tune if so. Russell might have a slightly different answer [laughs].

RB: Well, I had the worst wipeout of my life on my second wave ever out there... I’ve had more violent at big slabs like Teahupoo and Shippies, but Nazare just doesn’t stop. The wave doesn’t lose its energy at all, it just keeps rumbling to the beach and you can get so many on the head in a row. By the time I got to the beach after that wipeout, I could barely see straight.