Surfer Garrett McNamara: 'It Was Only When I Got In The Wave That I Saw The Size. I Was In Awe'
Garrett McNamara tells how he rode the highest recorded wave in Europe.
Garrett McNamara wasn't planning to surf on 1 November. "I just didn't really feel it," he says. He agreed, however, that he would tow his British friend and fellow big wave surfer, Andrew Cotton, on his jetski.
What happened during that session has already entered surfing lore. Persuaded to take a wave, McNamara, 44, found himself on a freak mountain of water 90ft (30m) high, surfing one of the biggest waves ever ridden, probably the largest in Europe and the biggest recorded on film.
The video and photographs of Mc-Namara's ride have been viewed by hundreds of thousands on the internet. They depict a tiny figure dropping down against a huge blue, hurtling backdrop.
It is all the more extraordinary because of the hazardous nature of the break, an hour north of Lisbon, where some of the world's biggest waves collapse almost on the shoreline.
Known as "Gmac", McNamara, who was born far from the ocean in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is one of the world's best-known big wave riders, taking up surfing after his family moved to Hawaii's North Shore. He has surfed tsunami waves caused by calving icebergs and ridden some of the world's biggest monsters.
"We'd been invited by the government of Portugal to Nazaré to investigate it for a big wave competition," he recalls. "There is an underwater canyon 1,000ft deep that runs from the ocean right up to the cliffs. It's like a funnel. At its ocean end it's three miles wide but narrows as it gets closer to the shore and when there is a big swell it acts like an amplifier."
Unlike many of the other surf breaks that hold huge waves, which are offshore, those riding at Nazaré are so close to the overlooking cliffs, says McNamara, that he can shout to his watching friends.
"The harbour where the jetskis are kept is about five minutes' ride away. I can see it from my hotel window. You go out and it can be almost flat as you leave and ride along the coast. You start seeing the waves after about half a mile when you pass some rocks and turn a point. Then you are in the break. It's unique. The waves break into cliffs 300ft in height. You can't contemplate coming off because it would kill you."
Big wave surfing requires special equipment and a different approach to riding ordinary waves. On 1 November McNamara was equipped with a buoyancy aid and knee braces to protect his joints from the battering a surfer's legs suffer bouncing down the huge wave faces.
"It looks smooth but it's not. It's like bouncing down moguls [on a ski slope]. You hit every ripple in the water." It is for precisely this reason that in the huge sets, the second wave is often preferable. "The first wave grooms the sea bottom and can make the second smoother," McNamara explains.
On 1 November McNamara was not equipped with an emergency air supply to improve his chances of survival if he were to be held down by the surging water after coming off his board. His 6ft board is equipped with feet straps, like a snowboard, to prevent him being thrown off, and loaded with 10lbs (5kg) of extra weight to increase momentum at the beginning of the ride. Even catching big waves is different to ordinary surfing. The speed of big waves makes it difficult to paddle fast enough ahead of the wave to catch them, so jetskis are used to tow the surfer at speed on to the breaking crest and to recover the surfer at the end of his ride – a dangerous business in its own right.
"We went round and I just wasn't feeling it that much," McNamara said. "When we got round to the break it did seem big but I was just going to tow Andrew. But we still weren't expecting much. I didn't feel so good. Then the other guys were saying you've got to go. You've got to go and – boom! – I was on the rope and on a giant wave.
"Even then I just didn't realise how big it was. So I started and I kept going down and down and the drop seemed like forever. And I thought – wow! I started making the bottom turn and I felt the lip hit me. You can see it in the video. Usually I don't have time to look around but you see me look round twice and then I get hit by the white water on the shoulder and it feels like a ton of bricks. I've been hit like that before and I'm thinking: I've got to make this. I've never been held down by a wave that size and I've ridden big waves. I've seen waves rip a guy's arms off so there is nothing holding them on but skin and I'm thinking this could tear my head off.
"That's when I knew that it was pretty damn big. Andrew picked me up. And I'm shouting: 'Put me in deeper. Deeper!' And Andrew is looking at me like I'm a lunatic. Everyone else is saying: 'It's a monster. We're going in.'
"It's only when I got in that I saw the footage. I was in awe. I mean I felt it was a decent size. But you can see it then pops up 10, 20, 30 feet higher. It just supersizes." Despite being acclaimed as a world record-breaking wave, McNamara is modest. "I know it was not 100ft so I'll leave the sponsors and others to say how big it really was."
He is also not convinced he wants to repeat the experience. "I'm not sure I want to ride that peak again," he admits.