Mention big wave surfing and you might think of Hawaii or Australia and brochure-blue mountains of water scaled by bronzed paragons of vitality.
But there’s a cold-water revolution afoot. It’s been taking place right on our doorstep and a plumber from north Devon is leading the charge.
For the last ten years, Andrew Cotton has been conquering epic swells hitting Ireland, France and Portugal. As an influencer at the top end of an extreme industry, his accomplishments redefine our appreciation of what it’s possible for humans to achieve.
The 34-year-old came to Cardiff last week to mark his appointment as brand ambassador to Saltrock and to celebrate the British surf brand’s opening of new stores in Swansea, Tenby, Carmarthen and Cardigan. In the tranquility of a tea garden in the woods, I spoke to Cotty about his role as a key player in the super heavyweight division of world surfing.
TEC: How has your year been so far?
AC: Yeah it’s been good. I was away a lot in the winter - the European season was pretty full-on. The first big swell in Nazaré [Portugal] was pretty huge. Unfortunately I got injured at the start of December before what was probably the biggest swell of the year. A week later I was in at Nazaré again and it was giant.
I caught a few waves but I wasn’t 100 per cent fit. I felt like I had let myself down a bit but on the other hand I couldn’t really control that. At least I didn’t miss out completely. I had a few good sessions in January too.
How are the next twelve months looking?
It’s going to be an exciting year. I’ll be in Portugal for the start of the season before basing myself in Ireland. Hopefully I’ll fly to Hawaii or the US if a major swell hits. I just want to keep my training regimes going and stay fit really.
I’d like to get to Teahupo’o [Tahiti] at some point. I would have gone there a few weeks ago had a particular swell come in. It’s always been about making the most of my limited budget. Getting there would be pretty unheard of for me as I’d normally be working. It’s a grand to get there - you need a serious budget to make it happen.
How did you get into big wave surfing?
I used to travel a lot just to surf. I’d work from March to December then get away for three or four months surfing as much as possible. I did that for about ten years, then around the age of 25 I started getting a taste for big wave surfing.
I thought doing seasonal jobs year in year out doesn’t really get you anywhere career-wise. So I retrained as a plumber, but after a year of doing that I realised I’d rather be skint but able to surf. That’s when I focused on big waves. Ireland was kicking off and there was this realisation going on that actually Europe has massive waves.
Are there more big waves to discover in Europe?
Without a doubt, there are so many waves that I’ve been scoping out for years, it’s just a matter of conditions coming together. When I see wind or swell directions I know pretty much what Nazaré in Portugal will be like. A bit too much northerly in it and you get a big right hander coming down the beach. A tiny bit of westerly and it’s a different place, you know? It’s the same for some of the reefs in Ireland. But that’s one of the reasons why surfing’s so addictive, getting used to understanding all those variables.
It’s funny, when I was growing up the received knowledge was that Europe didn’t have big surf - you had to go to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia for that. But there’s been an awakening that Europe’s insane. Ireland’s off the scale, as good as anywhere on its day. France and Portugal have giant waves and we’ve had so many years of the Americans writing it off because it’s not in the US.
Do you have a favourite big wave?
Mullaghmore in Ireland. It’s so heavy, so hollow, biggest barrells ever. The land angle that you normally see on the videos just don’t do it justice. When it’s massive it’s usually windy and rainy too - conditions that aren’t really favourable to filming from the channel. It’s nuts, the scariest wave and definitely one of the heaviest waves I’ve ever surfed, so raw and shallow.
What’s been your best career moment so far?
There have been so many, I couldn’t pick one. Maybe the best one hasn’t happened yet. I almost took the Billabong XXL [biggest wave award] in 2014. I was gutted to miss that. But I learnt two valuable lessons there. The first was learning just how fickle surfing can be. I might call a wave three foot, someone else says it’s two foot, maybe four foot - how do you measure a wave? It’s so subjective.
When I towed Garrett [McNamara] into his XXL 2012 winner, the wave buoys put the actual size around 3.5m at 18 or 19 seconds, and that was measured around 78ft. The big wave in Nazaré which Garrett towed me into, the buoys were around 6.8m at 20 seconds. It was insane, the whole ocean wave moving. It’s funny how it comes to estimating size and judging where the bottom of a wave is. The subjectivity made me not care so much about the record, it kind of took the pressure off a bit. If the record happens, it happens.
Do you have any specific career goals?
I always wanted to be the best and if you’ve never won a [Billabong] XXL award or you haven’t got a record, you’re just another big wave surfer. The [Billabong] Ride of the Year is almost more appealing to me - that would be another goal over the next five years. You could win that in Ireland at Mullaghmore or one or two other spots.
Career goals are good for motivation but not at the cost of losing sight of why you’re there in the first place - there’s a danger of becoming obsessed.
Overall I want my surfing to progress, I’d love to paddle into bigger waves and just keep enjoying what I’m doing really. I’ve always enjoyed my surfing. If I wake one morning and feel like I have to paddle into the biggest wave of the day, it will turn into something I don’t want it to be.
What’s been your sketchiest moment surfing?
There have been some pretty sketchy moments. I think one stands out - me and my mate went out to sea looking for a wave; perfect conditions blue sky, no wind. Then a fog came when we were out in the ocean, the thickest fog I’ve ever seen. My cell phone stopped working so we had no GPS, we were just drifting trying to find land.
We got lost for an hour then this fishing boat emerged through the mist. We asked them where we were - turns out we were 14 miles south of where we thought we were - so far away. We were pointed in the direction of land and then we just had to follow the coast. It took us two hours, it was so sketchy, it was stupidity on my part, but I’ve grown up a lot since then.
What’s been the biggest hurdle you’ve overcome in your career so far?
I think my knee injuries, but from a psychological perspective. I’ve ruptured my anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee twice. Both times have meant a year out of the water and insane rehabs. You’re there worrying if you’ll be surfing again, let alone big wave surfing. The injuries came when I was still working so that was a difficult time. Now it’s easier as I have sponsors who would help me with rehab.
Also, trying to persuade people you’re a big wave surfer and from England is tricky. When I approach potential sponsors for help, they don’t want Brits, whereas if I said I was from Hawaii they’d probably take me more seriously.
Sometimes surfers don’t get on well in the water. What’s the vibe like between big wave surfers?
Definitely one of camaraderie. You stick together and we want each other to succeed. I’ve made friends all over the world from big wave surfing but I barely know them - there’s just that connection because you’re both trying to conquer the biggest in the world.
We all want to do what we do safely. It’s not like two foot surf where everyone is paddling around each other. No-one’s taking uncalculated risks; they’re not adrenaline junkies, it’s just guys following their passion. On the whole it’s far more sensible than the standard surfing environment.
Do you prefer to be towed into big waves or try to paddle in?
There can be that air of macho-ism about paddling in but I’ll happily do either. Towing in you get so many more waves and learn so much more as a result. Paddling you might be there for three hours and get one wave.
A wave might break for three hours and be really good for two. I’ve seen it happen - there’ll be twenty guys out and three waves surfed. If you’re towing that then every wave would be surfed, everyone’s getting the barrells of their lives.
Is it a step forwards? I don’t know, I just like surfing waves. Having said that, I understand it’s good to know you can paddle. It could be argued that if you’re not prepared to paddle a wave then perhaps you shouldn’t be out there. You just have to know you’ve prepared as much as possible.
You’ve done some motivational speaking. Was it your intention to inspire people through your surfing?
I’ve not really thought about it like that. When I made the headlines a few years ago I had a few messages from people saying that they didn’t realise you could surf in England and that they’d been inspired to try surfing. It made me see the bubble I’m inside really - how small surfing is compared to mainstream sports. That was cool - it surprised me.
I’ve done a few talks, but it’s just me telling my story. I can remember serious conversations with my parents about having to get a career, that surfing wasn’t a viable option. But at the same time, you have to have a dream - if you can achieve that you can achieve anything.
I could have given up on my dream at 25 and been a lot better off financially. It was a massive gamble, but I was pursuing happiness rather than a career. It’s cool to communicate to people to pursue what they’re passionate about, whatever that might be. Wherever your passion lies, follow that course - it gets the best out of you.
What’s scarier; a big wave, speaking in front of a thousand people or speaking to Paxo?
I didn’t even know who Jeremy Paxman was (laughs), or Newsnight for that matter. The speaking thing was my nemesis as I wasn’t the best at school, I mumble a bit and people don’t understand what I’m saying. But I’ve got more into it now and got more confidence. I did a Ted talk and a Poptech talk, you get really good coaching and it made me a lot more confident.
Who has inspired you as you’ve progressed as a surfer?
Definitely people at my local beach. The big wave surfer at Croyde was always Ralf Freeman, the contest surfer was Scott Rannochan. You could see them, speak to them, you want to be like them - better than them in the end.
Moving on, meeting people like Garrett inspires you to push it, push yourself and progress your surfing. He surfs 80ft waves like they’re two foot - that inspires me.