Garrett McNamara dedicated his life to a lofty goal: surfing the largest wave ever surfed. Pioneer and discoverer of new surfing spots, he converted Nazaré into a world-renowned surfing hub. There he eventually found the two largest waves ever surfed at the time (78 and 100 feet respectively), breaking the world record twice. His exploits have been depicted in HBO‘s docu-series “100 foot wave“.

An unsurfable wave

Every morning, while driving to his surf shop, Garrett McNamara passed by a seafront road in Hawaii. With three sons and the bills to pay, he had decided to give up on professional surfing. However, he wasn’t happy. Beyond the guardrail, he could see the waves. That’s where he wanted to be.

Years after, he suddenly received an email from Dino Casimiro, a local photographer and surf enthusiast in Nazaré, a small fishing town on the Atlantic coast in western Portugal. Attached there was the photo of a gigantic 100-foot wave. Garrett didn’t know if it was surfable or not, and he surely didn’t know that it would become his obsession. He just knew one thing: he wanted to surf it. Finally, he left for Nazaré with his second wife, Nicole, to discover this unknown hub of gigantic waves.

“100-foot wave” © HBO

The secret of Nazaré

There are different types of waves. Garrett McNamara spent his first period in Praia do Norte, a village above the town of Nazaré, trying to understand the dangerous landscape where he wanted to jump in. Here’s a metaphoric example of what he discovered. In terms of waves, you could be a Fiji, a wave formed on a regular coral reef, with the water that creates a perfect tube for surfing. Or you could be a Nazaré, born from a sandy, irregular bottom. A wave that never breaks in the same point twice in a row, so you have to wander around because you never know where the next one could form. In a word: unpredictable.

The secret of Nazaré is buried at the bottom of the sea. An underwater canyon, 5 km deep, brings out the giant waves from under the sea.

“100-foot wave” © HBO

Pioneers of the sea: the tow-in surfing technique

The next step for Garrett was building a team. Surfing big waves can’t be done alone, paddling by hand. You need a Jet Ski to drag you on to the wave, a good pilot, and a rescue team ready to catch you if things go wrong. It’s called Tow-in surfing. Since this type of wave is so unpredictable, you also need some scouts on the coast, guiding the pilot via radio right to the wave.

But when Garrett McNamara asked the surfing community to join him in the Nazaré 100 feet wave project, no one was interested, despite his famous reputation as a surfer. Most American surfers underestimated Nazaré and didn’t want to bother checking out its waves. Therefore, Garret contacted two underrated British surfers, Andrew “Cotty” Cotton, and Al Mennie, together with Nicole’s brother CJ Macias. They found themselves involved in the biggest project of their lives.

Tow-in surfing, © Fabio Penna

The controversial surfing record

After many fails and severe wipeouts, McNamara’s team was still looking for the surfer’s white whale. In November 2011, they eventually found it. Towed by a good pilot as Andrew “Cotty,” McNamara rode a 78-foot wave with his board and got out unharmed. A local photographer was filming the scene: a gigantic water wall with a small human dot in the middle. Although McNamara wanted to wait before revealing the exploit, the video went viral: from CNN to ESPN, everyone showed the footage with numerous titles that classified the wave as 90 feet high, causing the reaction of the surfing world, and Garrett’s image was put at risk, even though he reached the world record.

Garrett McNamara,  © Web Summit

The real 100-foot wave

While the world was still watching the breathtaking outcome, Garrett McNamara hadn’t abandoned his original dream: the mythical 100-foot wave he saw years before in the photo. In the main time, Nazaré became famous in the surfing world, and many professional surfers started to “invade” the place. There were well-known names such as Maya Gabeira and Kai Lenny, and McNamara offered them his knowledge when asked about it. In January 2013, the underwater canyon erupted with an estimated 100-foot wave, and Garrett didn’t miss the appointment. Again, the video went viral, and Garrett’s career entered the legend.

Garrett McNamara had dedicated all his life to the sport of surfing. It’s not sure if his obsession drove him to things like happiness or interior peace. At this level, there’s always more to achieve for an agonist grown with this type of mentality. What’s sure is that this dream drove him to his goals: surfing one of the biggest waves ever, converting his beloved Nazaré into the world’s preeminent big-wave surfing destination.