He’s 35 years old, has salty blonde locks, wears cool surf gear and has the two most adorable kids. Any idea who I’m talking about? Goodness knows how I did it, but I got to spend an afternoon with Saltrock ambassador and big wave surfer, Andrew Cotton, finding out what inspires the North Devonian, how he keeps fit and why he finds throwing himself down 80 foot waves fun…
So who’s the real Andrew Cotton?
I’m pretty easy going, quite shy. Unless I’ve had a drink! I’d just say I was a surfer really. I’m pretty calculated in what I do, I’m not a risk taker. I never set out to be a big wave surfer, I just enjoy surfing the ocean.
What drew you into big wave surfing?
I’ve always enjoyed bigger waves, I feel just comfortable on them. I find them easier to surf, compared with the small competition waves, which involve a very agile, quick, gymnastic sort of surfing. I was never really very good at that sort of thing. I’m a bit slower and prefer the ones that involve more commitment and mind.
When I was younger, I visited Hawaii a few times and just spent months and months there. When the waves got bigger, I got more confident and my friends got less confident. They were better on the smaller waves, but I wasn’t as good. It was then that I realised my niche wasn’t really the small waves, it was the big ones.
What drives you to keep chasing these epic waves?
There are loads and loads of big wave surfers in the world, but I want to be the one who wins. I want to get a world record. In what I do, there’s not much competition, there’s not like loads of big wave contests in Europe. I think there might be one in Europe at the minute, but it’s like invite only and only a select few get invited.
But to be able to win an XXL award or to set a world record, that motivates me to push on. Otherwise you’re just another big wave surfer, aren’t you? And I don’t really want to be just another guy. It’s good to set goals, and you don’t always have to hit them, but it keeps you motivated.
So when you’re surfing those massive waves in Nazaré (Portugal), what goes through your mind?
Nothing really goes through your mind apart from the surfing. Cause you’ve trained. Anything you haven’t done is too late. Technically all your training should’ve already been done. You’re mentally and physically prepared, so all you can do is concentrate on the actual surfing.
And when you’ve wanted something so much, to that point where you’re actually faced with it, you’ve just got to do it. There was a point where Garrett turned around to me and said, “You want this wave?” And I was like, “Yeah I’ve been trying to get to this point for ages.”
With surfing, you just never know when the wave’s are gonna be big. Where with something like mountain climbing, the mountain is always there and you can plan it. And once you’ve climbed the biggest mountain in the world, well you’ve climbed the biggest mountain in the world. Then what do you do?
But with surfing, you might surf the biggest wave in the world or the biggest one in your career and the next week there could be a bigger wave. So it keeps you ticking along. And even when you do surf the biggest wave in the world, you want to surf the next one better. You might do a different line or something. So it’s a pretty exciting sport to be in.
How did you feel after surfing Nazaré?
Nazaré is so scary. It’s such a scary place, but it’s not until later in the day… If you get a really good wave in somewhere like Ireland, it might not be a giant one, but you come out of the wave and you’ve got a big safety channel to sit in and reflect on what just happened. At Nazaré you never really feel safe, until maybe that night when you’re sitting having a meal and you’re like, “Flip, it was massive today and we all surfed and everyone came back safe.” It’s not like an instant buzz, it’s sort of a delayed reaction.
Who do you look up to?
I admire people who just do it their own way. I think Garrett McNamara is a good inspiration. I surf with him a lot and the way he surfs good waves is just insane. But anyone who’s ballsy enough to paddle out and take on big waves, you’ve got to admire that. Some of the younger kids coming through, there’s a young lad called Taz Knight. He’s like 18 and he’s been taking on some of the bigger waves and he’s just done some crazy stuff already. It’s pretty inspiring. I never did anything like that when I was young.
How do you keep fit?
Well I quite enjoy activity. I like to cycle, swim, run, cross train and that sort of thing. I do a bit of yoga too. Surfing’s actually quite physically demanding. Sometimes if I go surfing after not having surfed for a while – even if I’ve trained a lot – it really knackers me out. Just being surf fit is a challenge, so I try to surf as much as possible.
What would you say to others wanting to follow in your footsteps?
I’d encourage anyone to go out and do what they really wanna do. But at the same time I’d be like, “Just be careful!” (chuckles) I wouldn’t want to be responsible for anything, you know… But it’s easy to say, you know I’ve definitely taken risks when I was younger, but now I’d say I’m pretty safety conscious. I have the best safety equipment for myself and I’m very fortunate to work with guys who are the best in the world. That gives you loads of confidence as well.
The thing about big wave surfing is there are people who want it and then there are people who really really want it and they become apparent very quickly. The guys who really really want it, they’re the guys who get the biggest waves. So if you really really want it, you can definitely do it. It’s easy!
You’ve just started working with Saltrock — what do you love about them?
Well I’ve actually got quite a lot of history with Saltrock. I used to work in their shop in Croyde for a time. It was while I was doing my college apprenticeship in plumbing. Ross and Angus, who started Saltrock, came to North Devon when I was about 12 or 13 and Ross was one of the best surfers that I’d ever seen at that point. It was like the cool brand when I was a kid. So I’ve known those guys for ages. They’ve always supported grass roots surfing locally. They even sponsored a bunch of my good friends who technically are a lot better surfers than I am (chuckles), so when I approached them, they were up for doing something. I thought that was really cool, cause they’re a local North Devon company.
What’s the next big thing for you?
Like I said, I haven’t achieved any of my goals really. I’m still plugging away. Obviously the XXL awards and the world records are very much a draw for me, so I’m still chasing those things. I also think we have a lot of amazing waves in Europe that are as good as anywhere in the world, and it’s only in the last couple of years that the global surf community has started to take notice of places like Ireland, France and Portugal. Previously the spotlight’s always been on Hawaii or Australia. I think we’re sometimes too quick to look further afield, when we have so much on our doorstep.
Do you miss being a plumber?
No, I hate being a plumber. I hated it so much. It definitely has its benefits, knowing what to do. But for me it was just a job to make a living, rather than a passion.
If it wasn’t surfing, what would it be?
It’s the only thing I’m really passionate about, so if I wasn’t a surfer, I’d probably be a plumber! I think the biggest bit of advice I’d give my kids would be to work at something they actually like. Don’t go after money, you need to work with a passion. That’s the lesson I learnt anyways. I only became a plumber because I thought I was going to earn some money and I hated it. It wasn’t worth it. So yeah, work with a passion and you’ll be richer in the end.
Images courtesy of Saltrock, unless otherwise stated…