Why you should care

Because this young chap is putting a country better known for fog and footy on the surfing map. 

Big wave surfer Andrew Cotton was hesitant about surfing in Nazaré this past February. But then fellow surfer Garrett McNamara called one night from the Portuguese coastal town. “This is the biggest wave I’ve ever seen,” said McNamara, who had just set the world record for the tallest wave ever ridden, also off Nazaré. Cotton’s ankle was still throbbing from when he broke it surfing a few weeks earlier — but the big wave junkie inside him caved. He flew from England to Nazaré the next morning.

The frigid waves rumbled and shook the shore, breaking everywhere at once. Cotton towed McNamara into the swells on a jet ski. A few hours later, the two switched places to allow Cotton to warm up his ankle. McNamara towed him toward a small wave — but it kept growing, refusing to break. “You want this one?” McNamara shouted. “Of course I want it!” he answered. Before he knew it, he was hurtling down its colossal edge at roughly 40 miles per hour.

I love surfing big waves. I’ve got no problems with losing at all.

— Andrew Cotton

Afterward, photographer Bruno Aleixo rushed toward him. “Mate, you got the biggest wave ever!” he said. A week later, Cotton was flooded with phone calls from surf magazines and nightly news programs. He later entered still and video images of his ride into the 2014 Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards — the “Oscars of surfing.” A panel of big wave and photography experts painstakingly analyzed the footage.

Cotton made it into the top five — the only Briton to ever do so —but narrowly missed the number one spot, his wave measuring roughly 60 feet. “I was obviously a little disappointed,” he says. “But it doesn’t really matter. I love surfing big waves. I’ve got no problems with losing at all.” He’s used to it; although he’s becoming a household name in Britain, Cotton has yet to score any international competitions or major sponsorships. Still, the 34-year-old plumber-turned-big-wave surfer and father of two continues to chase the biggest waves in the world: planting the U.K. — cold, rainy and soccer-obsessed — on the surfing map.

Andrew Cotton being interviewed by many journalists while he is in his wetsuit on the beach

Media frenzy around Cotty after surfing what could be the biggest wave ever

“We actually have a very big surf scene here,” Cotton says. The problem is that surfers in the U.K. need to journey far to catch decent-sized waves. “Funds play a big part in whether you go or not,” says British pro surfer and fellow 2014 Billabong XXL nominee Lyndon Wake. “It’s more challenging, but we’re not giving up.” And indeed, Cotton joins Wake, Russell Winter and a handful of other British pro surfers who have emerged on the international stage in the past decade.

He’s actually surfing these big waves and doing progressive maneuvers.

But Cotton isn’t motivated by global recognition. “I just want to be the best I can be. You see people sitting in a local pub and saying, ‘I reckon I’d be pretty good at big waves, but I had a bad knee,’” says Cotton, who’s busted his ACL twice. “The fact is you didn’t. If you really want to do it, you’ve got to get it.”

Ruddy-faced with a shock of shaggy blond hair, Cotton — “Cotty” for short — speaks from his home in Devon in a still-boyish voice. Raised in a sleepy village nearby, he started surfing when he was 7 and began working for a local surfboard factory when he was 16. For the next decade, he spent each winter traveling with his co-workers to Australia, Hawaii and other surfing destinations, where he discovered a knack for riding big waves.

Pro surfers have flown from as far as Hawaii and South Africa to surf along the once-deserted Mullaghmore shore.

Typically, surfers paddle themselves toward breaking waves. But in big wave surfing, one person drives a jet ski and tows the surfer toward waves that measure at least 20 feet high. As the driver overtakes the wave from behind, the surfer releases the tow rope and rides down the front.

Wakes says Cotton’s strength lies in his utter calm, even in the face of a giant swell. “A lot of people tend to just hang on and survive it,” he says. “When you watch him on these big waves, he’s actually surfing them and doing progressive maneuvers.” But he adds that “he could work on his technical ability,” especially on new-school aerial tricks.

But when Cotton turned 25, his parents urged him to find a “real” career. So he completed an apprenticeship program and began earning good money as a plumber — spending more time in the city and zero time surfing. “This is nowhere near where I wanted to be,” he realized.

Cotton and his surfer friends “learned loads” from surfing on a shoestring off Mullaghmore. “We didn’t have a proper tow rope. We had barely any petrol money. We pleaded mates to take photos of us.” Eventually some of those photos landed in local magazines. Surf wear company Analog took notice, agreeing to sponsor Cotton and other British surfers. Since then, pro surfers have flown from as far as Hawaii and South Africa to surf along the once-deserted Mullaghmore shore.

Surfing doesn’t revolve around getting a good sponsor.

But Analog dropped Cotton after it stopped selling surf gear in 2012. Although British wetsuit company Tiki Surf recently began to sponsor him, he still needs to lifeguard and work odd jobs over the summer to fund his winter trips, which remain restricted to Nazaré or Ireland. But summer also means quality time with his wife, a singing instructor, and their two kids, who play the drums and piano. (Cotton, ironically, doesn’t enjoy music. “I don’t even own an iPod,” he laughed.)

Although Cotton has won several local competitions, he has yet to snag any national or international titles. He still dreams of winning the Billabong XXL Biggest Wave category — although he stands a decent chance, having earned a top five spot twice in the past three years.

He hopes his Billabong performance attracts more sponsors and invitations to competitions. But unlike many young surfers, Cotton doesn’t believe getting full-time sponsorship is the only way to surf big waves like a pro. “Surfing doesn’t revolve around getting a good sponsor,” he says. “It’s how you treat your surfing and your goals.”

Traveling all winter can take its toll, though. “I do question sometimes why I’m doing this,” he says. “I’m away from my family, and I’m not actually making any money.”

But the intoxicating rush he experiences seconds after he rides a killer wave keeps him coming back each time. “You’re electrified. You’re on fire. You’re like, ‘Did that actually happen?’ It’s the purest form of adrenaline … and you’re just, like, ‘Whoa.’”

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