Big Wave's Wild Man: The Story of Garrett McNamara

Credit: Courtesy Harper Collins

If surfing has an Evel Knievel, it would be 49-year-old Garrett McNamara. He earned his cred as a kid on Hawaii's famed North Shore, holding his own on the world's heaviest breaks and among the world's toughest locales. He set a Guinness World Record by riding a 78-foot wave in 2011 and followed that up with a possible 100-footer in 2013. He's had a Jet Ski tow him into a wave generated by a calving Alaskan glacier, and in 2012 he even used a controversial jet-powered board to ride monster waves at Cortes Bank, a hundred miles off the coast of California.

In his new memoir, Hound of the Sea: Wild Man, Wild Waves, Wild Wisdom, McNamara gives an honest, entertaining, and unvarnished look at how he stumbled from a troubled youth to his current status as the reigning big-wave hero in the age of tow-in surfing, motorized surfboards, and 24-hour social-media self-promotion.

Certainly his childhood, a horror show of flaky 1970s hippie parenting, played a role. His father ran a vegetarian restaurant in Berkeley that served peyote tea at its opening, and McNamara smoked weed and tripped on psychedelics before he was six. His mother had her own foibles: When McNamara was 10, she joined a fundamentalist Christian cult, dressed her sons in white sheets (“just as Christ did," she explained to them), and dragged them on a 600-mile walk from Northern California to the Canadian border, on which they ate from dumpsters and slept near roadsides.

When McNamara was 11, his mother took her sons to Oahu. Days after they arrived, the McNamara boys got a giant longboard and taught themselves to surf. At 16, goaded on by a drug-dealer friend, McNamara made his first foray into big waves. A year later, "puffing 10 big fat joints a day," he joined the pro circuit. Then, in the early 1990s, everything changed. While standing onshore at Oahu's Sunset Beach, he witnessed Laird Hamilton's famous first tow-in experiments. In a flash, McNamara saw the potential: "Everything would be more epic," he writes. "The rides, the drops, the rush. All those big waves I loved? It was as if God had suddenly tripled the supply." McNamara got the gear, found some partners, and started pulling into waves that reminded him of the cartoon-size swells he'd sketched as a kid — "I'd become the little surfer in my childhood drawings."

McNamara's tale is packed with scary moments, such as a wipeout that nearly broke his back, the terror he felt floating next to that 400-foot-tall Alaskan glacier, knowing he could be flattened by falling ice, and that contentious 2013 ride that may land him in the record books again — estimates of the wave, gauged somewhat imprecisely from photos and the white-knuckle video on YouTube, range from 60 to 110 feet. Whatever its height, it was a giant: "I let go of the rope. Must be going 60 miles an hour. But the wave keeps backing off. It just wants to go up. It doesn't want to break. It's like I'm snowboarding."

During his far-flung pursuits, McNamara has often courted controversy, including his jet-powered rides at Cortes. He and surfer Greg Long wiped out on the same 50-footer; Long nearly drowned, and McNamara was heavily criticized for dropping in ahead of him. But perhaps the memoir's biggest surprise is McNamara's painful honesty. He describes marrying way too young and developing some seriously bad habits: "escaping boredom and my reality by partying," as he euphemistically puts it. McNamara has sobered up and now lives in Nazaré, Portugal, with his second wife and their son — within walking distance of the break where he dropped in on that monster, still considered the biggest wave ever ridden.