I Belong To The Ocean
A profile of Nagai Puntiverio
Words and Photography: Cat Vinton
‘I belong to the ocean,’ says Spanish surfer Nagai Puntiverio, staring at the Pacific. We’re sitting on the roof of an apartment on Zicatela beach, Puerto Escondido, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. In a couple of days’ time, the judges for the Big Wave World Tour will assemble to watch the world’s best big wave surfers compete in the Puerto Escondido Challenge.
Earlier that day, I watched Nagai ride a monster wave – a tiny figure cut against a 30ft wall of water. Waves of 40-50ft were expected. The surfers who will ride these waves in the comp will be wearing inflatable vests and towed in, but for Nagai, surfing is about freedom – there’s no vest, often no leash and no tow-in. His choice is his beautifully made, eco balsa wood Kun Tiqi board. It’s about the whole journey for Nagai. Paddling out towards these towering waves is a feat in itself; as is often the case with a big shore break, you can get caught inside and held in the impact zone, with sets pounding your head. Not a good place to be.
Nagai’s not here to take part in the competition – he’s just here to ride monster waves, hoping for the bomb that stays open long enough to escape. He’s one of Spain’s biggest names, competing at a national level, and he’s being noticed elsewhere. Filmmaker Victor Delgado recently wrote on surf website Magic Seaweed: ‘Some might remember Nagai Puntiverio as the man behind the Anchor Point bomb, a mysterious charger who scored one of the waves of the Hercules swell. He went surfing alone in challenging conditions, as it was too windy and no-one else would surf that day.’
As well as the big waves here in Puerto, he’s surfed Mavericks in California, Margaret River on the western coast of Australia, some of New Zealand’s big wave spots, Anchor Point in Morocco, some secret slabs in Ireland, all over the Basque country, and his local wave La Misteriosa in Lanzarote. These events have become grand spectacles, surfing waves the size of monsters.
Paddling out towards these towering waves is a feat in itself; as is often the case with a big shore break, you can get caught inside and held in the impact zone, with sets pounding your head. Not a good place to be.
Nagai is passionate about passing on his love of the waves, inspiring people to feel this incredible connection with nature.
The international big wave competitions are almost certainly in his future – if he wants them to be. But for now, his goal is scoring the biggest waves he can get to. ‘Before I paddle out, I wonder how it’s going to be. I have fear – I think everyone has fear, it’s what pushes you – but it’s a good kind of fear. I always want to experience waves in a new place, bigger waves and deeper into the wave, it’s what keeps you motivated. It’s endless – always a challenge, always different.’
He’s turned up at Puerto with two friends from the Canaries, Alex Zirke and Yeray Garcia Ferrera, a 21-year-old surfboard shaper trying out some of his new boards. This is a homecoming for Nagai – it’s his third time in Puerto, a place he loves. But he hadn’t expected things to align this well. The World Surf League has already announced the ‘red light’, two days away from ‘green light’ (meaning it’s on). The world’s best big wave surfers are all arriving, the swell is growing every day, and sandbags already line every shop and restaurant along the beach. The energy here right now is electric.
For Nagai, big waves are all about sharing. Surfing is often about people trying to keep the best waves to themselves, but with big waves, Nagai says, it’s the opposite. ‘You have to respect nature – its powerful out there in big waves.’ Big wave surfing is an extreme sport that requires real athleticism and skill. It’s a small, tight-knit community where everybody looks after each other. ‘You need to love it,’ Nagai says. ‘If you don’t want it enough, that’s when bad things can happen.’
This idea of community is hugely important to Nagai. He taught himself to surf at age 14 by playing on buggy boards and watching better surfers. He’s passionate about passing on his love of the waves, inspiring people to feel this incredible connection with nature. Over the last few days he’s been coaxing the local kids out onto boards – he has an incredible energy that the kids love. ‘It’s all about having fun on the waves. It’s always amazing to watch people new to surfing, catch some of their first waves. I love it.’
This passion inspired Nagai’s Las Bajas Project, an initiative to connect big wave surfers around the world. Lasbajas.com is a platform where big wave surfers can share stories, a place to inspire new surfers, connecting everyone. But more than that, it’s about creating a feeling of safety and strengthening the bonds between them. ‘When you surf these waves you are risking your life,’ Nagai says to me. ‘We share a friendship that you don’t get when you surf small waves. Look after your fellow surfers and they will look after you.’
As with many in the surfing community, Nagai feels a sense of responsibility about protecting the ocean. He’s spent a good deal of time volunteering and finding ways to pass on the message about taking care of the ocean – everything from beach clean ups (‘We always try to leave the beach a little bit better than we found it’) to working on bigger projects such as Surfrider Foundation’s MarAzul project. To help with this programme, Nagai spent some months visiting schools along the coast either side of Puerto teaching children about the harm plastic does to the ocean. It’s a difficult subject to talk about in an engaging way, but Nagai captured their imagination with films of big wave surfing. ‘They’d never seen anything like it,’ he says with a laugh. After all the gasps and woohoos, he had their attention, and he showed them examples of what happens to the plastic once it finds its way to the ocean – and the damage it causes to marine life.
‘Riding big waves is what drives my life right now’, explains Nagai, ‘It’s like a drug I need, and once you have tried it you need more and more. I especially like the moments out there in the big ocean where I choose to sit in the middle of it for hours – I don’t chase the big waves, I let them come and find me.
‘The thought of finding new, empty line-ups is a massive source of inspiration. And when I am on top of one of these huge walls, these monster waves, I feel profoundly alive, part of nature, in balance and at peace.’
The legendary South African charger, Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker, won the 2016 Puerto Challenge of the Big Wave World Tour. What an incredible two weeks to have been in Puerto Escondido!
Cat Vinton’s work captures journeys, life and movement; her projects explore themes of freedom, space and spirit, across many locations, cultures and people around the world. She is driven by an innate curiosity and sense of wonder about the world and everyone in it. She has an ability to cross boundaries of language and culture to capture stories, ways of life, human existence, in all its diversity.