Making a Monster
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,
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.”
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.
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.