The spot Nazaré, 90 minutes north of Lisbon, now infamous for its ‘point break’ style sets doesn’t look like our idea of fun, but watching Garett do it, it’s almost addictive. Questions do arise, such as what motivates him to be towed out in such momentous swell? What is he thinking when he climbs the precipice of such a wave? And when is enough, enough?
Garrett says tells us that it’s what he lives to do, but there’s also an element of Garrett being a man in constant search for his next adrenaline high, seduced by the adventure of nature’s wildest beast, the ocean. Just when we thought he may have run out of crazy aspirations, he tells us exclusively that he is about to embark, at the age of 50, on the most ambitious project of his life – a three-year epic journey starting next year that will encompass the entire globe. Garrett and his team intend to surf at least four largely unknown, massive wave locations, with the intent of popularizing them for other adventures and thrill seekers. It’s hard not to be won over by Garrett’s reckless albeit surprisingly spiritual way of life, but for now at least, we’re happily sticking to terra firma.
Garrett McNamara riding the infamous 100ft Guinness world record breaking wave in 2013
You’ve just released your memoir, Hound of The Sea: Wild Man. Wild Waves. Wild Wisdom. You speak in the book about how you slept under freeway overpasses, took your first hit of weed at four and had a hippie-turned-devout-Christian as a mother. How did all this affect you and lead to the way you live now?
I think everyone’s childhood affects them in some way and moulds who they are. We were bouncing from place to place so often I think the ocean became the one consistent thing I could count on. I also think my childhood taught me to be flexible and go with the flow which is an important thing to do when you are going over the falls on a 60ft wave.
I know you’ve been asked this a million times but can you describe to us what it feels like to ride wave that’s almost 100ft?
[Laughing] Yes, I have probably been asked this question at least 5000 times. The best thing I can compare riding one of these waves to is making the conscious decision to be chased down by a moving avalanche, staying as close to it as possible, actually hoping to be engulfed buy it, and then somehow escaping. And instead of snow you are outrunning water, so if you fall you can’t breath. There are huge chops on the face of the wave, almost like mini waves on the face of one giant wave and you have to navigate through these and hold on for dear life, staying in the present moment, but at the same time knowing and visualizing that you will make the wave.
Some people say you need to be quite young and agile to be able to surf waves like that, but you also have a lifetime of experience and preparation on how to approach these waves. Does age play a role for you?
I love this quote by Mark Twain, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind it doesn’t matter.” The only role I feel age plays for me is experience. I feel more comfortable in the ocean than I do anywhere else on Earth. I believe as long as you are prepared mentally, physically and spiritually, it doesn’t matter what your age is.
"I haven’t found my limit yet."
Take us through what’s going through your mind when you’re out there being towed in at Nazaré or Jaws and a giant wave comes along.
I am just praying that my partner puts me in the perfect spot on the wave, which is as deep as possible so I can get barrelled. The two things I am always hoping for are one, to get barrelled and two, to get the rush.
What are you trying to prove?
I surf big waves because it is what I live for. It is my passion and if there wasn’t a single photographer or a single witness I would still be out there doing what I do because I love it.
Do you think there is something that separates you psychologically from the rest of us and allows you to be able to do what you do?
I believe each one of us is born with a unique talent that separates us from everybody else. It’s our job to figure out what that talent is and how we can serve the world with this unique talent. Mine just happens to be surfing the biggest waves I can find so that I can show people that anything is possible and if I can live my dreams so can they!
I watched your wipe-out at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay this year, it looked absolutely brutal. How did that affect you, mentally and physically?
The only thing that has been tough mentally is my time out of the water. It’s not the most pleasant feeling missing swells, but I know everything happens for a reason and it has allowed me to focus on other important things like my family.
This wipeout seriously injured McNamara and put him out for most of the big wave season of 2016
In terms of individuals living at the extreme and really pushing themselves, would you compare yourself to anyone else?
I do my best not to compare anyone to anyone. I feel that when we start comparing it’s when disappointment can set in and that’s not fun. I just do the best I can in every situation.
Do you have a personal philosophy regarding nature and the environment and the impact surfing has?
I believe that we cannot expect people, in particular, children to want to protect and take care of the ocean and the environment if they do not have any connection to it. Just learning about it in a classroom isn’t enough. They have to get out there and learn to love the trees, love the beach, love swimming, and I have found that surfing is a great way to create activists. If a child becomes a surfer you have an ocean protector for life!
Does fear play a role in what you do?
I believe if we stay present fear cannot exist, but if for some reason it creeps in then it can be used to help us grow as individuals and help us move further with our goals. It builds character.
Would you say that surfing has made you more spiritual?
I would say life has made me more spiritual!
"You are completely powerless, like a rag doll. Sometimes it feels like hitting concrete at 50 mph."
Garrett McNamara on the agony of a wipeout
Keali’i Mamala and yourself rode the waves at the Alaskan glaciers. Are there any more obscure daring spots in the world you’d like to hit? And what have you learnt from surfing waves like that?
I learnt that I will never surf a wave like that ever again, but yes I feel there are still many undiscovered waves out there and my next goal is to find the most perfect one!
Do you have any limits? Is there anything in terms of size or power that you would avoid?
I haven’t found my limit yet.
What does a bad wipe-out feel like? Are you ever genuinely afraid that you won’t come up?
Knock on wood, I have never not thought I would come up. The best way I can describe it is being a grain of sand in a washing machine on spin cycle. Sometimes it literally feels like you have been hit by a car. You are completely powerless, like a rag doll. Sometimes it feels like hitting concrete at 50 mph.
What’s your diet preparation for surfing big waves?
Plant based. Basically whatever my wife tells me to eat.
Tell us about your team and how your relationship with them get you to where you are?
Teamwork is everything in this sport. Sure, when you see the picture you only see one person but it takes so many people to make what we do possible. From our Jet Ski partner, to the safety driver, spotter on the cliff, sponsors, photographers, lifeguards. Big wave surfing really is a brotherhood, everyone always looking out for each other.
Hound of the Sea: Wild Man. Wild Waves. Wild Wisdom | Garrett McNamara’s memoirs is out now
Just open the book and wherever you land is exactly what you need for that moment.
Cloudbreak | Fiji
The wave that keeps calling me back. It only gets big and perfect on rare occasions and I am waiting for the day to surf it again.