Riding the world's biggest waves
PUBLISHED: 12:09 30 January 2017
Surfer Andrew Cotton tells Liz Parks about his love of riding enormous waves
“I’ll give you my agent’s number,” says North Devon big wave surfer Andrew Cotton. Then he pauses and laughs “I can’t believe I just said that.”
Not only is the down-to-earth surfer chuckling at himself for using such a cliché but he’s also reflecting on how life has changed in the past year or two.
Back then he balanced his passion for surfing huge waves around the world with day jobs as an RNLI lifeguard and a plumber. Now, though, as word of his daring exploits have spread he has gained sponsorship from big names such as Red Bull, Jeep and Tiki as well as more familiar West Country names such as Sharp’s Brewery. With a sideline in motivational speaking and a documentary film called Beneath the Surface under his belt, Cotty’s profile has risen exponentially, hence the agent.
Born in Plymouth, Cotty has spent most of his life in North Devon and he now lives in Braunton with his wife, Katie, and their two children, Honey aged nine and Ace aged four. Katie doesn’t worry about the high risk nature of his chosen sport but she doesn’t like the waves herself - although their two children are both surfing already.
“They enjoy it - they both love the water, it’s great for them,” he said. “Getting outdoors for exercise is good. There are some times when it’s hard to get motivated but there’s always a reason to get outside.”
Starting out in surfing as a child, he later picked up the bug of big wave surfing. This can see surfers riding truly colossal waves of up to 80ft. The sport has a much higher risk of injury than conventional surfing and a wipe out could see surfers dragged under the water for minutes at a time. Cotty has trained himself to hold his breath under water to try and counter this risk – although he has still picked up his fair share of bumps and bruises. He also has a support team who are in the water on jet skis nearby in order to step in and rescue him, if need be.
Although he loves the waves near home at Croyde, Cotty often travels to Ireland and Portugal in search of huge waves up to 80ft high. He is also planning on spending time in Hawaii this winter. It all sounds very cool, but is day-to-day life really like that for Cotty and his family?
“It’s amazing but it’s not as glamourous as it sounds. You have commitments for each sponsor and you do different jobs as part of that. It’s not like you can throw money around on travelling anywhere you want - you have to be careful and you have to budget your time. You’ve got to be sensible. It’s the same but different,” he says.
The nature of big wave surfing means that he can get the call to go and follow the waves at any time. Generally, surfers are given 48 hours’ notice that conditions are right for the biggest waves and they have to drop everything and go. This winter, Cotty is competing in the World Surf League’s Big Wave Tour which brings together elite big wave surfers to ride the largest waves on the planet. For the last few years, he has been trying to break the world record of riding a 78ft wave but, for now, he is trying to put this out of his mind to just focus on riding the waves as they come. So far, he has come close to the record but he has never managed to complete a ride at that height.
“It’s a goal but I’m not getting too hung up about it. I’m trying to have fun doing it. I think it will naturally happen,” he says.
Having spent the last few years travelling the world to find the biggest and best waves, has Cotty ever been tempted to move away from North Devon? The answer is a resounding ‘no’.
“It’s great to live here. I go away a lot and that’s amazing but it’s also amazing to come home - you really appreciate it when you’ve been away.
“I love it when I drive home through Saunton and come along the top road as you come into Croyde and you see Baggy Point. North Devon is pretty amazing - we’re so lucky to live here. That’s why we stay here - because we love it so much.”
What it feels like to surf a big wave
“You have got to want it. You still have to have the technical ability to surf it but it’s not like competition surfing. It’s a rush. I’m not an adrenaline junkie but when you get a really good one it’s like time slows down.
“There’s a lot of preparation that goes into surfing the big waves. It’s something I think about a lot before I get into the water. This means that I don’t get nervous when I get in, I’m thinking about what I need to do.
“The safety side of things you can work on in advance. The safety kit is constantly evolving and I have things like an inflatable vest in case something goes wrong. Your team is also important – you want the best guys around you. That gives you a lot of confidence.
“I have had a few knocks and scrapes to my shoulders and knees but that’s all part of it. It is dangerous but once I’m in the water I don’t think about that sort of thing. I just get on with it.”
Cotty’s North Devon favourites
“Getting out in Devon is amazing - the coastline, the walks, the cycling, everything is just there. I spend most of my time in North Devon and I love it here – it’s just so beautiful. My favourite beach is Croyde. I spend a lot of time there and I learned to surf there when I was a kid so I have a lot of happy memories of it. The kids love Putsborough so we go there quite a bit. If we want to go for a walk, there’s an amazing walk at Lee Bay through the Valley of the Rocks that we love. As for cafes’ I like to go to either Wild Thyme, in Braunton, or Baggy Lodge because there’s a great view of the beach. My favourite pub is probably the King’s Arms at Georgeham.”