By: Taylor Grey
Photo Courtesy of Garrett McNamara

For most of us, heading toward a sixty foot wave isn’t something that even makes our bucket list.  But for extreme big wave surfer, Garrett McNamara, who calls the ocean “my church and my playground all in one,” it’s all in a day’s work.  “I’m basically always on call,” he says.  “If the waves are going to be sixty feet or bigger somewhere, I’ll take off and go.”  Staying on-the-go is not only a skill he has perfected—the past few years have been packed with travel, surf camps, television shows, documentary filming and charity— but also a family motto.

The McNamara name is synonymous with the big waves of Oahu’s North Shore.  Garrett’s younger brother, Liam, is a Pipeline surfer.  His nephews, Landon and Makai, are up-and-comers set to build on the family dynasty.  Since going pro at seventeen, Garrett, or “GMac” as he is known, has tackled every major surfing endeavor:  Triple Crown Series, tow-in surfing, surfing “Tsunami-sized waves” formed by calving glaciers, and most recently, Stand Up Paddle.  You may think he would be able to rest easy and take comfort in these accomplishments, possibly kick his feet up and watch waves from the shore instead of grabbing a board and chasing them down.  Not so, says the father of three who has a television show with Oprah Winfrey’s Network and surfing documentary in production.  “Every new [project] is a challenge that brings personal growth.  I’m still learning from my experiences.”  In a family whose culture is distinctively surf –centric, it’s foreseeable that his children may feel pressure to uphold the tradition of tackling death-defying waves.  McNamara insists there is no pressure on his kids to surf, but has no doubt they will develop into watermen.  “My youngest is only two, but she’s ready to go.”

This “go” approach to life took McNamara 30 miles up the Copper River in Alaska to surf tidal waves created from calving glaciers.  Calving occurs when pieces of a tidewater glacier break off and fall into the sea. The sounds associated with the process are as magnificent and intimidating as the act of ice crashing into water.  When a friend sent video of the phenomenon, he knew it was something he had to try.

“I’ve surfed all over the world, the biggest waves I can find.”  (Tahiti, Australia, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Mavericks and Shark Park, are just a sample of the locations on his resume)  “But nothing came close to what I experienced in Alaska.

I haven’t been able to get a rush since then.  Not even surfing in Nazare, North Canyon, Portugal, where I saw waves bigger than 100 feet and up to 120 feet could compare.”

So what made this such an adrenaline-inducing experience for a veteran big-wave rider?  The answer has to do with the way waves are formed.  When glaciers calve, waves are created from water displacement rather than low pressure.  “As surfers, we predict what size a wave will be by the pressure,” McNamara explains.  “But in Alaska, this was totally unknown.  If the wave doesn’t land on you, you don’t know how big, how far or how long it will be.”  Fortunately, no waves landed on top of him and the trip was a success.  A documentary, tentatively titled The Glacier Project, was filmed during the experience, which is set for limited theater release in February, followed by television, then DVD.  “We’re pondering titling it, White Thunder, because that’s what native Alaskans call it when [glaciers] calve.”

Another production, Extreme Watermen, a television show covering everything it takes to achieve the title’s status, is being shopped after being shot over a six month period in Oahu and California.  With all this attention on the surfing world, landlubbers and water babies alike may be curious to pinpoint what it is about surfing that makes the sport so appealing.  According to McNamara, it’s fear.  “Just about every person on the planet has had a bad experience on the water, either in the bathtub, lake or ocean, so when they see us riding they’re naturally captivated.  So if Gatorade or another corporate sponsor does a commercial with a big wave rider, people are going to watch because here’s this guy riding a gigantic wave.  People don’t want to change the channel—don’t want to look away because they’re wondering, ‘How does he survive?  Quick! Let’s get to the store and buy some Gatorade,’” McNamara laughs.  “It’s an exciting time for big-wave riders.”

As recognition for the sport increases, so do opportunities to give back.  Of his many recent undertakings, McNamara is most enthusiastic to discuss Surfers Healing, an organization that teaches children with autism how to surf.

“We get to recharge our batteries with the children.  In the process the kids accomplish something they never thought possible.  By the end of the camp, parents are in tears, we’re in tears—  joyful tears,”

says McNamara who calls the work “almost selfish” because of the good feeling that comes from giving hope to others.  “I think it’s so emotional because, when parents get the [autism] diagnosis, their hopes and dreams [for their children] crash down.  It becomes a battle getting through the day without a major issue or breakdown.”  Surfers Healing not only teaches a skill, but adjusts expectations as well.

Getting ready to tow into giant waves from a helicopter with his son Titus on hand

McNamara got involved with the foundation when close friend and fellow professional surfer, Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz and his wife Danielle formed it after their son, Isaiah, was diagnosed with autism.  Isaiah is “built, around 320 pounds and 6’4 and when he’s on the beach going for the ocean you get out of his way,” McNamara jokes.  “He’s a sweetheart, but once in a while he’ll have a really bad episode.  That’s the challenge [working] with autism.  All the kids are so different and over the spectrum— we work with everyone, from severe, non-verbal to highly functioning with special talent.”  All of the instructors are professional surfers and friends of the family handpicked by Izzy— a factor that ultimately keeps the camps personal, no matter how many participants sign up.

McNamara remembers one boy from Montauk that had so much energy his mother would put him in the water and watch him paddle from lifeguard tower to tower.  “We were able to work with him and channel that [energy].  By the end [of the camp], he was up on his own,” which is McNamara’s goal for each event.  “I’ll find [a kid] who’s got enough skill to detach.  I’ll work with him one-on-one throughout the day and commit to taking him surfing when I leave.”

Surfers Healing relies on public support to expand its reach.  Currently, each camp location has an active branch, including Mexico, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York.  “Sometimes we’ll do a new one and see if we reach a lot of parents.  It’s demanding, so we try to keep it streamlined.”  Demand is likely to increase once the Oprah Winfrey Network highlights the camps.  Crews filmed for a full year with episodes set for release this year.

This past August, McNamara traveled to New York City to Stand Up Paddle the Hudson River to raise money and awareness for Surfers’ Healing.  When asked to describe what it was like paddling on the Hudson for 28 miles, the distance reported in previous articles, McNamara said, “The weather was perfect and the current goes with you, but it wasn’t 28 miles.  We paddled 32 [miles].”  This admission shouldn’t be surprising.

One of these waves could be your last- Garrett wiping out carefully in Shark Park

It seems McNamara is incapable of doing anything small-scale.  If he’s going to ride waves, he prefers them five stories tall.  When it comes to family, it’s first.  If travel is involved, he’s going to circle the globe.  Chances are a television crew will follow.  When it’s time to Stand Up Paddle for charity, he’ll opt for 32 miles over 28.  No matter what he chooses in the future, one thing is certain.  Garrett McNamara will do it bigger, better and with more heart than it has ever been done.

* To learn more about Surfers Healing, please visit, www.surfershealing.org