Mak­ing a Mon­ster

Smithsonian Magazine - - Prologue - by 5W INFOGRAPHICS • re­search by KYLE FRISCHKORN and SONYA MAY­NARD

The gi­ants that pound Nazaré are cre­ated by a unique mix of fierce winds,

a strong cur­rent and the largest sub­ma­rine canyon in Europe

odd to the newly ar­rived Amer­i­can in a coun­try fa­mous for its hos­pi­tal­ity and warmth. “They didn’t want to know me,” Gar­rett says— open-hearted him­self, this chilly re­sponse dis­turbed him. He kept surf­ing on the first visit, but only the other surfers took to him— and the wi­d­ows, the work­ing peo­ple and oth­ers kept their dis­tance. The fish­er­men were stern-faced, warn­ing him of the wave, ad­vis­ing him against rid­ing it.

Only re­cently, af­ter his book ap­peared, did Gar­rett learn why so many good peo­ple in Nazaré seemed un­friendly. “They didn’t want to be close to me, be­cause they felt I was go­ing to die,” he says. “They lost peo­ple ev­ery win­ter. Ev­ery­one you meet in Nazaré knows some­one who died—and es­pe­cially died in a wave, within sight of shore.”

Gar­rett trained. “I wanted to be­come one with the land and the sea.” He re­searched the sea con­di­tions, talk­ing ex­ten­sively to wa­ter­men and the body-board­ers who had caught smaller waves at Nazaré (no surfers had at­tempted the gi­ants). No longer the kid who smoked a joint be­fore pad­dling into Ban­zai Pipe­line, Gar­rett soberly trav­eled to Lis­bon to dis­cuss his plans with the Mar­inha Por­tuguesa, the Por­tuguese Navy. With al­most 1,000 years of mar­itime ex­pe­ri­ence (they won a great bat­tle in 1180 down the coast from Nazaré, at Cabo Espichel) this ven­er­a­ble navy pro­vided charts of the ocean floor and of­fered Gar­rett en­cour­age­ment as well as ma­te­rial sup­port, to the ex­tent of plac­ing buoys along the Nazaré Canyon ap­proach.

This plan­ning and train­ing took a year, and re­flect­ing on it you have to con­clude that this was how the English Chan­nel was first swum, and Ever­est was climbed, and how Amund­sen skied to the South Pole: Such chal­lenges were the sub­ject of ex­ten­sive re­search and con­tem­pla­tion be­fore the first move was at­tempted. And this is also why I think the story of a 44-year-old man, strong but slightly built at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, is in­spi­ra­tional—and given the ups and downs of his per­sonal his­tory, an amaz­ing trajectory.

To a non-surfer, a sea of break­ing waves is one thing—lots of frothy wa­ter. To a surfer it is much more, a com­plex of breaks, of lefts and rights, and in­sides and out­sides, each wave with a per­son­al­ity and a pe­cu­liar chal­lenge.

“There’s so many dif­fer­ent types of waves,” Gar­rett told me. “In Nazaré, it’s never the

same wave—there are tall ones, round ones, hol­low ones. In Tavarua, Fiji and in In­done­sia, there are bar­rels. In Namibia, you can get bar­reled on some waves for three min­utes.”

Mea­sur­ing the height of a wave is an­other thing. “How tall is the wave you’re look­ing at? It’s not an ex­act science. One way is to look at the guy on the wave. How tall is the guy? Scale him with the wave. Fig­ure out where the top of the wave is, where the bot­tom is, us­ing a photo.”

To be ranked of­fi­cially, the surfer sub­mits a photo of the wave to a panel of judges in the World Surf League. “There are branches all over,” Gar­rett says. “Honolulu, New York, Santa Mon­ica. They de­ter­mine the height.”

STUDY­ING THE WAVES at Nazaré, Gar­rett be­gan to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them. There was First Peak, which broke right and left in front of the light­house. “It’s fat and falls—it doesn’t break top to bot­tom. It caps at the top, so it’s hard to mea­sure.” Near it is Mid­dle First Peak, break­ing left—“The magic, luck­i­est wave—it’s hol­low and long, and it breaks top to bot­tom, so it’s mea­sur­able.” And beyond that is Sec­ond Peak, a big wave that breaks right and left. Far­ther to sea is the wave they came to call Big Mama or the Big Right—a mon­ster. “It has to break three kilo­me­ters out, to be safe.”

On the 11th day of the 11th month of 2011 (“And Ni­cole says it might have been 11 in the morn­ing”), Gar­rett was towed into the break at Mid­dle First Peak and caught sev­eral big waves, bumpy rides that tested him. “I got pounded—but I was surf­ing Nazaré, and I was happy.”

The next morn­ing he was wo­ken by pound­ing on his door: “Gar­rett, it’s big!”

But he hes­i­tated, think­ing: I am not go­ing for a record. I’m go­ing out for the love of it—for the right rea­sons. And though he brought his board, he was the man pi­lot­ing the jet ski, tow­ing a surfer. He put the surfer on a wave and backed off, slid­ing side­ways in time to see the man lose his board. And that wipe­out had him think­ing, maybe this is the one for me. So he switched places and grabbed his own board and was towed out, where he pre­pared him­self, per­form­ing what yoga prac­ti­tion­ers call pranayama (breath reg­u­la­tion), and what Gar­rett calls “a breathe-up.”

“Sit­ting on the board I did my breatheup. It’s a com­plete re­set. I breathe all my air out, I then fill my lungs with air while I’m look­ing to­ward shore, and I con­nect to the high­est tree,” he says. “Then I looked back, out to sea, and I saw it swelling—re­ally big—and I want to be in the bar­rel.”

He re­leased the tow-rope and turned at the lip of wa­ter, his feet locked into the loops of the board. And set its edge on the big­gest wave he’d ever rid­den, and for the long­est drop he could re­mem­ber he was skid­ding in a mon­u­men­tal glis­sade down the face of this moun­tain-slope of a wave.

“I went straight to the bot­tom, and I punched it as hard as I could at the bot­tom, and I surfed straight back up and my speed pushed me in front of the wave.”

There was joy in Nazaré. The wave was sub­mit­ted for mea­sur­ing and proved to be 78 feet, a world record, of­fi­cially the big­gest wave ever surfed.

“You con­quered the wave, Gar­rett!” be­came a fre­quent cry. But Gar­rett shook his head, deny­ing any such thing. “I com­pli­mented it,” he said. “I paid my re­spects,” and in this hu­mil­ity he is echo­ing the sen­ti­ments of the sher­pas, when they fi­nally at­tain the sum­mit of Ever­est, known to them as Cho­mol­ungma, God­dess Mother of the World.

Why do surfers chase the big­gest waves? Andy Martin, a lec­turer in French at Cam­bridge Univer­sity, and also the au­thor of a surf­ing book, Walk­ing on Wa­ter, has a the­ory.

“Big-wave surf­ing is an ex­trap­o­la­tion of small-wave surf­ing,” Martin told me, “but Gar­rett is the fun­da­men­tal para­dox. There’s a pas­sage in Sartre’s Be­ing and Noth­ing­ness that al­ways strikes me as be­ing about surf­ing. Sartre speaks of “le glisse­ment sur l’eau”— slid­ing on wa­ter—and he con­trasts it with ski­ing, le glisse­ment sur la neige, which leaves tracks in the snow. You im­print your sig­na­ture in the snow. In a sense, you’re writ­ing in the snow.

“But in surf­ing no one can find your tracks. The wa­ter closes over your pas­sage. ‘The ideal form of slid­ing is one that leaves no trace.’ But now the cul­ture has been ab­sorbed and there’s a record. This is where Gar­rett’s record comes in. He’s stak­ing a claim. He wants to be re­mem­bered. He wants some­one to bear wit­ness.”

A YEAR PASSED, dur­ing which Gar­rett con­tin­ued to train in Hawaii, and in 2012 a new spon­sor, Mercedes-Benz, com­mis­sioned one of its renowned de­sign­ers to cre­ate the ul­ti­mate big-wave board. This man, Gor­den Wa­gener—now near­ing 50,


around Gar­rett’s age—is re­spon­si­ble for the beauty of the Mercedes-Benz car de­sign, some­times re­ferred to as “sen­sual pu­rity.” Wa­gener ap­plied both his aes­thetic and his science to a surf­board. Wa­gener, who stud­ied at the Royal Col­lege of Art in London, is both a surfer and a wind-surfer, and he has de­signed, built and shaped more than 300 boards.

“Gar­rett is a great guy and an out­stand­ing ath­lete,” Wa­gener told me. “I think he is fear­less and a lit­tle crazy in a great way. But you have to be in or­der to surf these kind of waves.”

“This board is a science project,” Gar­rett says, full of ad­mi­ra­tion for Wa­gener’s de­sign. “It uti­lizes tech­nol­ogy for sur­vival.”

“Big-wave tow-in boards are the com­plete op­po­site to nor­mal surf­boards,” Wa­gener says. “They are nar­row and heavy in­stead of wide and light. The shape is very sim­i­lar to shapes we use in cars and of course we have com­puter tools to de­sign ba­si­cally every­thing. Im­por­tant for us was also the cor­po­rate de­sign—we cre­ated a ‘Sil­ver Ar­row’ of the sea—the Mercedes of all surf­boards.”

At 25 pounds, of which 10 pounds is a slab of lead, and also formed of car­bon fiber and polyester, the board is heavy, its for­ward third flex­i­ble, with a nar­row PVC spine for shock ab­sorp­tion, and two par­al­lel foot straps.

This was the board Gar­rett sat upon in Novem­ber 2012 on the break he named First Peak in Front of the Rocks. He rose and fell in the chan­nel in the win­ter sea for half a day, hold­ing the tow-rope, his surfer friend An­drew Cot­ton on the jet ski.

“And then I saw it—a moun­tain com­ing down the canyon—the big­gest swell I’ve

ever seen—big­ger than last year’s.” His eyes flash, re­call­ing the sight. “I was ex­cited. I had been en­vi­sion­ing this wave for a year, all through my train­ing.”

And then he re­leased the rope and tipped him­self into the great slope of the wave and saw some­thing he had never seen be­fore on any wave: the face of the wave so fu­ri­ous and up­swept that the wave he was cours­ing down was it­self rip­pled with six­foot chop—like moguls on the black-di­a­mond run of a ski slope.

“The waves in the mid­dle of that wave were the kind that most surfers would be afraid of,” Gar­rett said, and the wave it­self he guessed was much higher than the record wave he’d surfed the pre­vi­ous year. “So I’m go­ing down, hunt­ing for the sweet spot, when I can line up to get into the bar­rel.”

The wave be­gan to break, then it backed off, and Gar­rett in ret­ro­spect es­ti­mated his speed at be­tween 60 and 70 miles an hour.

“The most mas­sive swell I’ve ever rid­den, the fastest I’ve ever gone—I could barely con­trol my board, but luck­ily it was this new board that had been made for me and for this wave. Even so, it was pretty much just sur­vival.”

Yet the wave did not break, and see­ing that he was speed­ing al­most out of con­trol, 20 feet from the rocks, he kicked out just as the rocks loomed. Then he was strug­gling in the wa­ter, on the board pad­dling. As the “safety ski” in­tend­ing to pluck him aside was pounded by the wave, Gar­rett swam un­der (“or I would have been crushed on dry rock”) and fought away from shore and was grabbed by an­other ski and towed to the chan­nel.

Shak­ing his head, Gar­rett says, “It was the clos­est I had ever come to death.”

ALTHOUGH HE HAD sat­is­fied him­self with the ex­pe­ri­ence, the town of Nazaré was ea­ger to en­ter Gar­rett’s ride in the record books. Gar­rett pointed out that the wave had not tipped and bro­ken: It had been a mov­ing moun­tain, eas­ily the 100-footer he had sought all his surf­ing life. But he pulled the wave from con­sid­er­a­tion for the World Surf League’s XXL Big­gest Wave Awards.

“I did not go out that day and surf for a world record,” he says. “All I wanted was to feel what it was like to ride that wave.” That the wave was known as Big Mama was an irony for a man whose own mother had been elu­sive; and it was also re­demp­tion and some­thing to cel­e­brate.

Many pho­to­graphs were taken that day, and though an oceanog­ra­pher might de­bate the ab­so­lute size of this wave, you only have to com­pare the man, and his board, with this mas­sive wall of wa­ter be­hind him and un­der him to con­clude there can be lit­tle doubt that Gar­rett had found his ul­ti­mate ride, and be­come a happy man.

Nazaré too be­came happy; and the peo­ple in town who had avoided him out of fear of los­ing him now em­braced him. Two years ear­lier there was scarcely one per­son stand­ing on the cliff near the light­house, and soon there were thou­sands, and on an av­er­age win­ter day they closed the road be­cause they could no longer ac­com­mo­date the traf­fic.

“McNa­mara is well known in Por­tu­gal—and in Nazaré in par­tic­u­lar—since he surfed that 24-me­ter wave in 2011,” says Ana Roque de Oliveira, an en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer and pho­tog­ra­pher based in Lis­bon. “He was smart enough to in­ter­act with the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion—which is not com­mon in Por­tu­gal—so the ben­e­fits were mu­tual. And Nazaré be­ing a small town, news trav­eled faster.”

The town basked in its re­flected glory and en­joyed a mea­sure of pros­per­ity. Por­tu­gal, never re­garded as much by surfers, be­came a great surf­ing des­ti­na­tion.

And—just as I was fin­ish­ing this piece—a Brazil­ian surfer, Ro­drigo Koxa, was told by the Quik­sil­ver XXL Big Wave au­thor­i­ties that the wave at Nazaré he had rid­den in Novem­ber 2017 was as­sessed at 24.38 me­ters, or 80 feet—and Gar­ret, a friend, who had told him about the moods of the Nazaré wave, was among the first to con­grat­u­late him.

Along the way, Gar­rett, the mod­est, mid­dle-aged man from Hawaii, be­came a na­tional hero. In many re­spects, he is the man from nowhere—from poverty and ran­dom par­ent­ing; but the hard­ships of his child­hood, which might have bro­ken some­one else, made him strong. His is of course a story of courage, but it is also a story of prepa­ra­tion and self-be­lief.

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The World Surf League awarded Koxa $25,000 for his epic 2017 run. In the last 25 years, the height of waves con­quered by surfers has dou­bled.


At Surf Ranch in May (where Kelly Slater leaned into a cut­back), 5,000 spec­ta­tors gath­ered to watch 25 world­class surfers com­pete for prize money.


At home on Oahu, McNa­mara at­tributes his fo­cus in the wa­ter to a se­ries of breath­ing ex­er­cises—tak­ing in the power of nat­u­ral forces sur­round­ing him.

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