From Sponsorship Hunting to Chasing the World's Biggest Waves: Andrew Cotton Tells All

Big-wave charger Andrew Cotton was in London recently to unleash his newest film Behind The Lines. After the film the Red Bull and Saltrock team rider conducted a Q&A session, giving the audience deeper insight into a life spent jousting with giants.

Q) Was it difficult to get funding for Behind The Lines?

AC: It was strange. You have to remember that the people we pitch these ideas to really don’t know about or understand big-wave surfing. So when we first spoke to various channels it was like, “Yeah I’m gonna surf this massive wave and we’re going to film it.” They usually reply, “Yeah that’s a great idea. When’s it going to happen?” And I say, “Not sure, really. Actually, it might not happen.” Why would you invest in that idea?

But we got lucky. We got crazy waves in Nazaré, which got beamed everywhere. The first BTL series ended up getting around two million combined views, which was pretty sick. Epic TV were loving us, and it was looking like they were going to reinvest. Then about this time last year we had our funding pulled, which was disastrous. One of my mates suggested crowdfunding. I didn’t really know anything about it, but we set it up basically saying I was going to surf the biggest wave and represent the UK and document the journey. In the end, about 250 people supported it and it raised around £11,000 (16644 USD), which paid for me and Mikey (Corker) to do seven trips, fully filmed and documented.

Then Red Bull gave me a call saying they wanted to support me, which I really appreciate. It was my first big sponsor and I couldn’t believe things were coming together.

We came out of the winter with all this crazy footage, but we had to decide how to put it out there. Red Bull matched the crowdfunding total and paid for the production, giving Mikey time to do all the edits, and Behind The Lines is the result. I just want to say thanks to Red Bull for coming on board and supporting us, enabling us to do projects like this.

Where is your comfort zone as a big-wave surfer?

I don’t know really. Big-wave surfing is obviously about pushing yourself, so you have to surf big waves a lot, and that’s hard to do. When I was starting I was spending long winters in Ireland, waiting for one day, maybe one hour within that day. All winter you might surf just two big waves. So it’s hard to extend your comfort zone, you know?

It takes so much time to chase big waves. But whether it’s two, twenty, or sixty-foot, if you enjoy pushing yourself, it’s amazing how quickly the bar rises. Obviously there’s a difference between going hard and complete stupidity, but I like finding that balance. I don’t feel I’ve reached my comfort zone yet, so that’s quite exciting.

Can you give a rough assessment of how big the waves you surf are?

I honestly don’t know, but I guess that’s the classic problem with wave heights. As a kid, I’d tell all my mates I was surfing three- foot, and they’re like, “Nah, it’s two-foot.” Matey-boy says it’s five-foot and it becomes a case of how long’s a piece of string. The first time I surfed Nazaré it was super-size, and I remember being so, so scared. Garrett’s shouting to me, “This one, this one!” And I’m there going, “Really?” looking at the wave that’s kinda choppy, and it’s hard to drive the ski. He really wants this one? There’s so much water, the waves are just mountains moving, and unlike slabs you have in Ireland, there’s no defined bottom.

But that makes it even gnarlier when you fall at Mullaghmore. You get pounded and then in a few seconds you’re into a channel—a few seconds of horror and then it’s pretty much okay. At Nazaré, you fall and that’s the start of a massive load of unknown scenarios—Garrett could lose the ski; are you going to get picked up? The whole thing’s pretty scary. The waves are giant, but I honestly can’t put sizes to them. Personally, I feel I’ve seen 100-foot waves there, easy, but they seem to get measured at half of that.

A lot of the time the wave seems to be outrunning you. How are boards adapting to cope with that?

In terms of surfboards, we’re pushing the unknown, really—trying to work out what’s best. It has been suggested that Nazaré is the dream hydrofoil wave. Maybe you could surf the perfect 100-foot wave on a hydrofoil. Laird has shown interest in coming over and trying some of his stuff out. Maybe you physically cannot surf a 100-foot wave without getting mowed down. You want to surf deep, but you want to make it. Go too far out on the shoulder and everyone’s saying you’re not surfing the wave properly. It’s a really fine line. I found that on every giant wave out there, especially the ones out the back, you just can’t go fast enough.

Garrett’s been working on different sorts of boards, fins, and weights. We’ve found that weight is the biggest element, as though you could be surfing an ironing board it wouldn’t matter. So long as it’s got enough weight to get down there fast enough and not take off. On one of Keallii’s waves, he hits the chop then doesn’t reconnect until he’s like five or six feet further down the wave. He’s just flying! The chop is massive. It’s almost a different sport to surfing. It’s just nuts.

What has been your most terrifying moment?

There have been a few, really. When we first went to Nazaré, before Garrett got the world record down there, I was driving the safety ski and wasn’t really involved in the action. Garrett towed Al into a wave and then Al kicked out, so Garrett went in to make the rescue. But then they both got caught and were absolutely pounded. The ski got sucked up the beach, leaving them swirling in the impact zone.

We’ve all got radios, so I heard the ski had gone down and I had to pick up them both up. I picked up Garrett and took him to the beach, then I took Al to the beach. Then it was just me at Nazaré by myself —the only ski out there. I still had to get outback and it was about 40-foot. So I was picking my way through then I got punched by this wave. It was so heavy it just blew me clean off the ski. The ski went through the wave and I just wasn’t on it. I’m like, “This is it. No one’s out here to rescue me.”

If you do any jet-ski training, I recommend you always wear your kill cord. But luckily I wasn’t wearing mine. The ski kept running so I mach-10’d it, swimming towards the ski, which was just pootling around. Then, as another wave came in and caught the ski, I dived down and reached out and somehow grabbed the sled. I pulled myself up then Rambo’d it up the ski while it’s still going. I turned the throttle and managed to sneak over the next wave. Someone must have been looking down on me because it was the jammiest thing ever.

How do you decide who has priority in big waves at Nazaré?

The great thing about big-wave surfing in Europe is that it’s still in its infancy, and so few people want to do it. I’ve surfed Nazaré with Garret for the past five years. For the first three and a half years we didn’t surf with anyone else. Then this winter (2014/15) there were a few more teams. When I’m on the ski you just have to know whose wave it is. There’s no written law and some people might push it a little bit, but that’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it?

Is the Nazaré the biggest wave in the world?

I think so, but the exciting thing is you just don’t know what’s out there. There are so many spots out in the ocean. In Ireland, there are waves that I’ve surfed once in the last seven years, and they haven’t appeared since. They all have potential to get big, but I think Ireland’s one of the most consistently big places. You can just rock up and watch huge waves ploughing into the headlands. If you get a chance, I’d recommend going there because it’s nuts to watch.

What does it feel like to get hit by a big wave?

I don’t really know. I think you’ve got to not be present in those situations in order to survive them. If you think about them and you’re there worrying and stressing, your oxygen will go and you just can’t fight that. You’ve got to be somewhere else, which is quite easy for me. Sure, you get smashed, your body goes left, right, and centre, but I’m not even thinking about that. I trust myself and I trust the guys I surf with. The one thing I can tell you is that the morning after, it hurts. You wake up and you’re like, “What was I doing yesterday?”

What’s the longest you’ve been held under for?

Everyone expects it to be 30 seconds. Maybe a minute. The longest I’ve been held under is 17 seconds. The average is around ten seconds, I think. But try doing that after you’ve sprinted. Holding your breath for 17 seconds is quite tough, even if it’s not very long. The training I’ve done enables me to hold my breath for around five minutes, so the confidence that gives you to take those sorts of wipeouts is pretty significant.

When you know you’re not going to make it on a wave, do you bail or just hang in there?

Generally, I’ll try to ride most waves out until the end, and that’s far better than bailing. Sometimes it boils down to instinct, though. If I’m going into a section and I think it’s gonna close out or go nowhere, you just jump. Every time it’s completely different, but generally I try to ride everything out.

How important was it to put the safety message into Behind The Lines?

The film isn’t about one guy going down a wave. That doesn’t really say anything. Obviously, I can’t do that by myself, even if I were paddling in I’d need a safety crew with me. By today’s standards, a 20-foot wave isn’t big. Maybe five or six years ago it was, but now it’s pretty small. That’s the trouble—it’s getting pushed so hard and fast because the safety is improving so much. We’ve got buoyancy vests and the boards are getting better. We’re just trying to explain that and give everyone all the information regarding what goes into the process. If you open up a magazine and see one guy going down a huge wave, you can say it’s irresponsible. It’s important everyone has all the information.

There’s a big-wave tour. Are you going to be involved in that?

Yeah, there’s the big-wave tour run by the WSL, but there’s a big list to get on it, and there’s only one stop in Europe, which is the stage that I’ve been doing for a long time. When the WSL took the tour over, they only had four wild cards. Obviously I’m British and the comp’s in Spain, so I wasn’t classed as a local wild card. Also, there are so many good guys out there surfing big waves, so it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time and crossing my fingers.

Saltrock are one of your sponsors. How did this come about and was there a natural affinity with the brand because of your North Devon roots and family life there?

Saltrock has always supported grassroots surfing. They sponsored some of my favorite local surfers growing up, and Ross Thompson was one of the best in the lineup at that time and probably still is. I even managed their first flagship store in Croyde when it opened. It’s a very local family orientated business and our partnership was a really natural fit. I’m stoked to be an ambassador and part of the Saltrock family again

How is Britain perceived on the global big-wave surf scene?

We’ve got good representation in big waves, for sure. I don’t think we’re going to get any Brits in the big-wave tour anytime soon because you have to put so much time in at the competition locations. You have to spend a lot of time in Chile, Peru, and Hawaii, for example. And I just haven’t got the time to do that. We do have Tom Lowe, Tom Butler, and Taz coming through the ranks. There’s a good number of British guys among Europe’s best big-wave surfers at the moment. This is because Ireland’s so close, and the UK boys are so focused and determined to prove themselves. You’ve got to go that extra mile. You’ve got to really want it.

Interview provided courtesy of Saltrock.