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A Single Ride Away

Nic von Rupp finds his big-wave footing.

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Nic von Rupp knew that in order to get recognized as one of the best big-wave surfers on the planet, he would need a bar-raising, if not groundbreaking, performance. He also knew that while big-wave world records are by their definition quantitative—news headlines require a vertical measurement in feet—in the peer-reviewed inner sanctum, it’s quality that reigns supreme. 

“I’m always asking myself, ‘How can it be done better?’” says von Rupp. “It’s not a mantra, it’s just who I am. I knew I’d have to go way above and beyond to get noticed. Coming from slabs to big waves, I really wanted to try and bring something of that under-the-lip positioning over.” 

In late 2018, the opportunity for a career-defining session presented itself at the Maverick’s left. When a weeklong run of swell hit the charts that November, von Rupp found himself billeted with Curt Myers, one of the spot’s longtime filmers. His host had sown the seed earlier that year while in Portugal filming Nazaré, goading von Rupp about the possibilities of backdooring the infamous Half Moon Bay peak from the wrong direction. When von Rupp arrived in California that fall, the pair spent each day’s breakfast studying Myers’ comprehensive film archive of pretty much everything that’s ever occurred at Maverick’s over the last two decades, meticulously breaking down the tactical and technical requirements necessary to make the left happen. 

“I realized that while some great surfers had tried the left before, including Kohl Christensen and Mark Healey,” says von Rupp, “they never quite got the wave they were looking for. It was going to require luck as much as anything else.” 

After several days of disappointments, blown takeoffs, and general drubbings, it appeared as if the latest attempt on the left was to again come up short. But on the very last day of the swell, a straight-west pulse of an extra-long period centered on the peak and just the right collection of talent assembled to meet the challenge. 

After arriving at Maverick’s in 2018 with the sole agenda of backdooring the left, von Rupp put in the hours and found, admittedly, a little luck in breaking new ground. Photograph by Seth de Roulet.

“All of a sudden,” von Rupp says, “a bunch of the goofyfooters converged on the left—including Chumbo [Lucas Chianca], Hotman [Othmane Choufani], Koa Rothman, and Manny Resano. Nathan Florence paddled over as well. Then, for an hour and a half, a magic session unfolded. It was the kind of thing you could never do on your own, but, with the group’s energy, we all elevated each other. I got a bomb, Chumbo and Nathan got a couple of bombs, and when the sun went down and the swell went flat, we all looked at each other like, ‘Holy shit, what just happened?’” 

*

Von Rupp ambles with a jovial gait and an easy smile that belies the seriousness of the kind of surf he earns a living in. There’s little received solemnity to his persona, that kind of sanctimonious affliction the big-wave elite can understandably curate in response to their own mythology. At the same time, when your career is documented in the manner of a reality TV show, an inevitable amount of calculation will manifest itself. Von Rupp will often slip effortlessly into talking almost entirely in sound bites, as if facilitating the editing process by force of habit. It’s a balance of personality contrasts that can be traced back to his upbringing. 

His father, Roman, left postwar Germany on a boat from Hamburg to seek his fortune across the Atlantic, ending up in Los Angeles. There, he found considerable success as a real estate developer and, later, a Hollywood movie producer. Eventually Roman, as well as von Rupp’s Portuguese-Swiss mother, Isabel, and American-born brother, Raphael, settled back in Lisbon, where von Rupp was born in 1990. 

At the time, externally at least, Portugal might have been mainly known for not being Spain. Tourists, often English and German, holidayed at villas and golf courses in the southern Algarve or wine regions in the north, but it was hardly the epicenter of European beach living. To outsiders it seemed a quaint, old-fashioned nation where folks in black trousers and white shirts seemingly fished, farmed, or waited tables through to retirement. Even as the 21st century approached, it wasn’t uncommon to see donkeys pulling farm carts along national routes. 

So while von Rupp has always had the confidence of the well-resourced—a comfortable upbringing in a beautiful house in the picturesque Sintra suburb of Lisbon, the best surf-brand stickers, even a major national airline sponsor as a teen—his path to professional surfing as a kid from a sleepy European country has been hard won. And in an activity where the chaotic outcomes of cyclogenesis, turbulence, wave refractions, and sediment dynamics bring freak moments of reward, so, too, do the moments that set surf careers on their path. 

With boards packed and about to head to the Lisbon airport for the Volcom Pipe Pro in 2012 as just another of many young WQS hopefuls, a call from a team manager about a swell in Ireland—coupled with his own gut instinct—convinced von Rupp to swap Honolulu for Dublin. The next day, he was wiping a dusting of snow off the jet ski, readying for his first-ever tow session at 20-foot Mullaghmore with local charger Barry Mottershead. 

“Back then, it was all about the slabs for me,” von Rupp says. “Ten-foot, nothing more. I didn’t want anything to do with Mullaghmore. I’d never even towed before. I’d never really seen anything like it.” 

But after he successfully notched a couple of bombs, von Rupp was ready to go it with no rope when the next day revealed flawless, 12-foot surf at the Irish reef. A life-changing session ensued. 

“Tom Lowe, Fergal Smith, Kohl Christensen, and Eric Rebiere were out there on big boards, 7’6″ or so,” says von Rupp. “And all I had was a 6’4″ quad. But I found I could actually knife in under the lip, and I ended up getting two or three crazy waves. That one session changed everything for me.” 

The ensuing video clip went around the world, not only facilitating a tube-edit career path, but also garnering serious respect. The next time von Rupp was in Hawaii for a swell, Pipe stalwarts like Flynn Novak were giving him props off the back of that single session. Doors suddenly started opening, mostly as invites to swerve 2-foot onshore beachbreaks at qualifying events for swells of the season at places like Kandui. Through the Internet’s democratization of opportunity, von Rupp’s aspiration became his reputation. And as WAM models pulsed purple and black blobs, a global network of willing collaborators opened up and a sense of identity quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

*

If ever a nation could set an example of reflowering after a heavy economic pruning, it’s Portugal. A decade ago, it was suffering from recession, national debt, and a burst property bubble alongside much of southern Europe. Today, it’s powered up to become one of the most desirable places to live in the world. 

Surf-wise, Portugal plays host to professional events of every discipline, and it gladly relieved France of the mantle of Europe’s surfing capital some time ago. It’s embraced modernity and internationalism while retaining its own potent charms. Expats and nomads continue to buy up Lisbon lofts and rural permaculture idylls. Blessed with good weather, and as one of the world’s only major capital cities with proper surf, it’s oozing with self-confidence. While the global surf industry has continued to self-harm, stumble, and wither, surfing itself has never been so popular, and Portugal has been open to embracing the “surfing experiences” boom. 

And yet for all the throngs of Ukranians, Slovaks, or Norwegians lugging surf-school foamies back to base for craft beer and organic street food, it’s the world-class waves that endure. From slabs to points, hollow beachbreaks to the biggest waves ever seen, for a surfer looking for variety, Portugal has it all. And for all von Rupp’s far-flung travels and countless intercontinental goose chases, for all the distant proving grounds, it was fitting—in a surf nation on the rise, no less—that the soon-to-be most famous big wave in the world was right under his nose all along.

While the surf world’s current collective opinion of Nazaré might not be overtly divided, its legend is still asterisked for some, its praise mealy-mouthed and begrudging. What is undeniable are the vital statistics. The consistency is off any known scale of reference: In wintertime, a 25-foot swell per week isn’t out of the ordinary. Then there’s the sheer size, and the certainty of getting caught inside after a ride. Whether increments of fear are the preferred metric of measurement, or feet and inches, Nazaré’s numbers don’t lie.

“Carlos Burle once explained it to me like this,” von Rupp reflects with an animated candor. “The established order wants a US-centric big-wave world. They don’t want the focus to be on the other side of the planet. They want it to be all about Jaws and Maverick’s. But Nazaré just refused to go away, and eventually they all came, everybody. The Hawaiians came over. [Grant] Twiggy [Baker], Greg Long, and all the very best guys on the planet came, and it ended up being totally validated. Nazaré is the best big-wave spot in the world.” 

When the 2010s saw paddle surfing come back as the leading edge, Nazaré began to gain respect and momentum within the big-wave community, not just from a mainstream audience. Towing suddenly seemed dated, and the jeopardy of pin-dropping heroically from the tops of pitching waves became the goal, not s-turning in from 300 yards outside with straps. The infamous “unridden realm,” a time-honored big-wave rhetoric, seemingly had an answer. How to straddle that unbridgeable gap? Airdrop down it. 

While Jaws and Maverick’s in the northern hemisphere, and Puerto Escondido in the southern hemisphere, set episodic benchmarks, Nazaré was the wave that was drenched in almost unlimited opportunities when it came to paddling. Its unique bathymetry, which renders everyday 6- to 8-foot groundswells into 25-foot-plus cartoon A-frames, results in an embarrassment of big-wave riches that requires no asterisk at all.

In late 2015, Tom Lowe was staying at von Rupp’s house when Nazaré perfection beckoned. While von Rupp’s star had continued to rise through tube riding big slabs, XXL-style surf was, as of then, another dimension altogether. 

“The established order wants a US-centric big-wave world. But Nazaré just refused to go away.”

“Jamie Mitchell, João de Macedo, Tom Butler, Garrett McNamara, Alex Botelho, and all the other big dogs were out,” says von Rupp. “People would’ve been towing a few seasons earlier, but the game had totally changed. It was a massive, perfect day. Flawless at 30 to 50 feet. I sat on the ski with Alex Marciano, and he was like, ‘Hey, Nic, you can get off the ski; I’ll stay close.’ I was like, ‘There’s no fucking way I’m getting off the ski.’ Three hours later, I finally got off. I caught one wave.” 

Determined to step up—and able to call the ultimate proving ground to do so home—von Rupp quickly identified his shortcomings to be more technical than simple bravado. 

“Straight away, I knew I had a lot to learn. At that time, what was going down at Nazaré was the gnarliest shit that had ever been done. But on those 10- or 11-foot boards, you need a really wide stance. You can’t stand in the middle like you’re charging a slab. I had to learn that from scratch by watching Lowe and João, how they control the board with one foot on the tail and one up the nose. It’s taken me five years to learn the whole game.”

*

On the day following the Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge in February 2020, with the swell just as big as during the event, von Rupp turns his attention to a slab at an undisclosed location nearer his home, just another of Portugal’s seemingly endless world-class waves. He, Russell Bierke, Tom Lowe, and Frederico Morais are swapping tubes with local bodyboarders. The surf is hissing 10-foot caverns.

Von Rupp is shooting for his web series, “Von Froth,” shot in today’s vlog-renaissance style. It seems even the Internet is old enough to be nostalgic. Vimeo’s moody raindrop lapses in black and white have been replaced with YouTube’s car-park banter. Von Rupp is, of course, moving with the times. Having garnered critical acclaim for his “My Road” series and his Rail Road film, both made in the traditional production method of curating quality clips and sitting on them to make longer films, “Von Froth” delivers content much more quickly, with between-swell turnarounds.

The Atlantic will soon simmer into an early spring and be becalmed in terms of XXL fare, and von Rupp will rest and recuperate before resetting his goals. When the ocean fires up come fall, the specter of Nazaré will again loom large, and there’ll be no shortage of willing challengers hoping to make history in the most dangerous lineup of them all.

“No one paddled Nazaré much this year because they were so focused on the tow comp, which is a pity,” von Rupp says. “What went down in the few seasons previous was the absolute pinnacle, and it’s a shame that movement has faded. But we’ll see what happens in the future.” 

While the country’s biggest surf heroes are yet to threaten the dominance of soccer stars in Portuguese popular culture, surfing has nevertheless more than cut through. Nazaré is one of its most iconic tourist attractions, and the symbolism of the big-wave surfer vying for the ultimate ride is particularly relevant in a nation that has long looked west and out to sea to tell its fortunes. There’s something visceral about the big-wave paradox that resonates in Portugal, getting within a whisker of tragedy and emerging on a razor’s edge of skill and fate. 

Confident between beast and boil near home. Photograph by Seth de Roulet.

European surfing now has a cast of torchbearers who’ve flown the flag on the WCT, gone out into the world, and come back with admirable and plucky equal 9ths. But von Rupp, who’s always had a strong sense of his own value, has his sights set on something more symbolic and more enduring, just like a huge triangle of dark Nazaré water. 

“Big-wave surfers tend to come and go,” he reflects. “They make a statement, but then it’s hard to keep up. It’s harsh on your mind and body, that constant near-death, survival-of-the-fittest mentality. But I don’t want to be a flash in the pan—someone who did well, then disappeared. I plan to stick around.” 

And he knows that immortality is but a single ride away.