Two years ago, the English plumber was fixing dripping taps — now, as a professional surfer, he is tackling the world’s biggest waves.
His obsession is twofold: To beat the unofficial record size of 100 feet high; and to track down treacherous waves in waters that have never been surfed before. Combining the two is the ideal.
“I think what drives me is the biggest wave,” Cotton says. “That’s the dream isn’t it, in a place where you’re not going to have 50 surfers? That’s exciting.”
If he breaks the record, and in uncharted waters … what next?
“The thing about big-wave surfing is that it’s not like you climb Everest and say, ‘That’s me done’,” he says. “There’s lots more Everests to climb; with surfing you have no idea when the bigger wave will come. I’m searching for the biggest wave, and that search is never ending.”
Entering ‘the void’
The 34-year-old understands why people find his career choice baffling. He has been on land before when gargantuan waves crashed down, causing a tremor-like sensation through the house where he was staying and making the windows rattle alarmingly.
But on the water, he insists the noise and sensation are entirely different — creating a “void” in the five or six seconds of riding the monster wave at breakneck speed before the churning water overtakes him and he endures a washing machine effect all the way to the shoreline.
“I don’t think there’s anything directly comparable to big-wave surfing on land,” Cotton says. “The closest thing is probably meditation.
“I don’t think it’s quite the adrenalin rush people think, it’s more like a state of meditation. You don’t notice the noise, everything just slows down. You do it for moments like that.”
Accepting the risks
On paper, Cotton can sound like a mad man; in conversation he is anything but. He has a “guy next door” approachability about him, and he seems almost bemused to be earning a living surfing big waves.
The father of two, though, is well aware of the perils he throws himself into. One of his children is named after his idol Alec “Ace Cool” Cooke, who was lost to the sea after going surfing in a big swell in Hawaii a year ago.
“I would say that I respect the ocean, it’s a very dangerous place, I respect it massively and I wouldn’t say that I don’t get scared,” he says.
“I do get scared. I like to challenge the fear. If you don’t get scared, it’s really dangerous. You can find yourself in a bad situation or possibly drown. It’s about being scared and challenging that, that’s quite a healthy thing to do, we don’t do that enough as people.”
But even amid that fear, Cotton is adamant there is no wave he has ever encountered that he judged to be too big.
“I’ve never had a moment in the ocean that’s put me off doing it again,” he says. “I can honestly say I’ve not had a problem … nothing bad, in fact it’s quite the opposite. You have to just enjoy the moment.”
Waiting for the wave that might not come
For the last month, Cotton has been in Portugal, where the big wave season runs from October to March.
It was at Praia do Norte, Nazare in 2004 that he was filmed surfing a 60-foot wave — bigger than four double-decker London buses — at 40 mph before being enveloped by the monster wave seconds later.
“There’s still a lot of places to discover,” he says.
Doing so is no mean feat. For one, Cotton has to pore over maps of the water to find suitable locations — for example, Nazaré worked as the sea goes from being 1,000 feet deep to just 20 feet in a relatively short distance, allowing the big waves to snap up.
But also, he needed to find a boat captain bold enough to take his vessel to such tumultuous waters — and patient enough to wait for the right moment.
“I’ve been in Portugal for a month and we’ve probably only really had one big day,” he says. “You have to wait, and surfing’s like that.
“I’ve been training my whole life for a wave that might not come. There’s a lot of paddling around and waiting around. When it comes, it’s worth the wait.”
‘I feel very lucky’
Cotton talks like an addict, but is adamant that big-wave surfing is not a drug to him, merely that he is a stubborn character driving on to keep on coming back.
He admits most more sane people might have given up and got a proper job, particularly when he lost sponsors. But he stuck to it, a decision that has paid off financially and professionally.
“It’s a sport — sport’s healthy and it makes me happy,” he adds. “I have goals and dreams, and they’re always about riding the biggest waves.
“I like small waves but I always want to push that little bit further. I’m not 100% content doing that for too long. I feel very lucky to do this and call surfing my job.”