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Remembering big wave surfer Marcio Freire


Maybe the answer is because it was there. The question - why would big-wave surfers paddle or get towed into the ocean on jet skis in the hopes of surfing waves that are sometimes many stories high?


Well, that sport lost an icon last week. The famed Brazilian surfer Marcio Freire died tow-in surfing in the Portuguese town of Nazare. An underwater canyon there that is three miles deep generates some of the biggest surfable waves in the world, including the biggest wave ever surfed at 86 feet.

SUMMERS: Though he had been surfing Nazare for years, Freire made his name in Hawaii. In the 1990s, he and a few friends from northeastern Brazil made their way to Hawaii, where big-wave surfing was emerging. They didn't have any money, and they spoke almost no English, but they had a passion and intensity that earned them the name Mad Dogs.

KELLY: So initially, the Mad Dogs surfed without using jet skis or rescue teams - the support that made big-wave surfing possible. They paddled themselves into the waves on long, heavy boards called guns.


DARRICK DOERNER: They got to crawl over those gnarly, giant, slippery boulders to almost lose their life, to get to the shore break, to get into the line up, to paddle into these giant waves. I think it's unbelievable.

DOERNER: That's surfer Darrick Doerner from the 2016 documentary "Mad Dogs," which also featured Freire himself.


MARCIO FREIRE: (Through interpreter) I didn't take anyone to film me. I just jumped in with my suit, my leash and my gun.

SUMMERS: The Mad Dogs challenged the notion of what was possible in paddle-out surfing.

KELLY: Freire describes one attempt at surfing a famous Hawaiian big wave called Jaws and the power of those waves. He remembers one that dragged him under.


FREIRE: (Through interpreter) And I couldn't hold my breath any longer. I was in agony, begging for air, and then everything was suddenly calm. I made it to the surface and took a deep breath (taking deep breath). I mean, I couldn't hold it any longer.

SUMMERS: Despite being a legend in the sport, Freire says he never made a living from surfing.


FREIRE: (Through interpreter) Absolutely not. I was never able to make a real living from surfing. I can count on my fingers money that came from surfing.

SUMMERS: Freire joined the podcast "Let's Surf" just a few months ago.


FREIRE: (Through interpreter) I really don't care about chasing the big one. I've already done a lot of that in my life. I just want to keep surfing and always have the chance to catch those perfect waves.

KELLY: Which he did till the very end. Marcio Freire was 47 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Nathan Thompson