The frantic search for air, trying to figure out which way is up as you’re being pummeled by a wave—it’s an experience that sounds anything but enjoyable. Yet for professional big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara, it’s bliss.
“I’ve probably had the worst wipeouts in surfing, and I’ve enjoyed every one of them,” McNamara says. “When I’m riding a wave and making it, it’s just like, ‘Alright, yeah, another wave.’ But when you’re getting pounded and thrown in every direction, when you have no control, you really feel alive.”
That fearless attitude has led this thrill seeker on a mission to surf the world’s biggest waves. In 2013, McNamara rode an estimated 100-footer off the coast of Nazare, Portugal, that was later reported to be the largest wave ever surfed.
“[It] was definitely the biggest wave I’ve ever been on,” McNamara says. “The drop was endless—I never even made it halfway to the bottom of the wave. It was a totally different type of ride, because normally I’m riding waves that break top to bottom. This thing was so huge [that] there wasn’t really a bottom. It was like, ‘How big is this? Where is the bottom?’ It was amazing.”
After moving to Hawaii at age 11, McNamara took up surfing as a hobby (“That was what you did in Hawaii if you lived near the beach,” he explains). It was soon apparent, though, he was destined for bigger things. “It just kind of came naturally. I lived for big waves. It’s where I felt comfortable and I could surf with ease. With smaller waves, it didn’t feel as natural,” he says.
“A lot of reading,” he says. “Spiritual books. Being right with your mind, focusing on staying in the moment rather than thinking about what could happen or what has happened. When you’re present, you’re connected.”
Still, staying in the moment doesn’t stop this 45-year-old from thinking ahead. McNamara says he plans on surfing as long as his body allows him. “I didn’t get what I was looking for [in Portugal], so it’s definitely not the last one,” he says. “The ocean is my church and my playground, and it’s where I love to be. It’s where I belong.”
Take It to Another Level: McNamara’s advice for aspiring big-wave surfers
“Work your way up. You need to know how to surf first, and it’s best to start out with smaller waves. But, for giant waves, you’ve got to be ready— mind, body, spirit, heart. You’ve got to be right with yourself. If you’re right with yourself, you’re physically ready, and you’re mentally ready, then just go and do it.
To be physically ready, I do a lot of yoga. I definitely stretch beforehand; It’s always good to stretch afterward, too. Mainly I do yoga to prepare. Preparation is everything, and having the right safety crew in place is essential.”