In the tight-knit world of pro surfing, where a coveted seed on the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour is the measure of success, Garrett McNamara is among a handful of mavericks: athletes who have taken pro surfing beyond the tour and made a career chasing big waves around the globe. With his larger-than-life reputation as an adrenaline junkie, a big wave hellion and fearless charger, you might imagine Garrett as a crazed, barrel-chested superman whose singular focus is conquering the biggest waves in the world.
photo: Wilson Robiero
Au contraire. At 5’10” and 170 lbs., with a lean, athletic physique, he’s no big-wave muscleman. Neither is he a berserker charging heedlessly into the maw of death. Garrett is calculating and confident, as measured and exact with his words and thinking as with his surfing. And he’s not fearless; in fact, fear is one his prime movers. The only thing larger-than-life about Garrett is his lifted Ford F250.
What exactly has pushed Garrett to dedicate his life to chasing the biggest waves on the planet? Put simply, Garrett is addicted to the rush of surfing big waves, that is, waves with sixty-foot-plus faces, and he does everything he can to satisfy that addiction. “When the possibilities of death are knocking at the door, when you’re fearing for your life that’s when you get the rush,” he says. Still, G-Mac waves off the idea that he’s just a thrill-seeker. “I won’t jump out of plane. I’m not crazy. I do what I’m comfortable doing, what I love doing, what I’m passionate about: surfing big waves.” He laughs and says, “Swimming with sharks, no thank you. I’m even afraid of horses.
“The main thing is having fun. If you would go out there with no cameras, then you’re going out for the right reasons. For me, big wave surfing is natural and easy. It’s all about just being in the moment.” He hasn’t always been so Zen-like. That—along with the gray hair around the temples— has come with maturity. But early in his surfing career, it was all about his ego.
Garrett started surfing big waves when he was 16. He enjoyed charging the bigger, less crowded surf along O‘ahu’s North Shore at Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay and the outer reefs that break only on the biggest winter swells. When he was 17 his sponsor at the time, Surfer’s Alliance, entered Garrett in the Triple Crown of Surfing, a three-event series held on the North Shore every winter. Here was this callow high school senior, a kid who had dropped his childhood ambition of becoming an architectural engineer the minute his feet hit a surfboard, competing against the world’s top watermen. He made the quarterfinals at both Sunset and Pipeline, accepted the prize money and became by default a professional surfer. “It was a full fluke,” he recalls with a grin, “but I’m stoked for the fluke.”
At 17 and supported by a handful of sponsors who paid Garrett to fly around the world to compete on the ASP tour, you’d think he had it made—he was living any aspiring young surfer’s dream. But Garrett loves big waves, and the majority of competitions take place in small, less than stellar surf. The tour turned out not to be his yellow brick road to success; Garrett won when it was big and struggled when it was small. And losing was a bitter pill for a young prodigy like G-Mac to swallow.
So at 22, after five years on the tour, Garrett set a challenge for himself that had nothing to do with competition: get barreled on a wave with a forty-foot face. With the blinders of youth, Garrett felt invincible, like he could conquer any wave.
That winter a bombing northwest swell was wrapping huge walls of water into Waimea Bay. Garrett was all over it. He paddled out past the pack and sat beyond the boil, a marker in the lineup surfers use to gauge their position. A wave rose up on the horizon and Garrett paddled for it, but instead of a beautiful drop, the wave pitched him. He freefell to the bottom and landed on his board as the falling lip crushed him. Garrett surfaced coughing up blood. He had broken a rib.
Two weeks later Garrett paddled back out at Waimea Bay during another extra large swell. His rib hadn’t completely healed, but he was determined to get that barrel. Instead he fell, landing on his belly as the lip came down square on his back. Underwater, he says, he felt his heels touch his head. He surfaced seeing black and white, unable to breathe. Another surfer helped him to the beach. Garrett had herniated a disc, and at 22 his career as an ASP surfer was over. Even worse: After two months on the floor, Garrett could hardly get up. His pain was unimaginable, grotesque. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to surf big waves again.