At 49 years old, with over half his life spent chasing big waves, the “heaviest wipeout” distinction is no short order for Garrett McNamara, the self-described Hawaiian Hell Man. But that’s what happened on January 7, 2015 as he paddled into a 70-plus foot wave at Northern California’s famed Mavericks break, nearly making the airdrop before launching headfirst over the nose of his board. Skipping across the face of the wave, he then took the brunt of the wave’s force on his head.
After regaining consciousness in the ambulance, McNamara learned just how close he cut it. Mavericks local Ion Banner had to hop off the rescue jet ski to get him onboard. McNamara’s left arm was hanging lifelessly at his side.
“I went right to the hospital and they couldn’t operate, so I had to wait until the next day,” McNamara told Men’s Journal over an espresso while looking over the placid harbor at Nazaré, Portugal. “There were nine pieces in my shoulder. The shaft of the bone broke off from the head and lodged itself in my pectoral muscle. So for 24 hours I had to sleep with it in my pec.”
When McNamara finally made it into surgery, the doctors saw just how shattered his bone was. They had to reevaluate while he was under anesthesia, using a metal plate and pin to hold the wreckage together. The good news: there was no ligament or tendon damage.
McNamara was told to start stretching it the next day. His first doctor said six months later he’d be more or less back to normal. Then things took a dramatic turn for the worse.
“A week after surgery, I went to the next doctor for the x-ray follow-up,” McNamara says. “The first surgery had failed. The nine pieces that they had attached to the bone had all dropped and my auxiliary nerve wasn’t firing, so the muscles didn’t hold my arm in place. I had to get cut open again.”
Now home in Hawaii, McNamara’s second surgery was an aggressive one. Before there was one stitch, now there were ten — and that times as many side effects.
“When I woke up from that, my arm was dead weight,” McNamara says. “The 24-hour nerve blocker wore off after four hours and the pain set it. I was defeated and so miserable. I really didn’t want to be here. I wanted to check out.”
McNamara received a laundry list of pain medications, but they only made him fuzzy and didn’t dull the shooting agony in his left shoulder. For three months he endured never-ending pain. His wife, Nicole, would gently stretch him to prevent scar tissue. Then the bad news came.
“You’ll never surf again.”
McNamara’s second doctor made the devastating diagnosis after determining that his auxiliary nerve, which controls much of the arm’s movement, was basically non-existent. The nerve sometimes doesn’t grow back, and if it does it’s at a snail’s pace of about a millimeter per week. Scar tissue build-up was a near certainty. The bleak prognosis only inspired McNamara to work harder than ever at his recovery.
He assembled a team of therapists and healers and set about on a prizefighter’s workout regime. He incorporated traditional Hawaiian medicine and lomi lomi massage into his recovery. He threw himself into writing and editing his memoir Hound of the Sea. Nicole researched the best natural, organic foods, supplements, and essential oils.
Every morning he drank turmeric tea before heading off to a 5 a.m. training session with North Shore jujitsu and functional fitness trainer Daniel Bachmann. If he wasn’t getting stretched out by one of his therapists, he was stretching himself out at a Bikram yoga class. The range of motion was growing along with his confidence.
“In the back of my mind I knew, at the minimum, I’d be able to grab the rope and tow-in,” McNamara says. “I always thought about Bethany [Hamilton, who continues to win events at the pro level after losing an arm to a shark attack in 2003]. If she can one-arm it, and I have two that kind of work, I can probably paddle into some waves.”
Hovering around 40 percent recovery, McNamara left for his second home in Nazaré. His osteopath and Pilates instructor became his team on the other side of the Atlantic, and his recovery speeded up. A few months later, he’s now at 80 percent, but he’s not rushing anything.
“My doctor here, when he saw me last he kept saying, ‘Milagre, milagre! You’re going to be 110 percent! But I knew I didn’t want to rush it.”
McNamara paddles around the harbor of Nazaré, one of the deepest in Europe that remains startlingly calm even when monstrous waves are breaking at the lighthouse on the north side of town. He paddled out on his first big day this October with Australian Jamie Mitchell. The forecast called for ten feet, it was breaking around 30.
“Luckily a wave came right to me and I rode it all the way to the beach,” McNamara says looking out to the lighthouse. “There’s something in the back of my mind that’s still there. I don’t want to say I’m hesitant, but I am a little more cautious. I’m not really focused on catching waves yet — I’m focused on my decision-making.”
For someone who once didn’t mind “having a little fun underwater” after falling on waves the size of a McMansion, McNamara is a changed man. He’s focused now on taking off on the waves he knows he’ll make. “I want to go straight back to where this happened to get back on the horse,” McNamara says. “I see myself doing it January 7, a year later. When they said maybe I’ll never surf and no way in a year. I want to be back at Mavs on a big swell.”
This time he’ll paddle harder and keep his stance lower, techniques he reflects on often when reliving his wipeout. Most of all, he’ll take off on the waves he knows he’ll make. And with the confidence his recovery has given him, there’s little doubt he’ll make them.