Jannuary 28th 2013 – Garrett McNamara rode probably what was supposedly the biggest wave in surf history ever. Was it 100 feet tall? Well, we don’t know (yet). But at least it was higher than it was thought to be possible just a few years ago. And GMAC is convinced: There are bigger waves coming than that.
Garrett McNamara’s start into life at first didn’t look like one of the greatest surfers of our times was born. He grew up in Massachusetts – far off regions known for surfing. If it wasn’t for coincidence and his mother’s plans to move to Hawaii, he would probably never have become a surfer at all. And if it wasn’t for a teenager friend when Garrett was 16 he might have become merely an ordinary surfer. “In my early youth I had ridden just small waves because I was scared of anything bigger than 6 feet. When I was 15 I vowed to never surf waves over 6 feet. And then this friend forced me into bigger waves, he literally dragged me there – and suddenly I loved it. And everything started from there,” he remembers.
History of Big Wave riding
At that time, big wave surfing was a totally different deal. Watermen used to ride huge boards, 12 feet and even longer, to reach enough speed by paddling to actually catch the wave. The rule is simple: The bigger the wave, the more speed you need to actually catch it. Then a limit of 12-15 metres was considered the max what was surfable and was reserved for the strongest paddlers only. Garrett was soon becoming one of these wild guys: a strong paddler who went bigger and bigger since he got hooked through the experience with his teenage friend.
Then in the nineties a group of pioneers started using motorboats at first and just a little later jetskis to get beyond the limitations of paddling power. The motor driven speed made it possible to catch even bigger waves. This also effected board size: Suddenly smaller boards specifically for tow-in surfing came up.
Modern big wave surfers ride boards that are much shorter than old big wave guns. Riding waves in that height was made possible by jet skis: They drag the surfers into the waves – and are capable of rescuing surfers out of the devastating white waters.
It seemed the only restrictions left were the human body and the incredible powers such big waves generate: A wipeout on a 20 metre wave meant to be almost torn apart, getting dragged up to 16 metres under water, sometimes being held down for a minute or two. “Well, every surfer has his personal comfort zone and with good preparation you can extend it. You can get more secure, better equipped with material and also mentally prepared and suddenly you find yourself in bigger surf, surfing better, having more fun. To have fun in bigger waves depends on you and doing your homework.” says McNamara.
Even though the scene of big wave surfers was eager to find even bigger waves, Nazaré was not a famous big wave spot for a long time. In 2010 Garrett McNamara – by then a globally known extreme watermen – was about to change that.
Nazaré is a small village on the Portuguese coast with white buildings, narrow streets, a long beach and a lighthouse set on a rock above the city. In summer, the beach and the lazy atmosphere attract over 100 000 people, whereas in winter it gets calmer with a mere population of 10 000. And after years of being just another beach town, the town hall invited Garrett McNamara to explore their odd sight: Giant waves.
Standing there, looking at a natural phenomenon like this simply puts you in a state of awe. Actually you just get dull and dizzy, as the beauty is really hard to grasp.
It’s fair to say giant waves aren’t something special: At all times they form and break somewhere. However, giant waves which aren’t just breaking as avalanches of formless white water are exceptionally rare. A strong swell is just one part of the equation.
Nazaré as a location adds a certain ingredient which can be found on just a few places world wide. It is incredible in the sense that just a couple of miles north and south of the village, waves reach just regular size, whereas at the same time in Nazaré mutant waves appear. The reason for this is an irregularity of the ocean floor: the so called “Nazaré Canyon”. It’s an ocean floor valley up to 5000 metres deep and reaching 250 kilometers out into the open ocean.
Arriving swells get caught in this canyon, the waves propagate over the canyon at different speeds, converge with each other and the rock formations compress and lead the swell directly to the lighthouse of Nazaré. There, the depth suddenly decreases to just a couple of metres and all that wave energy piles up and forms those ridiculously huge waves.
The Nazaré Canyon is an irregularity of the ocean floor: swells can pass through the canyon without any resistance while getting compressed at the same time. The result: huge giant crazy mutant waves.
“Surprisingly, Nazaré was one of the best kept secrets in the big surfing world. Its sand bottom is very unconventional for a big wave spot and it breaks a couple of hundred metres off shore – which is incredibly close to land for such waves – and still nobody really knows about it.” says Garrett – and gets even more excited: “Nazaré should be the 8th world wonder: Nowhere else on the planet you can see such big waves from such a close distance. The rocks there with the lighthouse, the big stairs that lead down to the platform… it’s like a superdome for wave watching.”
Nazaré in action, Garrett in action: He was the one who made Nazaré famous. Camera teams (like ours) are a common sight and the inhabitants greet Garrett on the streets. He’s a local hero.
Preparing for the day
McNamara spent the last 3 winter seasons in Nazaré to wait for the right moment. Surely the town has changed since his first arrival: The world record wave from 2011 had put the little town on the map and into the consciousness of the surfing world. Tourism has increased, especially in the winter when the huge swells arrive and the attraction of the town – the waves – can be seen from very close distance.
Meanwhile McNamara stays focused. Everything is lined up to put him in the line up at the right time. When he’s in the US for other events, he has a private jet available in case the conditions seem like there’s huge surf arriving. “Everything changes so fast here, the wind, the weather, the swell. We do a lot of science, study the forecasts – but sometimes freakish swells appears here in Nazaré we weren’t expecting. Then it’s good to have the jet to fly in from New York within 5 hours. The pilot even has our passports, so we’re all set in case I’m asked to be there at a particular day!”
Wipe outs on waves like this are not an inconvenience, they are a threat for your body, mind and life. Garretts custom made wetsuit features a whole lot of flotation and protectional pads to minimize risks.
During these times Garret has developed a special wetsuit. It looks rather like an austronaut’s suit than a wetsuit. Foamy pads in the arms, the chest, the back and the legs not only protect him from sharp fins, the hard board or even the sand bottom in case of a wipeout – they also provide flotation. “With this, when I get pounded by a giant wave, I don’t even try to swim, I just relax. Without any added flotation you would stay underwater forever. With that suit I just try to stay calm and wait.” The drawback of such a suit is of course comfort: “In Hawaii I don’t use a wetsuit at all. But here conditions are harsh and I need to train with the suit everyday in order to get used to the added stiffness. Every movement is harder – but in every major wipeot I realize how important that piece is for my surfing…”
On the 28th of Jannuary 2013, a major swell approached. The Nazaré canyon compressed all the swell energy and spit out 100 feet waves – and McNamara was there again. With this wave, he apparently broke his own record from 2011 when he rode a 74 feet wave on a calm day in November.”When I’m dropping in on one of these giant waves, I’m just screaming “OH MY GOOOD!” and the rush is so strong I can’t even hear the wave or look at it. You have to be so concentrated, everything is going so fast… And when I’m on the wave I’m screaming “THANK YOU GOD!” and I’m just trying to not fall off.” he describes the sensation. “It is the most pure, intense, odd feeling and the rush is incredible. But I feel comfortable, I will always feel comfortable in the water. If I would just be scared and if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it. You don’t do stuff like that for other people than for yourself. If you try it for the wrong reasons, chances are too high you’ll fail.”
Staying in Nazaré – it’s not over yet!
“Nazaré has changed since my world record I guess. But for me staying here remained the same. There is more attention on what I’m doing and more people know me, but apart from that I have the same team, the same jet skis, the same support. I’m the same. I enjoy being here – I just want to have fun.” the 45-year old Hawaiian grins. When we visited Garrett in November last year, he said he was still waiting for a special day. “I have studied this place, I’ve looked at wave charts and forecasts all day long. I am pretty sure we haven’t seen the biggest waves possible here. When all conditions are perfect, when everything lines up, waves of 150 feet can appear here in Nazaré. And in case I’m still here, I’ll be on it.”
And at the end he added: “Some people might call me crazy. But I love what I do. I have a goal, I write it down and focus on it. That’s what I do. Some people don’t even know what to do with their lives… that’s crazy. If everybody in this world would do what he loves to do, everybody would be happy.”