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The Man Who Rode The World’s Biggest Wave



The viral YouTube clip is stupendous. The clip shows Hawaiian big wave surfer Garrett McNamara coolly surfing a vast black wave rearing up from the break at North Canyon, Nazare, Portugal. The international surf industry and wave experts pegged the wave at 90 feet: an apparent world record.

Explaining how he rode the Nazare 90-footer, McNamara tells the Adrenalist: “I just went with my instincts and did my best to complement and enjoy it.”

Like many pro surfers, McNamara has an air of go-with-the-flow poise that big wave enthusiasts need. Few forces are more unpredictable than the waves that Mother Nature spits out.

Asked to name the highlight of his big wave career, McNamara zeroes in on his 2003 brush with Jaws: a big-wave break off the island of Maui in Hawaii, which unleashes 30-mph waves rumored to rise 120 feet.

Watch him nail it that time.

Then watch his recent Jaws wipe out. Both events make equally riveting viewing.

On a mission to ride whatever the oceans can throw at him, the extreme surfer has won almost every big wave prize going. Besides, he has broken records and done his share of weird stuff. He is one of just two people ever to ride “tsunami waves”, spawned by calving glaciers in Alaska in August 2007.

The 20-mph waves unfolded at Child’s Glacier on the Copper River, near the town of Cordova. Sheer 400 feet-plus ice faces “calved” away from Child’s Glacier, smashing into the water. The impact sparked waves that peeled for over 300 yards, offering amazing white-knuckle one minute-plus rides.

McNamara, who describes himself as “tenacious, passionate, extreme”, caught some action by waiting for hours in the bone-chilling water for a glacier to fall. Then, astride jet skis, he chased down a wave, dodging debris that could have killed him. 

His most memorable and disturbing Copper River moment came when a glacier calf “booked” – abruptly dropped like a book off a shelf, slamming flat against the water’s surface. The impact caused a thunderous eruption. Gmac, as he is affectionately known, jet-skied away from the carnage at a lick.

Facing Copper River’s freaks of nature was an enormous rush but not something he would recommend, he later reflected. Friends talked him into risking his life, he says.

Born in 1967, the daredevil was raised by a single mother in Berkeley, California’s melting-pot culture. He and his brother, Liam, were self-styled “skateboarding freaks”. But, after the family moved to Hawaii in 1978, surf boards started exerting more magnetism than skateboards.

 As his surfing career evolved and he began busting records, he kept his eye out for new and thrilling experiences. Cue his embrace of an emerging global sport with a Hawaiian heritage – stand-up paddle (SUP) surfing. In SUP style, he has graced American big wave venues including Maverick’s and Pipe.

Since he does what he loves, he devotes every possible second to surfing. Much of the rest of the time, he is planning, plotting, and training.

He keeps in shape by frequenting Pachi’s studio, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There, he does bouts of Bikram: an extreme yoga form sometimes called “hot yoga” because it is practiced in sauna conditions.

The high-flying yogi defines his dream as “to inspire others to find their passion and do what they love. If everyone does what they love and are passionate about, the world will be a much happier place.”

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