One day about four years ago, before he rode what he calls "the wave," Garrett McNamara was driving in Fort Lauderdale with his wife, Nicole, when a group of teenagers pulled alongside his car and clamored to get his attention.
"These kids are all waving and hooting and hollering, and I'm just like waving and giving the shaka. 'Yeah, hi, kids,' " McNamara recalls. "And they're like, 'Roll down the window.' So I roll down the window, and they're all, 'Miss Macias!' Because my wife was a teacher here, so they're yelling for her, not me. They could not care less who I was, and had no idea. It was awesome. Humbling and awesome at the same time."
Because "humbling and awesome" also describes what McNamara does for a living, with the "60 Minutes" profile, viral videos and scars to prove it, he can be forgiven for assuming those kids were his fans, and not his wife's. In recent years, McNamara has become one of the world's most recognizable big-wave surfers, and he currently holds the Guinness World Record for the largest wave ever ridden. Raised in Hawaii, and a professional surfer since his late teens, McNamara has spent much of his adult life monitoring and taming monster swells across the globe. It's safe to assume that if, right now, a wave with a 50-foot face were about to crash against a reef off some obscure Indonesian island, McNamara would be aware of it. And wishing he were on it.
On the morning of this interview, however, McNamara is once again driving through Fort Lauderdale, far from even a trace of swell. Waves are all but nonexistent in South Florida during the summer, and this year has proved no different, making Fort Lauderdale an ideal spot for McNamara to concentrate on his daily, four-part training program and, more important, the arrival of his fourth child, a boy due on Aug. 10, which is also the day McNamara will turn 47.
Fort Lauderdale is home to Nicole McNamara's parents, and to her alma mater, St. Thomas Aquinas High School, at whose Bienes Center for the Arts her husband will appear on Aug. 27 to discuss his career, big-wave surfing and a Carl Jung-meets-Brian Wilson philosophy that promotes the idea that "it's never too early and it's never too late" for personal reinvention. An attendant exhibition, titled "Slave to the Wave," will feature surfing photography and artwork by locals Chris Beeman, Rachel DeJohn and others.
McNamara says his reinvention began in his mid 30s, when he was "right about the brink" of retiring from professional surfing and contemplating life as a nine-to-fiver. "You always hear, 'You can do whatever you want. You can make your dreams come true.' It's kind of a cliché, and I always thought of it as a cliché," McNamara says. "And then, once my career was ending, I was like, 'Man — 9 to 5.'
"I wrote it all down," he recalls. "The top goal was, 'Keep surfing.' To do that, I felt I needed to win at least one of two big events: the Eddie [the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay] and the Jaws Tow-in [the Jaws World Cup Tow-in, set on what may be the most fearsome break on Oahu's North Shore]. And I had to train properly, eat properly, focus, manifest, be perfectly grounded and ready physically, spiritually and mentally. I just wrote what I thought I needed to do to be like that." In January 2002, McNamara and his tow-in partner, Rodrigo Resende, won the inaugural Jaws World Cup on waves one report described as having "cartoon dimensions."
Before long, McNamara's reputation for charging down leviathanlike waves had reached beyond the surfing world. In journalist Susan Casey's 2010 book "The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean," McNamara is presented as being all the above. "McNamara," Casey writes, "was a highly skilled surfer with a wild streak the size of Interstate 10. His combination of talent and audaciousness drove him to do things that few others would attempt. Shortly before coming to Tahiti, for instance, McNamara had surfed the wave kicked up by a calving glacier in Alaska, dodging falling hunks of ice the size of city blocks. On another occasion, for a promotional video, he let an eight-inch-long centipede crawl out of his mouth."
Although the Massachusetts-born McNamara has lived in Hawaii since he was 11, his name has become synonymous with Nazare, a village in central Portugal whose cliffs overlook a 130-mile-long canyon that gets as deep as 16,000 feet and produces rolling mountains of opaque, midnight-blue water that are scary enough to imagine, let alone see being ridden by a 5-foot-10 man on a hunk of plastic. McNamara set a world record off Nazare's Praia do Norte beach in November 2011, when he turned left on a 78-foot wave, and surely another in January 2013, when he went the opposite direction on a wave — "the wave" — some observers put at 100 feet. (Guinness says its judges are "awaiting further evidence" before confirming McNamara broke his own record. The group likewise has yet to rule on an estimated 100-foot Nazare wave Brazilian surfer Carlos Burle rode 10 months later. "All of the angles that were shot with video and still cameras, they don't do it justice," McNamara told ESPN of Burle's ride, which he witnessed firsthand. "I haven't seen anything like that before.")
"Nazare is crazy," McNamara says. "When you're out in the ocean, and you're a little bit past the wave, outside, it doesn't really look that big. And then, once you get towed into this thing, it is like coming down a mountain, like going over a cliff. And then, there's all this chop and all this wind, and you're looking at the rocks. There's so much going on, and it's so challenging."
The day after the Bienes Center appearance, McNamara will head back to Nazare, with a stopover in Italy to attend a sponsored event. In the meantime, he will be in Fort Lauderdale, training, waiting and watching. He's always watching.
"I lose my mind if I miss a swell that I want to be on and I have the ability to be on it," he says. "Most times, it's because I commit to something else, like this talk that we're doing at St. Thomas. I have a feeling there will be a huge swell somewhere that I really want to go to, like in Fiji or Tahiti, and I'll be like, 'I already committed. I have to stay.' We actually put a clause in most of our contracts that if a big swell comes, I may be a day late or I may not be able to be there."
His fans, no doubt, understand when he's a no-show.
"No. They don't understand," McNamara says with a laugh. "They don't care. They're like, 'Huh?' They don't get it that it can really happen."
A Conversation With Garrett McNamara
When: Wednesday, Aug. 27; "Slave to the Wave" art show at 6 p.m.; McNamara talk at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Bienes Center for the Arts at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, 2812 SW 12th St., Fort Lauderdale
Contact: 954-513-2272 or BienesCenterForTheArts-sta.org