For the past couple of years I’ve been drawn to the phenomenon of giants waves and the people surfing them. By giants we’re talking about ocean waves 15-24 metres high. A bit like the one in the picture.
First it was an article about female big wave riders on the BBC website that sparked my interest and then I found the Big Wave Awards videos on YouTube. I still cannot imagine how anyone can surf a colossal wave like that – let alone survive from inside the washing machine it creates. Yet there are men – and women – who can.
Meeting The People Who Feel The Fear – But Do It Anyway
As a documentarist and a big fan of the ocean, I knew I had to meet some of these brave people. Luckily, on a surf, yoga and meditation retreat in Sintra, Portugal earlier this year, I was introduced to João De Macedo. He happened to live just round the corner on the west coast of Portugal – like many of the world’s best surfers do – and came to join our yoga class. João currently holds a place in the top six of the best surfers in the world.
In an interview with the surfer and father of one, recorded at the dinner table of Patricia Graca and Zarqa Correa, I asked João about the dark side of big waves. Every time he sets out to meet the tsunami-looking monsters, there’s no guarantee of coming back. He told me about learning how to hold his breath:
– Holding your breath under ice would be similar to holding your breath inside a big wave. You really have to accept that you have no control.
João also told me about the part that’s not talked about: The anxiety in surfing big waves.
– The fear is intense before you go out to the water. And when you’re in the water you’re seeing these absolutely giant waves and it’s really very difficult to try to pick a line-up, a place where you could actually be to catch one.
Some of this quiet anxiety shared by big wave riders has been hauntingly captured by Blaze Hunter in the documentary “Way of Life” about João De Macedo. Seeing João come out of the ocean battered and bruised on the film really lifted the mask of this visually exhilarating but dangerous sport. All I could think of was: If a man gets punched in the face by a giant wave like that, how does a small woman survive its force? And that’s when I knew I had to make a film from one particular woman’s point of view.
The Start of An XXL Sized Journey
Eight months later, I am about to start filming a tv documentary about Joana Andrade, a 156cm tall woman from Ericeira whose dream is to surf a wave 30 metres high. Joana, the only female big wave rider in Portugal, firmly believes that girls can ride the giants that men can, and that they should be held equal. In Nazare, where the biggest waves in the world offer big wave riders great opportunities to perfect their skills, Joana is one of the guys.
Currently, female big wave riders are still given less merit than men for their achievements in big wave riding competitions. Joana, like João, isn’t riding giants for money, though. She does it for the love and respect of the ocean.
For Joana, the ocean has also been her therapy, a way of learning to respect herself after some testing times in her life. Today, she lives and breathes the waves and is determined to reach her goal. I’m both excited and terrified about going on this XXL size journey with her. Thank you, Joana, for letting me in to your life like this!
A preview of my documentary project about Joana, titled BIG vs small, is now on Vimeo:
This is going to be a real “Girls can do it” film but without making a big deal of the fact that we’re girls in front and behind the cameras. I firmly believe that size – or sex – shouldn’t matter. In with me is my colleague, top producer and an amazing woman Heidi Richert who is going to help me make a surf film “just like the boys do”. If you see us filming in Portugal in January, come and say hello. 🙂
With a Little Help From a Finnish Lake
To help Joana with her breathing – and to take her under the ice of a beautiful Finnish lake to experience the lack of control João first told me about – is Finnish free diver, ice diver and “ice woman” Johanna Nordblad. Johanna is world famous for holding her breath under ice for several minutes without equipment.
The two women will meet for the first time in Helsinki in December. There they will form a powerful team, never seen before in surfing history, to help Joana to reach the wave of her life. It won’t come easy as water in a Finnish lake in December is a lot colder than water on the west coast of Portugal, but Team Johanna – including a Finnish sauna – will be there for guidance and support.
Joana has nearly drowned four times in her life. Now Johanna and Joana want to help the surf community as a whole. With the help of BIG vs small film we all really want to help reduce surfing related drowning incidents. If you would like to support us in making this happen, contact me via email@example.com.
Minna Dufton, Writer/Director, 158 cm tall