The Mount Ever­est of Surf­ing


Smithsonian Magazine - - Contents - By Paul Th­er­oux

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


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.

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