1 October 2019
1 October 2019
It’s one of the world’s most iconic images – a massive wall of water with a tiny speck sliding down its face. The speck is actually a surfer, and with a building in the foreground of the shot providing some perspective, it’s clear that this is one monster ride.
The surfer is Garrett McNamara, and the eight-year world record holder was the special guest at a Mercedes me Store Melbourne event, Mercedes me X Sport, to recount his famous and occasionally life-threatening career as the world’s foremost big wave surfer.
The 52-year-old American held the official Guinness World Record from 2011 until early 2018 for a 78-foot (23.7 metres) monster he tamed at Nazare in Portugal.
Yet the photograph on the big screen, as McNamara chats animatedly to event MC Mark Beretta, is something much bigger. Although never ratified as an official world record, the wave in the photo – surfed at Nazare in 2013 – was estimated at 100 feet tall (30.5 metres), or around the height of a seven-storey building.
McNamara described surfing the 100-footer not as frightening, but “super frustrating” because he wasn’t aiming for a record that day, but hunting a “barrel”, where the wave curls over and the surfer rides inside the tube.
“I’m going faster than I’ve ever gone, I’m straining on the (foot) straps, my foot came out so I put it back in, I’m looking for the barrel and there’s no barrel, so I wanted to kick out,” he said.
McNamara exudes confidence in both his ability and his equipment, which includes a cutting-edge big wave surfboard custom-made for him by Mercedes-Benz – dubbed ‘the Silver Arrow of the sea’ – as well as a super-tough buoyancy wetsuit and an inflatable vest. But it wasn’t always the case.
As a 15-year-old, he “ate it” on a wave at Hawaii’s renowned big wave mecca, Sunset, and swore he would never again surf waves over 10 feet tall.
“Then when I was 16, this big Peruvian guy who was like my dad at the time, he was my mentor, he looked after us, he literally grabbed me by the neck and said ‘we’re going out at Sunset’,” McNamara told the capacity crowd at Mercedes me Store Melbourne.
“He gave me the perfect board and all this advice, where to paddle and take off, and I ‘popped’ every single wave that came in. From that day forward, I was hooked and big waves were my life, and I wanted bigger and bigger and bigger.”
He turned professional and began surfing the world tour circuit to earn an income; but at 22, the lip of a wave landed on his back and snapped his spine. He remembers the grisly sensation of his foot kicking the back of his head and knew he was in trouble. Another surfer carried him from the water and he ended up in hospital in a life-threatening condition. When he came to, he was told that he would never surf big waves again.
Fortunately, his body still had some growing to do, and over the next few years his spine mended perfectly and he was “ready to go again”.
NcNamara heard a whisper from a friend about a massive wave in Portugal that was similar to one of his favourite Hawaiian breaks, known as Jaws, but without the crowds of tow-in surfers.
“The great thing was that I had zero expectations (about Nazare), I get there the first day and walk up to the cliff and I see the biggest waves I’ve ever seen, right there, and this is the holy grail,” he said.
“It’s like a lightbulb (moment), I’d been searching for the 100-foot wave for about 10 years and there it was, right in front of me.”
Over the succeeding years, McNamara’s feats have made Nazare world-famous. Although there have been times when he has felt his life was in danger, he says he doesn’t feel fear.
“Fear is a choice. Fear is something that is manufactured in the mind when you’re thinking about the past or the future,” he said.
“When I’m surfing I’m so comfortable and having so much fun and really choosing to enjoy whatever’s going on, so fear doesn’t enter my mind.
“I have more fear when I’m driving on the road and a kangaroo’s about to jump out at me!”
To stay up to speed with future events at Mercedes me Store Melbourne, sign up to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook.
By Steve Colquhoun