Pro Surfer Garrett McNamara Talks Ups And Downs of Riding Giant Waves As He Previews New Docu-Series ‘100 Foot Wave’

Garrett McNamara says that he’s more comfortable surfing giant waves than being on a Zoom call.

He does seem a bit fidgety on camera, but once he begins talking about his quest to find and ride the biggest waves in the world, it seems a calm comes over him.

100 Foot Wave chronicles the decade-long odyssey of the surfing pioneer’s pursuit of the largest wave on the planet, and the transformation of the small fishing village of Nazaré, Portugal into the world’s preeminent big-wave surfing destination. 

The six-part HBO Sports Documentary series follows McNamara and surfers from across the world as they push themselves through life-altering injuries and tantalizing near-misses in their collective quest to conquer waves that have long been thought to be insurmountable.  

McNamara says that surfing is just, “where I belong.”

He tells a great story about how he took up the sport, explaining, “My mother moved my brother and I to Hawaii and we lived in, what they call, the armpit of the North Shore. It’s called Cement City. It’s real small apartments, low-income housing. We didn’t have much money and my mom scrounged up $15 and bought us a surf board at a yard sale. She brought it home and she gave us the board and we went out into the ocean and nothing mattered. It didn’t matter if we didn’t have new bikes and skateboards and a nice car, and a lot of food in the fridge. We were in the ocean just enjoying life to the fullest. It was just this place where I could just leave everything behind.”

It was a fluke that McNamara became a professional surfer at 17, he says. “I was getting ready to graduate and I was really afraid of what kind of a career I was going to have. Luckily, my sponsor at the time put me in this surf contest, a professional event [and] I won $250. I gladly accepted it and went, ‘Wow. I’m going to be a pro surfer.’” 

Talking about what it’s like to NOT make a wave, McNamara says, “So, when you come down a big wave and everything’s perfect, you make it to the shoulder and you kick out. But, when you come down and it closes out or you fall on the way down, then this massive, basically like an avalanche. just lands on you and it feels like a ton of bricks. Basically, it tries to rip your limbs apart and tries to squash the oxygen out of you and you got to do your best to stay calm and just go with it. It’s like a washing machine on spin cycle with King Kong shaking it. You feel you’re a hundred percent out of control. You’re at the mercy of the ocean and you have to stay calm and it makes you just feel alive.”

Even when McNamara has missed a wave, he says that he’s never had a time when he thought, “This is it.”

“I’ve always had very comfortable experiences under the water. I’ve enjoyed them all. But I’ve had a lot of injuries. I broke my back, broke my shoulder, broke my feet many times, broke my ribs many times.”

He says that viewers will see many of his injuries in the series.  

In his pursuit of a hundred-foot wave, McNamara says that he and his team were drawn to Nazare by the locals. “[They] e-mailed me to come see if they had a big wave, and we found out that it was the biggest wave I’ve ever seen. There’s nowhere in the world like Nazaré that has big swells so frequent that I’ve found yet.”

In addition to McNamara conquering massive waves, actually shooting the surfing was challenging as well, says series executive producer Joe Lewis. He explains that, “To date the only way most people have seen big waves is either from land looking down from a drone or maybe from a helicopter. Seeing the wave from out [in the water] is just an entirely different experience, and we knew from the beginning [we wanted] to show a wave in a way no one else has, [with] everyone out in the water.”

He adds, “I mean everyone out there is risking their life, and we’re just trying to deliver something that’s a bigger image and better image and a new way of showing the sport.”

As for what constitutes the ‘Perfect Wave,’ McNamara explains, “A perfect wave, for most surfers, has a really good barrel on it. So, you come down the wave and instead of running in front of the wave away from it, you wait for it to cave over you. You’re either running full speed and it passes you, or you wait until the last second and turn under it.“

He says he had a perfect way in Maui, Hawaii in 2003, giving a detailed description of his ride.

“I came down the wave and waited, and waited, and waited, and then turned at the last second and the lip hit me on my head right as I was coming into the wave. And so, I’m in this massive tube, and I’m now in the barrel, and I’m blind, and I’m getting sucked up the face, and I feel like I’m going to fall back, but I’m thinking in my mind, ‘I’m going to make it, I’m going to make it.’ And then I feel this suction compression come pulling back, and then it goes silent for a second. Then the wave creates a compression chamber that spits this massive amount of air out with all this water, like very similar to a firehose, and I’m falling. Then the compression spit comes from behind, literally picks me up off the wall of the wave as I was falling. And then — I’m gone, and everybody on the land thinks I’m pounded. And then it picks me up and flies me and throws me out in front of the wave and I land, open my eyes and I’m like, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! Thank you, God!’ That’s the perfect wave.”

McNamara is so into the sport that he even named his son Barrel, and got him started surfing at the tender age of 11 – 11 months old, that is.  

As for when he’ll stop chasing wave after wave, McNamara says, “I’m hoping to be able to keep surfing as long as I’m alive. I started when I was 11. 11 years old doesn’t seem late, but all the 11-year-olds that were around the neighborhood were, literally, surfing circles around me, so I thought there was no chance to ever become a professional surfer. So, I got super lucky and just kept reinventing, and chasing big waves, and it somehow worked.”

‘100 Foot Wave’ debuts Sunday, July 18th at 10pm e/p on HBO.

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