The Mount Everest of Surfing
WELCOME TO THE NEW MT. EVEREST OF SURFING, A NOTORIOUSLY DANGEROUS BREAK OFF THE COAST OF PORTUGAL
An intrepid American traveled to Portugal to ride one of the largest breaks on the planet— and become a legend
Not all of nature’s wonders are easily visible. Take the canyon under the sea off Nazaré in Portugal.
This immense gash is more than three miles deep, and extends from near the shore, widening west for about 140 miles, half the length of the Grand
Canyon but almost three times deeper. Its effect on the turbulent ocean is monumental: A swell from far offshore rolls over this submarine can
yon, and the shelves and cliffs that line the narrowing funnel squeeze and speed the swell, until a shallow obstructing ledge nearer the shore lifts it, creating a monster wave.
It is perhaps the biggest wave in the world, the widest, the thickest and the highest, often in winter topping 100 feet—the height of a nine-story building. Throughout history the wave killed so many people, that Nazaré—named for Nazareth—was known as a place of death.
Vasco da Gama stopped here in 1497, before leaving for India, but that was in the summer, before the Nazaré wave began to mount. Many fishermen have set sail from Nazaré—it has been a fishing port for 400 years. But after a long successful voyage a great number of those fishing boats have met the wave and been dashed against the rocks on Nazaré’s promontory. For this reason Nazaré has for centuries been a town of widows, treading its narrow streets in black dresses and shawls, casting their eyes resentfully at the terrifying wave that destroyed their loved ones.
Because of the danger and the deaths, and the decline in the fishing industry, Nazaré endured hard times and became one of the many poor Portuguese towns that supplied the world with migrants, looking for better lives in the Americas and Portuguese colonies in Africa and the Far East. It seemed to many in Nazaré that there was no hope for the place, seemingly cursed
with an evil wave that appeared like an avenging giant each winter and was catastrophic for the town.
But a man in Nazaré named Dino Casimiro had an idea. He had heard of the success of an expert surfer in Hawaii, Garrett McNamara, who had ridden big waves all over the world—in Tahiti, Alaska, Japan and even the bulky but solitary wave that at times rises to 80 feet and breaks in the middle of the ocean on a submerged seamount 100 miles off San Diego, on the Cortes Bank.
Dino thought McNamara might be interested in visiting Nazaré and scoping out the wave, and per- haps might dare to ride it. And if he rode it and did not die, Nazaré might find itself on the map, and with a tourist industry; might even enjoy a degree of prosperity, granting it a reprieve from its destitution and its almost certain fate as a failed fishing town.
This was in 2005. Dino found an address for Garrett and sent an email describing the huge wave and inviting him to Nazaré.
And nothing happened.
THE REASON DINO got no reply was that he had sent the message to a man whose existence away from the
ocean was like riding one misshapen wave after another, the junk waves of a careless life, and a collapsing marriage, frittering money away, looking for sponsors, but also—somehow—still riding big waves and soaring through tubes, looking for bigger ones, and winning prizes. In fact, after receiving Dino’s email and mislaying it, Garrett was engaged on a worldwide journey, some of which he recorded in his uncompleted film Waterman, his dream of fulfillment, his search for a 100-foot wave.
His marriage ended, the chaos around him subsided, and Garrett fell in love again. Nicole, the new woman in his life, became the steadying force he had lacked since childhood, and one day in 2010, Nicole found Dino’s plaintive email and invitation and said, “What’s this all about?”
Within months, Garrett and Nicole were standing on the high cliff near the lighthouse at Nazaré, awestruck into silence by the sight of the incoming wave—and Garrett finally said that it was bigger than anything he had ever seen.
He had seen a great deal in his life. The kindest way to describe his upbringing is improvisational: His mother on her frenzied journey as a searcher spent years falling by the wayside, hoping for answers to life’s questions. She fled with the infant Garrett from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to Berkeley, California, where her marriage ended; she was just in time to hop aboard any vehicle—real or imaginary, or dabble in substances, legal or illegal, to help her in her quest. What her quest was, in Garrett’s telling, and in the pages of his 2016 memoir, Hound of the Sea, was never quite clear, but it seemed random and risky, her following one kook after another, settling for periods of time in communes and cults. Her searching extended as far as Central America, where, his mother later told him, 5-year-old Garrett witnessed his mother being kicked in the head by her enraged partner until she was bloody and unconscious. Her abuser was Luis, whom Garrett’s mother met on a road trip to Honduras. Every so often his mother abandoned Garrett, leaving him with strangers. In Guatemala a peasant farmer, recognizing the neglect, begged to adopt him. Garrett was willing and might have grown up tending a maize field, raising chickens and living on tamales. But his mother brought him back on the road.
After that, another fit of inspiration, another piquant memory. “My mother found God,” Garrett says. “That is, she joined a strange Christian cult, the Christ Family. They were domi- nated by a guy who called himself ‘Jesus Christ Lightning Amen’ and they were committed to getting rid of all material things—no killing, no money, no possessions, no meat.”
Garrett’s mother made a bonfire, in one sudden auto-da-fé in Berkeley, and tossed in all the combustible money they had, and all their clothes, their shoes, their beat-up appliances, until they were left with—what? Some bedsheets. And these bedsheets became their “robes”— one sheet wrapped like a toga, the other in a bundle over the shoulder.
“And there we were, my mother and my brother, Liam, and me, walking up Emerson Street in Berkeley, wearing these white robes—a rope for a belt— and we were barefoot. I ducked into the alleys so that none of my school friends would see me. I tried to hide. But they saw me in my robes. One of the worst humiliations of my life.”
He was 7. They slept rough and begged for food. “We ate out of trash cans and dumpsters from Mount Shasta to Berkeley, for six months or more.”
When they failed to find Lightning Amen or salvation, Garrett’s mother left the boy in Berkeley with his birth father. Garrett became a committed skateboarder and stoner—one of those urchins you see in malls and playgrounds and back alleys all over America, doing wheelies and howling, the Lords
THEY DIDN’T WANT TO BE CLOSE TO ME, BECAUSE they felt I was going to die. EVERYONE YOU MEET IN NAZARÉ KNOWS SOMEONE WHO DIED— AND ESPECIALLY DIED IN A WAVE, WITHIN SIGHT OF SHORE.”
of Dogtown set, celebrating being nature’s outcasts, grinding along the edge of a low wall, sometimes crashing—“slamming”—into the concrete and breaking bones—or “bombing a hill,” the nearest thing in skateboarding to surfing a big wave.
After a few years, Garrett’s mother reappeared out of the blue and reclaimed him. She had a new partner, Darryl, a small and younger black lounge singer who dressed like a dandy and went along with the idea that their future—nebulous at best—might lie in Hawaii. If the white robes of the Christ Family had been a humiliation, the spiffy costumes that his mother and Darryl designed for them all to wear on their migration to Hawaii were even more outrageous: orange velvet jackets with gold trim and vests, orange bell-bottoms, shiny footwear and slicked hair, as Garrett remembers, cringing, “something out of the Jackson 5.”
The decade-long journey that included neglect, abuse, drugs, near-madness, alienation, dislocation, fanatical faith, escapes through jungles and deserts, and some high adventure now took root on Oahu’s North Shore in Hawaii. But Garrett, committed to compassion, in his ambition to being “a soul surfer,” is forgiving.
“Yes, it was bad. But I want to give my mother credit for bringing me to Hawaii, and liberating me—against the odds,” he says. “I could have copped out and said, ‘That’s who I am.’ But I chose not to become a victim. I just kept going forward, looking for happiness. I was very ambitious to find security, because there was never anything secure in my life.”
The tiny apartment in a decaying apartment house in Waialua did not offer security; and for Garrett and Liam, living in relative poverty, and haole— white—a racial minority at Waialua High School, it meant battling the local bullies on the first day of class. Nor did the ocean offer much relief.
“I was terrified of big waves, and was afraid of any wave over six feet.”
He was then in his early teens, capable of riding the small surf because of his skateboard prowess. Turning 16, this hapless child had a bit of luck. A visiting Peruvian surfer, Gustavo Labarthe, seeing Garrett’s style of wave riding, loaned him a special board—and in Garrett’s telling it is like King Arthur possessing the sword Excalibur.
“It was a Sunset Point, Pat Rawson board,” Garrett says. “Rawson lived at Sunset Point. It was the perfect board for that break. And Gustavo’s advice was perfect, too—where to go, where to sit in the lineup, how to catch the wave. The board worked magic—I caught every wave—20-foot faces, my first big day on the water.”
He was so happy he grew careless riding the board into the shore-break at the end of the day. The nose of the board rammed the sand and the board buckled in the middle.
“Punky, what did you do!” Gustavo cried out, using the nickname he’d given Garrett.
Garrett atoned for the broken board by washing Gustavo’s car.
But that day was the beginning of the big-wave quest. Local board shapers, the Willis brothers, “sponsored” him—gave him a board. A local promoter entered Garrett in the Triple Crown—Hawaii’s legendary surfing competition trifecta— and Garrett won prize money. And then from the 20-footers of Sunset, he was riding the 30-footers of Banzai Pipeline and finally the biggest waves in Hawaii, in Waimea Bay—40- and the rare 50-footers, which close out the bay in an immense
boiling of white froth. Garrett, once the urchin, was on his way to becoming a pro-surfer champion.
There were setbacks. He was badly injured on a wave in 1990, “pitched from the top of the boil and slingshotted into the air, landing on the tail of his board” is how he puts it. He fractured ribs and twisted his spine, and he thought it was possible that he might never surf again. But within the year he was catching waves and back in business.
In 2002 he won the Tow Surfing World Cup in Maui. He was praised for his daring, often shown in a balletic move on the covers of surf magazines. He surfed throughout the Pacific, and in Mexico and Japan, where, with high-profile sponsorships, he was considered a rock star.
“I wanted to get in the barrel,” he says, speaking with joy
of the cavernous hollow that forms and holds in a breaking, rolling wave. “Being in the barrel is the most amazing feeling. Time stands still. You can feel your heart beat.”
And sometimes you drown. So it was Garrett’s mastery of the biggest waves, and his survival—his grace—in his long rides in the barrel that placed him in the pantheon of great surfers and made him a pioneer in the sport.
But the biggest waves in the world are unforgiving, and do not always allow a surfer to paddle into them on a board. Even the best surfers can be rebuffed by these waves, pushed back to the shore, where they attempt to paddle out again, often not making it to the point on the break where they can catch a ride. In the early 1990s the Hawaii surfer Laird Hamilton devised a method for catching the biggest waves, by being towed past the buffeting of the surf zone, holding a rope attached to a motorized inflatable, and later a jet ski, which was able to position them on a wave. This innovation—loudly disdained by some surfers— made it possible to ride giants.
Garrett became a tow-in enthusiast and sought the waves at Cortes Bank and the monster break at Teahupo’o in Tahiti and the equally formidable wave at Jaws in Maui. He was growing older, too, and strengthening, becoming braver. This is interesting: an older surfer is sometimes at an advantage on a big wave.
“It doesn’t require the agility and gymnastics of small-wave surfing,” says the writer and former pro surfer Jamie Brisick, a friend of mine. “It more favors experience and ocean knowledge, hence you get an older, wiser bunch of athletes who are generally a lot more fun to talk to.”
This was why, after all this time, when Garrett finally arrived at Nazaré, five years after Dino’s outreach, and got a glimpse of the biggest wave he’d ever seen, he concluded that, towed in on a jet ski, he might manage to ride it. At the height of his enthusiasm, he got an email from the celebrated surfer Kelly Slater saying that he often went to Nazaré to surf the smaller waves and “to meditate and feel the power of the sea.” This 11-time world champion added a dire warning, One mistake and you might not be coming home.
“OH, MY GOD, I found the holy grail,” Garrett remembers thinking, as he saw the succession of waves. “They were 80 feet, minimum—some could have been 100. But they were so battered by the wind they had no defined shape.”
Ragged, foaming giants marching toward shore, they were unridable, but still Garrett watched in awe. And a week or two later the wind dropped, the waves were glassier, many of them “A-frames,” in surfer-speak, and Garrett began surfing Nazaré. He was 43—“physically and mentally prepared”—and rode a 40-foot wave, to the delight of some locals, but not to all of them.
Many people in Nazaré turned away from him, which seemed
In Nazaré, a 1500s fort houses a surfing museum where wave riders’ boards are displayed like holy relics.
Garrett McNamara (pictured off the North Shore of Oahu as a teen) has acquired more than 500 stitches during a lifetime of surfing.
McNamara (in 2013 in Nazaré) still surfs its monster waves, despite the risks. Last year, a fall broke champion British surfer Andrew Cotton’s back.