Born in Plymouth and raised on a culture of sea and surf on the north Devon coast, you might say that Andrew Cotton – or Cotty, as he’s known in the surfing community – seemed destined for a life on the water. A keen surfer from the age of seven, Cotton left school at 16 to work in a local surfboard factory, a position he held for almost a decade. “That job was a way of feeding the passion,” says Cotton, speaking to me in Biarritz, France’s surfing epicentre. “In some ways, I suppose, it was like being a professional surfer. I surfed a lot and when the factory shut for a few months every winter, it allowed me to travel.”
At 25 and under pressure to find a ‘real job,’ Cotton trained as a plumber. “I was only there for the money, though,” he says, rolling his eyes. “It becomes like torture. It doesn’t matter how much money you make; if you don’t have passion for what you’re doing, it becomes meaningless.”
Cotton became a lifeguard for the RNLI and, in his free time, found himself chasing bigger and bigger waves. He spent time in Hawaii, where he was regularly catching 20-footers at Waimea, and Ireland, pioneering now famous big wave spots like Mullaghmore. But it was through a spontaneous 2010 invitation to join big wave surfer Garrett McNamara in Portuguese fishing village Nazaré, a legendary surf spot, that Cotton was introduced to the most extreme end of the sport.
“Nazaré gets, without a doubt, some of the biggest waves in the world,” says Cotton, leaning forwards as if the mere mention makes him excited. “I’m talking about 80ft giants; there’s so much water and it moves so quickly that they’re like moving mountains.”
Back in 2010, Cotton’s role was to operate the safety jet ski, a skill he’d taught himself in huge waves off the west coast of Ireland. It was watching McNamara being sucked over the top of one of the largest waves Cotton had ever seen that changed the way he thought about surfing. “At that point I didn’t know whether you could even survive that. I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to be looking for a body?’ Suddenly he surfaced with the biggest smile on his face, he was stoked, and it resonated with me. I realised that you have to enjoy the worst possible moments to even have a chance of experiencing the best. That was a big turning point in my life.” The following year Cotton towed McNamara into what was then – at 78ft – the largest wave ever surfed.
Having turned professional in 2013, Cotton teamed up with Red Bull in 2016 to create the documentary Beneath the Surface, a project that saw him dedicate an entire season to riding mammoth waves that break about eight miles off the coast of St. John’s Point in Donegal, Ireland. As McNamara says of Cotton in the documentary: “He’s one of the lone big wave surfers surfing for queen and country.”
In November 2017, while surfing in Nazaré, where a deep offshore canyon churns the Atlantic Ocean into colossal walls of water, Cotton suffered a horrific wipe out, which catapulted him from his board and broke his back. “Being so committed to such a big wave, I just had nowhere to go,” he remembers. “The wave broke on me and projected me into the flats, breaking my back on impact. I pretty much knew instantly it wasn’t good, but all I could think about was that the waves were only going to get better and I was missing the swell of the year.”
It took Cotton almost a full year to recover, before fate dealt him another cruel blow when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament competing at the Punta Galea Challenge in Spain. Finally, after months of painstaking post-surgery rehabilitation, he’s back on his board, the desire to ride the world’s largest swells still his driving force.
“It’s amazing to be back in the water after all the effort put into rehab, gym work and building a solid foundation,” says Cotton. “Now it’s great to add the fun part of it all, which is surfing – it makes everything worthwhile.” I wonder when risk begins to outweigh reward for 40-year-old Cotton, who is married and has two young children, especially on a body that has already suffered so much. “Children have helped me become more focused and safer,” he says. “No one wants to die or drown or get injured. But it hasn’t changed my passion for actually wanting to go out and ride the biggest waves in the world.”
Nor does Cotton see age as an obstacle. “I think age in all sports is going up. I think we’re taking more care of our bodies and learning how to prolong our careers, and big wave surfers tend to be older. I still feel like I’ve got a lot more to do in my big wave surfing career. I still haven’t really had one of those waves that I’ve dreamed about.”
As anyone who’s spent time in the world’s great surf destinations knows, the pursuit is far more than a sport to those who preach it. “It just makes me feel alive,” says Cotton. “You just never know what emotions a session can make you feel. I’m just looking forward to a full winter of chasing adventures in the Atlantic Ocean.”