In a new series on GuinnessWorldRecords.com, we profile some of the most inspiring stories of commitment, courage and and dedication behind some of our most extraordinary titles. We begin by placing the spotlight on a man willing to take on the most dangerous swells the oceans have to offer.
“For the first years of my surfing life, I swore I’d never try to surf a wave bigger than ten feet. I even ran with a group of guys who called ourselves ‘The ten-foot-and-under wonder crew'.”
A long time ago, this was the cautious mind set of the young Garrett McNamara, who had just taken his first steps into a sport that would define the rest of his life, having traded in his skateboard for his surfboard upon moving to the tropical islands of Hawaii.
He never expected that his future would one day involve gliding along waves that many professionals wouldn’t think twice about taking on.
Now an international surfing champion, the 49-year-old has also broken the Guinness World Records title for Largest wave surfed (unlimited) – having successfully drifted down a curl that measured an incredibly daunting 78 feet off the coast of Praia do Norte, in Nazare, Portugal in 2011.
A ride two years later in the same waters by Garrett, that currently stands as unverified by Guinness World Records, is said to have beaten that feat by some margin - with the brave boarder reported to have tackled a wave measuring a staggering 100ft.
Recalling his record-breaking ride, Garrett says matter-of-factly: “It was really like any other wave. I had no idea I was on what would become the world record wave. I remember thinking the entire time that I wish I was deeper but after looking at the footage I realized my jetski partner, Andrew Cotton, put me in the perfect spot.”
Conquering Nazare’s waves and having his feat recognized by Guinness World Records brought the attention of the world’s news media, from CNN, to the BBC and ESPN.
“It was amazing, the recognition attracted so many opportunities. Within a few days, I was covered by literally every major outlet in the world,” said Garrett, “Equally important is that, since that time, the Guinness World Records title acts as a kind of ‘seal of legitimacy - it makes me very proud and humble all at once.”
Garrett's epic rides have also seen him rewarded with the Vasco de Gama Medal of Honour from the Portuguese Navy – the first time a foreigner had ever received the award.
While Garrett’s victories have earned him worldwide fame, his rise to the top is also proof that big waves come with big risks – and sometimes you don’t always win.
The extreme surfer suffered a near fatal wipeout at the start of 2016, shattering his humerus head into nine pieces within the shaft of his upper arm, and leaving him with acute nerve damage along his forearm and upper shoulder.
The fall made headlines as one of the “gnarliest” to ever be caught on tape; showing Garrett’s body being tossed and swallowed by a 50-foot wall of water in California.
For the damage it had done to him, the irony was that Garrett had never intended to spend a lot of his time in the particularly rough waters.
“It was just supposed to be a hit and run mission,” said Garrett, “Fly in, surf, and fly out that night.”
Just twenty-four hours prior, Garrett had left his home in Wailua Hawaii, to fly in and catch the timely big waves at Mavericks Beach as part of a personal mission to surf every big swell of the season in preparation for the upcoming Titans of Mavericks contest.
“You are a grain of sand in a washing machine,” says Garrett, recalling the plunge. “The first impact is like hitting concrete at 20 mph. And I skipped three times so I was bouncing on the surface not penetrating. Mavericks sends you deep into the depths where you have no idea which way is up - and if you don’t get picked up in time, you end up on the rocks.”
Two big-wave surfers have previously died at Mavericks, but luckily for Garrett, he was pulled out of the wreck before the situation became life-threatening.
While Garret's escape was a fortunate one, his road to recovery was anything but easy.
Several doctors had advised him that he would never surf rough waters again, a severe consequence for a sportsman who has lived for the rush of big waves.
Forced to abandon the pursuit of the Mavericks competition, Garrett was now wrangling waves of pain rather than salt water along with the prospect of his career being ended.
For a long and arduous three months, the surfer who used to actively dive into the ocean each day would instead experience immobilizing pain and helplessness.
In several efforts to heal his arm, his wife Nicole and doctors tried solutions ranging from herbal medicine to various surgeries to get him back to full function and capability.
Despite the extent of injury the sea had endured on his body, Garrett knew the force of nature well enough to reconcile the damage it had done.
“When you ask to be a guest within a wave, the water makes the rules and you either adapt and respond or get thrown out in a very powerful and dangerous way,” he explains.
Such words are spoken from someone who is no stranger to deadly wipeouts.
Garrett would eventually manage to comeback from his pummelling at Mavericks, perhaps thanks to the fact that he had prevailed once before in worse circumstances when he was just 20 years old.
“I was in a wipeout during which I felt my foot kick the back of my head. My back was broken. I had to lie on my back on the floor of my Mom’s living room for four months,” says Garrett, recalling the worst plunge of his life, “We had no internet and I could barely hold a book up. During that time, I had moments when I questioned why I surf but, mostly, I’d close my eyes and dream of catching the perfect wave and how that was going to feel.”
It was that perseverance and belief in the sport which later allowed him to accomplish such remarkable milestones in big wave surfing.
Following his world-renowned accomplishment, Garrett would marry his wife at a lighthouse which overlooked the same ocean that changed his life forever.
The couple now have a two-year-old boy, named Barrel, a term referring to a tubular curl of a wave.
Amidst teaching his son to walk and talk, Garrett takes pride in coaching his son the ways of the water – passing on the knowledge he has picked up while following his passion.
“Anyone who is at all spiritual will see the parallels in their own life. The world and its universe are a very big and complicated place and it make the rules. A centered person learns to be an adaptable and respectful guest who complements the waves. Surfing teaches you acceptance and gratitude for life.”
* Garrett has published Hound of the Sea, a memoir that highlights the emotional and physical journey of riding the most intimidating waves of the ocean. To learn more, click here.