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Born to Dare: TUDOR And The World Surf League’s Tow Surfing Challenge 2022

Born to Dare: TUDOR And The World Surf League’s Tow Surfing Challenge 2022


Full disclosure – prior to being invited to the World Surf League’s Tow Surfing Competition in Nazaré, central Portugal, I knew nothing about surfing. Coming from the orange brick suburbs of North London, I’d never really watched surfing out at sea, let alone done it. I certainly hadn’t even heard of tow surfing, which I was to experience first-hand over the next two days. But when Swiss horology house TUDOR call you up and offer to take you on a once-in-a-lifetime experience the very next day, in the land of pastel de natas, sun, and some of the highest waves in the world, you don’t refuse.

The violent coast of Nazaré
Photo by Serhii Stets

Tow surfing in Nazaré – what’s the deal?

The World Surf League’s Tow Surfing Challenge competition in Nazaré is all about timing. Its competitors, surfers from across the world, are given a mere 72-hour notice prior to the event taking place. This is because a ‘green alert’ is required; between the months of October and March, waves measuring up to 30 meters hit the coast of Praia do Norte. During this year’s competition, they reach around 12 meters, and are spurred by a violent storm with hurricane-force winds between Greenland and Iceland. The cause of this exceptional phenomenon lies in the canyon below the waves. At 5,000 metres deep, the Nazaré Canyon is triple the depth of the Grand Canyon and stretches over 140 miles. It’s invisible to the human eye, reaching out into the earth deep below the waves.

The waves have been recorded reaching up to 30 meters

Once the conditions are just right, the green alert is given – then it’s go time. Journalists, surfers, and spectators alike from far and wide scramble to reach Portugal. Alongside myself, the German press includes two other journalists. Two of us have absolutely no idea what is in store for us.

Life at TUDOR base camp

Prior to heading to the competition, we make our way to TUDOR’s base, driving in a dimmed black van through a cryptic-looking shipyard with abandoned-looking boats. Driving along through the shipyard, these battered old skeleton ships disappear, making way for new, carefully painted yachts.

The unassuming port of Nazaré

Turning a corner, we are greeted by the sight of a light and airy warehouse, where two great ‘TUDOR’ banners flank the entrance. It is here that the surfers can come to prepare, relax, and meet with others. At the end of the competition, those who make it through the event unscathed will return here, with the winners being awarded a TUDOR watch.

Surfer Francisco Spínola, General Manager of the World Surf League for Europe, Middle-East, and Africa, gives a speech.

The TUDOR team at the warehouse pass round athletic-looking black waterproof jackets, with the words ‘TUDOR NAZARE TOW SURFING CHALLENGE 2022’ printed on the back. The reason for giving us these jackets isn’t just a welcome gift. TUDOR is taking us out to the sea so that we might fathom the scale of the waves for ourselves. I’m mildly nervous, sensing the magnitude of what these surfers are doing today – the stress they must be feeling, the danger they are putting themselves in. However, as we head down, my anxiety ebbs away. The awaiting surfers don’t look nervous, they look animated, excited, and greet us jovially. Andrew Cotton, a fellow Englishman, gives us a winning smile. They are in excellent spirits, despite today being the day that they face the most important event of the year, not to mention the largest waves. I poignantly realise that the reason for this is that their profession is doing the thing they love most in the world.

The cheerful Andrew Cotton of Great Britain

Braving the waves

Heading out on the boat, you’d never guess what lies around the corner. The water laps gently against the jagged grey cement shapes lying along the shoreline, and cheerful surfers speed past with a wave on the jet skis.

The jagged but serene shoreline of Nazaré

Leaving the docks behind us, things soon change. Our boat’s engine roars as the pace increases; it starts to lurch and heave. The waves that rise up ahead of us are several storeys high. Some people on the boat start to retch, while others cling onto the sides of the boat for dear life, squealing with a mixture of pleasure and panic.

Dramatic waves greet us out at sea

The boat rides up a wave, peaks, the plunges through the air and back down to level water. Then the next wave comes, and so it goes on, pitching and rolling until we finally sway our way back to shore. While it might sound horrifying, the journey out at sea is energizing, exhilarating, and downright fun. ‘That was one of the most exciting experiences of my whole life’, says a fellow writer breathlessly.

Entering the surfing world

Now, though, it is time to dry off and join the crowds of spectators up above. While you might expect many to survey the event from the beach, nature offers a better option, meaning the golden stretch of sand is fairly deserted. Towering above the gigantic waves themselves, an imposing cliff, home to the ancient Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo and a tiny red lighthouse, provides a view to onlookers. The dusty road down to the fortress is dotted with artisanal food trucks and stands. Many of the bystanders have the typical ‘surfer-dude’ look; sun-bleached hair, dreadlocks, weathered skin. Some sit on another’s shoulders for a better view, while others perched on the hill beat on a djembe drum dedicatedly brought from home. The surfing world seems to consist of a relaxed, alternative, and amicable crowd.

A good atmosphere amongst the onlookers

Tow surfing: a life-or-death occupation

Despite the upbeat atmosphere pulsing through these free-spirited spectators, what’s going on upon the waves below is serious. Paramedics watch from above like hawks, and a line of ambulances wait for action. The waves have been known to do serious damage. We meet the slight and nimble Sèrgio Cosme, who is surprisingly tranquil and cheerful given that he has perhaps the most stressful of all jobs in Nazaré. Nicknamed the ‘Guardian Angel of Nazaré’, the genial Cosme’s job is to collect surfers before several feet of crushing waves come down on them, with a maximum of 15 seconds to reach them on his jet ski.

Hero behind the scenes; Sèrgio Cosme, the town’s ‘Guardian Angel’

Teamwork is dreamwork

I also catch sight of teammates Rafael Tapia and Jamie Mitchell. In tow surfing, teamwork is vital – in fact, it’s a matter of life and death. While one tackles the daunting waves with a surfboard, the partner stays close by after dropping them on a jet ski. It is easy to tell that they are teammates, even before they squeeze into their yellow vests, proudly bearing the bold black TUDOR logo over their heavily padded wetsuits, which leave competitors resembling the Hunchback of Notre Dame. When Tapia enters and sees Mitchell, his face lights up and he shouts his partner’s name enthusiastically, slapping him affectionately across the back. With their moment out on the waves now imminent, they sit and talked together conspiratorially. Later, however, they’d be facing trouble, with Mitchell facing a violent wipe-out, injuring his back and ending up in hospital.

The sheer scale of the waves can prove fatal

A tight-knit community

Throughout the event, it is interesting to see how the mayor of Nazaré, Walter Chicharro, plays a central role. While in my homeland of England the mayor is surrounded by a sense of pomp and circumstance, Chicharro appears to be pretty close with the competition’s participants. A member of the Portuguese Socialist Party and coming from a long line of fishermen, he’s a local who knows the waves well. Moving through the TUDOR base camp, he embraces the athletes with a friendly pat on the back, a heartfelt hug, and they fall into deep conversation. The Nazaré surfing community seems small and intimate. You quickly learn who is a part of the close-knit surfing family, with each member playing an important and respected role.

The Mayor of Nazaré speaks with Cosme, the town’s ‘Guardian Angel’

TUDOR’s Nic von Rupp

When it comes to TUDOR, though, there’s only one man of the hour, Nic von Rupp. Despite his slight build and modest persona, von Rupp stands out from the crowd. His face looks, as I described to a colleague, like it’s ‘lived’. His skin is tanned from endless days of Portuguese sun, while his tousled streaked hair is the kind of blonde you obtain from living out at the beach. Von Rupp has been a friend of the brand since last year and you can see why – if anyone is ‘Born to Dare’, as the watch manufacture’s slogan goes, it’s him. Born in Lisbon and raised in the beautiful nearby municipality of Sintra, von Rupp is son to a German father and Swiss mother, and the holder of an enviable four passports.

High adrenaline: Nic von Rupp

With my limited surfing knowledge, I cautiously opt to ask von Rupp about teamwork. After all, he and the legendary Lucas Chiana ‘Chumbo’ have just been honoured with the ‘Best Team Performance’ award. ‘The secret to good teamwork is communication, for sure,’ he informs me with conviction. ‘Also harmony and will power. In sports, there are a lot of similarities to business. Leadership, and being able to understand what your teammate needs, and how to communicate with them – that is really important. Surfing big waves involves a lot of team effort.’

Lucas Chiana ‘Chumbo’ and Nic von Rupp

He’s right; in tow surfing, team members don’t just rely on each other. It’s more a matter of life or death, with the teammate on the jet ski (alongside Cosme) quite literally responsible for keeping his partner alive should a large wave hit, and the surfer disappear beneath the waves. Even von Rupp’s own parents find it a lot to handle; he tells me how they try to stay away from the contests. ‘It’s just that you hear the news coming from the competitions all the time, and you just don’t want to be the mother of someone that’s risking their life. My parents come up once in a while, but they’re always happy once I’m home.’

Not all fun and games; ambulance crew watch the competition from above

A profession of passion

I tell him of my surprise upon seeing the surfers looking so happy throughout the competition, without a flicker of fear in their windswept countenances. ‘What we do is amazing; we do what we love. But there’s also a big fear factor, because it is a dangerous sport and things do happen. But it is what it is; we are taking a calculated risk that we are willing to play with. We also train very hard and have done so for years, mentally and physically. It’s the life we chose.’

Nic von Rupp heads out to sea

I tell him I have heard that tow surfing feels like a thousand bricks falling down on you. ‘It does feel like that’, he confirms. ‘The water comes down on you and is pushing you down into the deepest, darkest corners of the ocean. It’s pretty scary down there; powerful, brutal… Being in a boxing ring or an avalanche is the closest comparison. It’s quite violent.’

Why partner with TUDOR?

Given what I’m hearing, I am wondering what role a watch can possibly play out at sea. Why does von Rupp wear his TUDOR out surfing? Can it even prove helpful? ‘It is helpful, 100 percent,’ is his reply. ‘Surfing is all about the right place and the right time, in terms of being in the water at the right pace, in the right place, with the right waves. You have to keep an eye on your watch to know exactly when the biggest wave is forecast to hit. Having a watch on the wrist is extremely important, because we rely on the notion of time.’

Swisswatches’ Editor Catherine Bishop with Nic von Rupp, who wears his black TUDOR Pelagos watch

The power of the TUDOR Pelagos

Von Rupp wears a black Pelagos, which, he tells me, is his favourite watch. After winning that day, him and his tow partner ‘Chumbo’ are to be awarded another black Pelagos, the Ref. M25600TN-0001 with a rubber strap. The Pelagos watches are known for their sturdiness, and this one is no exception. Ideal for a watch spending so much time in the salty waves, its case is made of titanium and steel, with a matching titanium crown – making it both resistant to corrosion and light on the wrist. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s water-resistant to an impressive 500 m. Powering it is the calibre MT5612, a COSC-certified, in-house movement with a solid 70-hour power reserve. ‘Having a TUDOR on the wrist is a special notion,’ adds von Rupp. ‘It’s that combination of athleticism and elegance within one watch. It really feels like a statement. When I put it into the water, it has this really nice sort of reflex.’

The winners receive their Pelagos watches and awards

With the many excellent watch brands out there in Switzerland, I wonder why TUDOR appealed to him to represent. ‘I chose TUDOR to work with because I grew up with a Swiss background – a lot of my family is based in Geneva, so it’s a part of my DNA in a way. When I was a kid, I remember not only always staring at the lake in Geneva, but also remember constantly seeing the Rolex and TUDOR advertisements. It’s really what I was used to seeing. Also, TUDOR is a big statement in itself as we see certain sports grow, and I believe I somehow embody the #BornToDare spirit through my career and approach to the sport of surfing.’

TUDOR Pelagos Ref. M25600TN-0001 with a rubber strap

TUDOR and Nazaré: The Verdict

With the competition drawing to a close, I am reluctant to head back to the freezing streets of Munich where I reside, so I decide to round off the experience with a trip to Lisbon given that I’ve never been. It’s strange being by such a different seafront; same ocean, different waves. In Lisbon, the water that separates the two halves of mainland is the final destination of the Tagus, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula. Sailing boats glide serenely along the shores, while colossal container ships puffing black smoke chug down the middle. You’d never guess the ferocity of the waves crashing a mere one hour drive up the coast. Admiring the sunset over the Ponte 25 de Abril, with the Santuário de Cristo Rei serenely looking down its people from above, I ponder what the TUDOR experience at Nazaré taught me.

The River Tagus (Tajo) from above – Lisbon, Portugal

Inspiration is key

TUDOR’s marketing slogan is ‘Born to Dare’. Accordingly, the company’s representatives include people who will go down in history: David Beckham, Lady Gaga, the All Blacks. What I learn with the tow surfing crowd though, is that daring is living. While I return to my everyday life back in Munich, tranquilly writing my article in my favourite local coffee shop – Lost Weekend, if you happen to pass through the city – and squinting at the glare of the screen, the surfers are out there not just daring, but well and truly experiencing life on the absolute edge. While we might not all be cut out – let alone have the talent – for it, the thing that both the competition and TUDOR’s philosophy reminds us to do is to head outside and get out of our comfort zones. In my opinion, you don’t have to be ‘Born to Dare’ – but you sure can be inspired to.