“It was a huge storm—we haven’t had one like it since I don’t think. A few friends and I had rented a house in Ireland so we could chase big swells. We’d been there for three months at this point, but the winter had been terrible and most of them had decided to travel back to England. I chose to stay. It was the month before my son, Ace, was born, and everything was about to change…
“That morning the swell was so big and scary that I didn’t know if I wanted it. I towed first. When I let go of the rope and started riding down that dark mass of a wave, I suddenly went into a flow state—I’d surfed the wave in my head a thousand times already. Everything was so quick, but at the same time so slow,” says Andrew, a world-renowned big wave surfer.
“I went to school in Barnstaple and even though it was relatively close to the beach there weren’t many surfers. I wasn’t particularly good at team sports, but I played it all; just not very well. I had two or three friends that surfed, and I was in several clubs: swimming, surf lifesaving and water polo—as a child I had quite severe asthma and the doctors had recommended that my parents get me swimming. I was also a member of the Croyde Surf Club and that’s how I started competing. So, while most of my mates at school were into football and rugby, I enjoyed other things.
“The first time my dad took me to Saunton Sands he rented a board and a wetsuit for me from a shack, and sat in the car reading his paper as I paddled around in the sea. It’s funny, now having kids myself I would be petrified to do that,” says Andrew, both his mouth and eyes laughing.
“When I left school I was a bit disheartened. My friends went to college and I started an apprenticeship at Gulf Stream, a local surfboard company. I knew that my strengths in surfing weren’t small waves, but a big wave career wasn’t an option back then. I wanted to be a professional, but I knew that my small wave ability just wasn’t good enough.
“I was working as a lifeguard and doing a bit of part-time plumbing when I met Ace’s mother. I had started chasing swells in Europe and when we had Ace in 2012 I thought, it is now or never. I was never going to shy away from being the provider, but I knew I didn’t want to be a 60-year-old, down at the pub, talking about what I could have done.
“The night after I caught that wave in Ireland, the footage of the ride started to blow up a little in the surf media—it also happened to coincide with the deadline for wave submissions for the XXL Big Wave Awards. Then the next day there was a media frenzy and I got nominated,” says Andrew serenely.
“With all that and with Ace being born, I was on a bit of a high. It was scary, but it also felt amazing.
“Not long after, the company that had been sponsoring me, pulled out of surfing altogether and myself, and everyone else connected to the sport, were suddenly out of a job. I had thought that one day I might work for them full time… that was a big blow. They didn’t pay me a big deal of money, but any money was something.”
“I spent a couple of years without a sponsor lifeguarding and plumbing, and then in the winter of 2014 a friend and I created a filming project called Behind the Lines. The idea was to follow my hunt for the biggest waves. We pitched it to a few companies and then finally got a ‘Yes,’ and it got bought. That enabled me to surf that winter and my mate filmed the whole thing.
“It went nuts! People loved the episodes and I caught a giant wave at Nazaré, Portugal, while we were filming and releasing edits and not only did the wave get into the mainstream media, but our episode about it had an unbelievable amount of views.
“I still didn’t have a sponsor though, but I had been speaking to Red Bull for years and they had been helping me out; they lent me a jet ski, they helped me with some flights and gave me petrol money, but I wasn’t a sponsored Red Bull athlete. The chat was, ‘You’re kind of old,’ (I was 34 at the time), and the idea seemed to be that I was almost at the end of my career, but I told them, ‘No, no this is the beginning of my career.’”
Andrew’s 2014 wave at Nazaré, Portugal, was considered one of the biggest waves ever ridden.
“After I got that wave at Nazaré, Red Bull called me and said, ‘We have a contract on the table if you want to look at it.’ My response was ‘Fuck yeah!’
“Now, I was paid to train and surf, but it’s like any job… you have to pull your weight and give them something in return; and although I have always put 100% effort into everything, now I had something to lose. I didn’t know it yet, but commitment was going to become more important than ever.
“When in 2017 I let go of the rope on a wave at Nazaré again, I thought, this is the one. That day I had seen a couple of crazy lefts that cornered, held up and were open. As I rode down the wave I thought, shit if I’m going to get a 50ft barrel, I have to lose speed—you’re going 70km/h. Then I went too low and the wave changed shape, crashed on me and broke my back.”
The news of Andrew’s injury travelled the world.
“I had to rebuild my body. I did physio pretty much every day and I had to learn to enjoy different things and to disconnect. We all want to be running and jumping and surfing, and doing things that we love; and we don’t want to be doing trans abs knee raises for hours every day. That’s not fun, but you have to learn to enjoy that. I had no doubt in my mind that I was going to recover and surf again at my full ability, but people questioned if I was ever going to surf.
“Sometimes you go down that road and you forget why you started, and my back injury, and later on my knee injury, were great opportunities. I learnt about my body, about training, and they made me reconsider why I surfed.
Alongside his big wave pursuits, Andrew now runs a program focused on teaching surf fitness.
“When my back was almost fully recovered, I took my foamie down to Saunton Sands and caught a few 1ft waves. As I was driving home, salty and tired, I started thinking about how good it was to be back in the sea.
“Those first days back surfing my longboard and having to disconnect from all ego, because you can’t be nimble and agile, made me fall in love with surfing all over again. Not long later, I was back in the water at places like Nazaré, and even though you sometimes question why you do things, I realized that my dad might not be in the car park reading his newspaper waiting for me, but I still do it because I love it.”