By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Big-wave surfer Andrew Cotton is not keen on heights yet plummeting down the side of an 80ft Atlantic breaker feels like the most natural thing in the world to the Englishman.
The 42-year-old from Devon was back at his favourite break last week, the infamous rollers off Nazare on Portugal's rugged silver coast.
Three years after breaking his back in a horrifying wipe-out, talk in surfing circles is that the former plumber may have broken the world record for the largest wave ever surfed.
Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa is the current owner of that feat, riding a 24.38 metres (80 ft) wave at Nazare in 2017.
Measuring the height of a wave is a complicated business that can take several weeks using photographs and video footage and is not an exact science but Cotton just knew last Thursday's wave was a big one, propelling him at speeds of 80kph.
"Definitely the fastest I've ever been on a surfboard," Cotton, a professional surfer backed by Red Bull, told Reuters in an interview while still in Nazare along with other big-wave hunters attracted by the remnants of Hurricane Epsilon.
Unlike competition surfing, which will make its Olympic debut next year at the delayed Tokyo Games, big wave surfing is less technical, but far more dangerous.
"They are like moving mountains of water," Cotton said of the extreme waves found off the small fishing village of Nazare.
"I was naturally always drawn to bigger conditions rather than my friends who were maybe better surfers than me but called it quits when the waves got too big. I guess I found my niche."
Riding the monster waves that Cotton has chased around the globe from Hawaii to Australia for 10 years requires teamwork.
Because of the sheer size and speed of the waves, surfers need to be towed into position by a jet ski.
Garrett McNamara did the honours for Cotton, a role reversal from 2010 when Cotton towed McNamara into a wave measuring 23.77m (78ft), a then world record.
"It's a unique relationship," Cotton says. "You're trusting someone with your life. When I saw the wave I knew it was the one. I had already surfed it in my mind. It was like a flow, going with the energy. You prepare for that moment but sometimes it's being in the right place at the right time."
Like anglers bragging about the size of their catch, wave heights can become a pre-occupation for surfers, but while size matters, Cotton says these days he is less gung-ho.
"I don't want to get bogged down with that," said Cotton, who turned professional in 2013. "It used to be an obsession.
"In 2013 I rode the biggest wave ever in Nazare and it sort of went viral and went in the papers and I obsessed about it... so much so I wasn't enjoying it so much. But the last few years it's not the be all and end all."
Things do not always go according to plan.
Three years ago while surfing in Nazare 'Cotty', as he is known, was catapulted off his board and submerged under a foaming mass of white water, breaking his back.
After a year out, he ventured out again on the gentler breaks of Saunton in North Devon where he first fell in love with surfing.
"I actually took it as a positive in some ways," he said.
"I was super fortunate to have the best physios and best back-up with Red Bull. I went back to Saunton on my longboard and it was like the joy of learning to surf again. I had gone very much full circle and (it) helped me re-connect."
The father of two says that while harnessing the power of a huge wave is fraught with danger, he is not about to look for calmer waters.
"I've never seen a wave and thought I don't fancy this one, not yet anyway," he said. "You're always thinking about the next big one."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)