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It’s been nearly a decade since Garrett McNamara and company attempted the most audacious project in surfdom. Writer Kimball Taylor was on site, and still can’t shake how heavy it was.
By Kimball Taylor
Light / Dark
Imagine a city skyline rising vertically from a body of water. Its waterfront stretches in a half-moon arc a mile wide and 30 stories high. The structures that make up the whole are crystalline, resembling architecture from Superman’s birthplace. The color of each edifice ranges from white to deep, translucent blue. Behind the waterfront towers, a white-roofed metropolis thickens and ascends. The edges of the city are mountain-bound wilderness.
At intervals as quiet as the pips and gurgles from its river, constant motion is the real business of this place—for in time, each building advances upon the water and implodes in spectacular fashion. It is an ice city on a conveyor belt to its destruction. Sometimes city blocks, sometimes several of them, meet their catastrophic end at once.
When this happens, somewhere below, a rare and ghostly beautiful wave is formed.
A few hundred yards from the glacier’s face, we could hear it seething with close thunder and cannon-like booms. Sitting with our coffee on that first morning at the Copper River, XXL Big-Wave winner Garrett McNamara turned his gaze on me said, “I watch it, and I just blow my mind.”
I assumed he misspoke. I was sure he did, but the swelling promise in the air also allowed for the suspicion that maybe he did blow his own mind. You’d either have to, or want to, on an attempt of something this bizarre. An absurd number of cameras had followed McNamara here. They aimed to document the kind of courage it took to ride waves generated from these 1,000-ton explosions. Several of these cameras emerged at that moment—like the grape-sized mosquitoes that simply appear from the Alaskan forest—to buzz around our conversation. I regretted starting it up. McNamara, now aware of the cameras, introduced the slogans he’d developed for this stunt. “I’m searching for the rush,” he said. “This is the great unknown!”
His eyes widened until we got the point … great … unknown … rush … I blow my mind.
Then the glacier awoke. A 30-story slab crackled and folded in upon itself. Seconds without words, without conscious thought, passed as we watched the initial heart-rattling demise of a frozen superstructure. McNamara freaked. The documentarians, everybody, screamed. Multiple ice towers dropped into the Copper River. Ice shrapnel pocked its surface like mortar fire. The distant river shore was displaced by a luminescent solid. And in the aftermath, something incredible happened. The displacement created a swell that rolled across a mid-river sandbar and became a breaking left-hand wave. It peeled with incredible form. Everyone present pointed and howled. A production assistant bellowed, “This is why we gotta have the cameras rolling at all times … we gotta get those emotions!”
Garrett’s partner, Kealii Mamala, nodded at the wave and said, “Look ’em, da kine!”
Over the next week, living in the shadow of this ice wall, all of us would come to learn that background details could be definitive. The elusive waves McNamara and Mamala had come to surf were not the giants they’d forecasted. But up close, these 8- to 12-footers were twice as deadly as any giant. They broke in waist-deep, 37-degree water so thick with silt that a surfer sitting on his board couldn’t see his thighs. Additionally, an even larger glacier upriver sent ice drifts the size of Waimea Rock directly into the wave zone. This created navigational problems for the jet ski. On the eastern end of Childs Glacier, real rocks blocked downriver escape routes. This left only intermittent access to the portion of the glacier that was most volatile and susceptible to calves. The main obstruction to this point, however, would be fear.
Before launching their jet ski that morning, McNamara and Mamala saw only what producer Ryan Casey witnessed here on a trip in the mid 90s. He’d been assisting his father, George Casey, on an IMAX film documenting Alaska’s natural wonders. Calving glaciers are a staple attraction in Alaska and the location of Childs made it a perfect addition to the film. Yet, the calving phenomenon also produced an element that Casey, a surfer from Pacific Beach, California, was quick to notice. After 30-story slabs of ice exploded into the water, a small-scale tsunami wave soon roiled across a gravel bar stationed mid-river. This unseen bar shaped the waves into spooling rights and lefts—waves freakier than any tanker wake, or tidal bore novelty. Depending on the calve location along the glacier’s face, some of the waves threw open barrels and long walls. Because the glacier could calve anywhere along its mile-long face, at any time, or at no time, paddling into one would have been virtually impossible. The Copper River moved too quickly, carrying grains of the interior to the sea. Still, Casey’s mind-surfing went wild.
Years later, his film career led him into the big-wave realm during the pinnacle of tow-in surfing. On his first visit to Jaws in 2004, so many jet skis littered the lineup that the congestion bordered on dangerous. In this sound and fury, however, Casey also saw a method for tackling his Copper River discovery. With a machine to shoot up and down the river, to approach waves and not just wait for them, the dream neared reality. “I wasn’t thinking of a gimmick,” he said, “I was just putting two and two together.”
Then, traveling with the tow-in community, Casey encountered the one surfer who might attempt such a thing. A former surf shop owner, who Casey described as “always one big wave away” from making a name for himself, McNamara seized onto Casey’s vision. The pair took a scouting trip early in the summer of 2007. And they discovered that waves still rifled across the Copper River sand bar, as real as anything in the ocean.
Helmet, gloves, booties, a black 6 millimeter full suit, and another beefy, heavily-logoed red spring suit over it. In his layers of neoprene, McNamara looked like a superhero—dark, muscled, intense. This getup contrasted sharply with his partner’s. Mamala wore an infectious grin and a sun-streaked afro that wouldn’t quite yield to the dimensions of his wetsuit hood. Once on the ski and in the river, their figures shrank in the glacier’s presence. They measured themselves against it, and plumbed their willingness to get close. The real scale of the endeavor seemed to come into balance then.
Just minutes into their first foray, a massive slab of ice began to crumble. It didn’t fall straight down as so many had. Its top half tipped over like a book off of a shelf. The length of it stretched nearly into the wave zone. On impact, chunks the size of cars and refrigerators launched across the river. The surface was ripped asunder as if from the scene of a naval battle. Far too close, even on the jet ski, the surfers fled in its wake. For observers, there was no doubt: this was clearly the most dangerous wave-riding attempt ever. That first encounter rattled McNamara and Mamala.
“It’s going to be more difficult than I thought,” McNamara said back on land. That evening on the telephone with his children in Hawaii, he began to tear up over the suspicion, he later said, that he wouldn’t be making it back to them. “I wondered, ‘Am I being too selfish?’ I got a wife and kids.”
For Casey, the attempt had become more like the film work he’d done chasing tornadoes and less like any surf trip he’d been on. The following day, the tow team kept an expressed distance from the calving areas of the glacier even as several oddly beautiful, slightly overhead waves reeled across the gravel bar. A Native American who came to watch shook his head. These strangers were messing with nature.
For the film crew, however, it was as if Evel Knievel had announced plans to jump the Grand Canyon, but then chose to spin tight doughnuts in the parking lot instead. If the surfers weren’t going to get close to the calving, they weren’t going to get a wave.
Team morale dipped every day that a legitimate wave was not caught. Midway into the expedition, Mamala began to sleep in until past noon. The production crew milled about the sub-arctic riverbank, skipped rocks, and kept an eye out for bears. They bickered. For his part, McNamara seemed to will every bit of his reserves to keep the crew positive with slogans.
Eight days into the expedition, a shift in weather created an opening for hope. When the cloud layer lifted for the first time, the mountain peaks above the glacier finally showed themselves and the air temperature warmed noticeably. McNamara urged Mamala back into the water for one last go. Despite the $100,000 gamble Casey had made to produce the film, he lamented, “When those skis hit the water, I realized I’d put my friends into danger.”
The first camera crew had barely set up on the far shore when several calves began falling at once—nearly on top of the tow team. It was the place on the river they’d been dreading, but needed to be all along. Up and riding at the end of the tow rope, Mamala let go and whipped into an overhead right. He cleared a critical section and bottom-turned into a brown, open face. It wasn’t the fiercest, nor biggest, nor the prettiest, but it was the first significant glacier wave ever ridden. Cheers erupted from all sides of the river. The expectation that the tide had turned, that the team would now go out and challenge an even more critical wave, or many more, or maybe even get barreled, seemed universal.
Beaching immediately afterward, McNamara and Mamala jumped from the jet ski and proclaimed elation before the cameras. “I got my rush and I didn’t even have to ride the wave,” McNamara said. “Now we can go home.”
In Garrett McNamara’s quest to reach the very top of the scary-wave heap, this moment in late 2007 may have been the last time the rush occurred.
On October 2, 1978, a 12-year-old Garret McNamara and his 9-year-old brother Liam arrived on the North Shore of Oahu. As if stepping out of the Hawaiian vacation special of a Partridge Family episode, the boys wore matching white pants and sharp white 70s collared shirts brought together under vibrant orange velvet vests. They came in tow to their footloose mother, Malia, as well as a now-long-forgotten musician boyfriend. Malia McNamara had actually made the boys’ outfits for the occasion.
This arrival was important, even though it represented only one of many new starts. So far, the unit had bounced from Massachusetts to California, Mt. Shasta to Berkeley, Mexico to Belize—and finally Sonoma County, where the McNamaras developed an impromptu sort of commune. But after Malia spent time at another commune in Kauai’s Kalalau Valley, where she earned fame as a cook for the 80 or so semi-clothed inhabitants, she returned to California, collected Garrett and Liam, and made for the islands. “We were supposed to go to Kauai and run around naked,” Garrett remembered.
Yet, on a fateful North Shore stopover, the family ended up finding an apartment in a corner of Waialua nicknamed, “Haole Camp.” The boyfriend soon split for greener musical pastures. And the idyll of a 70s Kauai existence quickly faded into island style poverty on what was fast becoming surfing’s most important stretch of coast. The McNamaras, of course, held no conception of what that would mean to them or their new home. “They’re surfing,” Garrett remembered his mother offering—an attempt to settle the boys’ fears of displacement. “It’s like skateboarding, but on the water.’”
“We were urban kids,” Garrett said flatly. After the boyfriend left, “We were alone and living on welfare.”
Liam remembered that the small family could afford one pair of shoes a year for each of the boys. Underwear wasn’t in the budget. When the local kids harassed him because he wore no “Baybee Dees,” it took Liam awhile to understand that to mean no “BVDs,” and only a bit longer to understand where that placed him in this new social order. On his first day in their new school, Garrett fought the biggest kid in class. “Coming up on the North Shore as a haole,” Liam remembered, “was a hard life.”
When I contrasted this image with my first encounter with Garrett McNamara—on his attempt to surf a wave created by the decay of a 300-foot tall glacier—I struggled to join his beginnings to what I suspect may have been the most pivotal moment in an aquatic daredevil’s career. And yet, McNamara’s surf life had yielded many surprises. In little more than six years, as a thirty-something surf shop owner, he came out of nowhere to develop one of the most reputable tow-in careers going. His trajectory followed the insipient rise of tow-surfing itself, and continued to beg the question of where it could possibly end. And maybe even, how insane surfing can possibly become along the way.
It’s easy enough to draw the Evel Knievel analogy, that once a professional daredevil jumps ten busses, the next step is to jump 20, and eventually a canyon, and then the Grand Canyon—which the real Knievel had threatened to do for many years. For professional big wave surfers, the only way to guarantee a career is to keep on surfing the next biggest wave.
True, the Alaska stunt may have been a sideline. It appeared ridiculous on its face. (A barreling wave created by a calving glacier? In a river?). In person, however, it was the most terrifying wave-riding activity I’d ever seen. The mere attempt may eventually turn out to be McNamara’s turning point, or his Waterloo. My sense is the distinction will take a considerable amount of time to sort out in this golden age of the big-wave professional. For as McNamara said, who was then 41 years old and at home once again on the North Shore, “I will be surfing massive waves professionally until I’m 50, minimum.”
But of the glacier attempt, he said, “Alaska changed everything.”
In October of ’08, a year after Garrett’s mission at Childs Glacier, I met up with him on Oahu. Since we’d last met, Garrett had towed super-sized Teahupoo and survived tremendous wipeouts. He’d made barrels at Pipeline and Puerto Escondido on an SUP, paddled into Maverick’s, and even longboarded Malibu. His surfing and life were diversifying, his big-wave career pushing at the limits of the possible—yet his plan for this meeting was a tour back through the years to his roots along the Seven Mile Miracle.
Garrett brought along his 12-year-old son, Titus, and his 13-year-old daughter, Ari. Neither of them had experienced this tour either. Members of a now extended McNamara family, they came across as healthy and quiet kids—a little bit removed from and in awe of their father’s boisterous energy and need to connect in social settings. As Greg Long told me, “I think Garrett’s stoke factor is sometimes intimidating for some people.”
At the Café Haleiwa, while the kids found a booth, Garrett greeted various tables and struck up conversations. When he joined our table, he sat as if he’d carried something heavy across the restaurant. Then he spilled a secret that seemed to have occupied his thoughts since entering the cafe: his wife, Connie, was pregnant again. Titus and Ari already knew this, and also that, out of custom, he shouldn’t be telling anyone.
Appraising his son awhile, Garrett then began to discuss Titus’ surfing prospects as if picking up the thread of an old conversation. “I hope he doesn’t want to one-up me someday. If he did, I’d be horrified.” The statement hung between them, and it caused me to think that Garrett may harbor a bit of horror for the job himself. “But if Titus does want to do what I do,” he added, “I’ll make him train hard.”
Both Garrett and Liam know something about preparation and the power of desire. Despite their relatively late entries into the sport, their outsider status, and childhood poverty, by the time they reached their teens, the McNamaras had become contenders on surfing’s toughest proving ground. Admittedly, they weren’t the hottest surfers around. Some of the locals their age—Kolohe Bloomfield, Jason Majors, Brock Little—“surfed circles around us.” The difference was, Garrett and Liam wanted it more and they often employed attitude to get it. “They had each other to bounce off of,” said Randy Rarick, team manager with their first sponsor. “To be honest, they were wise-ass little-prick kids. I saw that trait in them early on and I liked it.”
The boost to Garrett’s development actually came as an economic necessity. At 13, his mother found a $400 per month apartment at Velzyland, a low-rent neighborhood fronted by world class surf. Haleiwa may have been the best possible place to learn, Garrett said, but “Haleiwa was light years behind V-land.” The new location offered the power and complexity the young McNamaras needed to mature. Liam began to hang out with some of the North Shore’s heavy weights. Garrett hung with another set. “I was a six-foot-and-under-wonder guy,” he said.
A couple of milestones occurred in Garrett’s late-teens. In 1985 he placed in the money-making ranks of the Triple Crown. At that time, accepting $250 or more automatically earned pro status. He also found big waves—at Sunset and then at Waimea. “Once I got a taste of Sunset, it was all about big waves,” he said. “My goal was to get a 20-foot barrel at Waimea.”
Rarick pointed out, “experience on the North Shore makes a huge difference. It gives locals an edge over surfers from other places.” Both Garrett and Liam benefited from that proximity. But, Rarick added, “I think Liam had a little more talent and used his ability to be out in those lineups. He also specialized [at Pipeline] early on.”
Garrett had to work harder and he knew it. Sometimes this meant going on waves others wouldn’t. Yet, he also possessed an ability to imagine novel lines. At 20 years old, Garrett spun for a Waimea bomb that promised to offer the elusive two-story tube. “I air-dropped and punched hard for the barrel,” he remembered. His body lunged into a bottom turn while the board drifted ever straight. The lip smashed him. He felt his ankles and feet strike the back of his head. Driven deep underwater, he believed for a moment that his body had weathered the beating. As he made for the surface, a black tunnel enclosed on the sunlight above him. This tunnel pinched into darkness as he reached for the ocean’s surface. His first gasp of air snapped him back to consciousness.
Somehow, Garrett drove himself home from that session. He didn’t know it yet, but the pummeling exploded a disk in his spine. The pain became intense. He donned a snorkel and climbed into the bathtub just to achieve some of the weightlessness he felt beneath Waimea—an effort to suspend the pressure on his ruptured disk. At some point Liam showed up and tried to lift Garrett to his feet. Garrett blacked out completely. “I woke up to my brother crying,” he said.
After two months “on the floor becoming addicted to Codeine,” Garrett admitted, “I wasn’t focused on big waves anymore. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do.” A summer and another winter passed before he surfed again.
It took five years before he felt confidence in the water. “I wasn’t a competitor anymore. I lost that. I lost the tour,” he said. And that loss, “shattered me emotionally.”
Over the following years, Liam’s career took off.
Garrett would keep on charging and he did compete—in the Triple Crown, Excel Pro, and HIC Pipe events on an annual basis. As Rarick said, “Garrett tried and tried to be a presence on the competitive front.” He wasn’t a natural competitor, he knew, and felt he had to work harder than most just to be “good.” The exception, however, was his eagerness in big waves.
On our tour of his early life along the North Shore, we eventually came to a little house wedged between Shark’s Cove and Waimea Bay where Garrett lived during some of the most important years of his life. It was so close to the Bay that its windows trembled during any swell that brought Waimea to life. I wondered what that rattling sounded like to a man whose dream, even after nearly ending his life there, had been an invitation to the Eddie.
Soon enough, Garrett’s tour led us to another of his loves, Sunset Beach—the wave that began and also re-ignited his passion for big waves. This happened around 1994. While checking the surf at Sunset, Garrett spotted Laird Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox using a Zodiac to pull each other into set waves at an outer break called Backyards. The sight mesmerized him. He ran to grab a board so he could paddle out, but then he just stopped there on dry land and watched. Not long afterward he bought his own Zodiac and began experimenting with this new sport.
While we sat at Sunset Beach, an older man eavesdropped on a snippet of Garrett’s conversation, and inserted himself to ask, “What’s the goal?” It’s easy to sense that Garrett’s charisma acts like a magnet, repelling personalities of a certain charge while attracting others. This random attraction occurred several times during our interview, but knowing his own magnetism, Garrett never hesitated to engage. “The number one goal is to keep surfing,” Garrett said to the man. “How to do that? It’s for you to figure out.”
Through the late 90s, Garrett’s scrappy, survivalist style in the water earned him the odd photo in the surf magazines, which he hoped would appease his sponsors a bit longer. “I got to surf, that’s all I wanted to do. Financially, it was tough, just barely making it at the end of the month.” By the close of the decade, Garrett had gained a wife, two kids, and a new venture: a surf shop in Haleiwa called Epic Sports. The business took up all of his surf time. “I barely surfed. I worked the store and it was all about the family, becoming a 9-to-5 guy.”
The man who feverishly talked about, and searched for the rush, suddenly found it only in his morning coffee. Despite the obvious facts that might have led Garrett to a big-wave career—the popular tow spot Hammerheads lay just outside the McNamaras’ first apartment; his favorite beach, Sunset, also served as ground zero for the insipient tow community—oddly enough, it was the pissy landlord of his surf shop whose needling convinced Garrett that he needed to ditch the shop and give big-wave surfing another go.
The timing seemed perfect. The inaugural 2002 Tow-in World Cup at Jaws was just ahead. The only problem: neither Garrett nor his new partner, Brazil’s Rodrigo Resende, had ever surfed Jaws. They practiced towing into 2-footers on the North Shore days before the event. The competition however, opened with 50- to 60-foot faces. “I was scared shitless,” Garrett said.
Uncertain on his first wave, he kicked out early, realizing later that he’d thrown away a good one. That feeling didn’t sit well. So, Garrett and Resende began to charge a series of bombs that led to their eventual victory, despite a 10-point barrel ride negotiated by big-wave rival Mike Parsons. The win ignited a golden year for the 35-year-old. He garnered a magazine cover air dropping into Waimea, and spreads featuring his lines through giant Teahupoo. In November, he returned to Jaws for what is recognized as one of the gnarliest big-wave barrels ever.
Needless to say, the surf shop was closed.
“For years there, Garrett had to tell people he was my brother before he got that respect,” Liam said recently. “Now I have to go around telling people I’m Garrett’s brother.”
The elder McNamara solidified his streak in 2002 with a near maniacal hunt for big-wave celebrity—in Chile, at Cortez Bank, at home. In ’07, he landed both the Billabong XXL Big-Wave Award, as well as Performance of the Year. In that stretch, though, he’d also taken some of the heaviest wipeouts imaginable. One in 2006 earned the dubious “Golden Donut” award.
For a daredevil, the question of motivation is ever present. And Garrett is not a big-wave surfer unaware of the consequences. He’s rescued near fatalities at Ala Moana and Pipeline. In 2000, when Tahitian surfer Briece Taerea was caught inside at Teahupoo and pitched over in the lip, Garrett attempted to resuscitate him, even after noting that Taerea had lost portions of his face and neck. Taerea’s death sat with him. But when I asked Garrett if he thought about Taerea as he tested the limits, he said, “I’m actually more comfortable. I worked as hard as I could for Briece.”
Clearly, there was an element to Garrett’s motivation that pushed beyond career security. Fellow XXL winner Brad Gerlach said, “He’s got something to prove to the point where, you get the sense, he’s willing to die for it.”
In Alaska, even as the film crew unloaded and the jet skis were prepared for long hours in the frigid water, the idea that this was “the wave” that would put Garrett and his tow partner Kealii Mamala over the top, on a par with Laird Hamilton, seemed ever-present. This was big time. Talk of the rush waned and ebbed. I began to suspect that this rush Garrett talked about—almost as if it were a rare bird that may or may not alight on his shoulder—represented some portion of his motivation. It wasn’t the part desperate to make a good living for his family, or to continue fulfilling dreams within the sport he loved, or even the measure of approval a 12-year-old transplant needed from his new community. I wasn’t so sure it was “stoke” in a traditional sense. The rush, I suspected, was just that sliver of something other that made the most significant risks worth it.
When Garrett and Kealii witnessed a 30-story tower of ice drop into the impact zone of the wave they proposed to surf, the rush was tested. The surfers became reluctant at the throttle of the jet ski, leery of leaning chunks of ice. Beautiful river-brown barrels went unridden. Garrett and Kealii looked for some entry that resembled “safe.” I thought I was witnessing a couple of daredevils who’d stepped a touch beyond their courage.
The following summer Kealii towed Garrett into some frightening Teahupoo waves and equally incredible wipeouts. As Garrett emerged from one of the best waves of the day, Kealii swooped in on the ski to pick him up. Kealii was ecstatic.
“I didn’t get the rush,” Garret said.
“What?” Kealii shouted. “Are you nuts?”
Depending when you catch him, Garrett may or may not allude to the fact that the rush received a mortal blow in Alaska.
The film of the expedition, The Glacier Project, wouldn’t be released for seven years. Some of the participants blamed that lag time for the event’s relative obscurity. In retrospect, I believe it was the inability to render nature’s true magnitude in pictures and words that cast the expedition as a surf stunt novelty and mere Internet fodder.
Garrett McNamara learned of the wave that would finally put him on the world stage and into the record books via an unsolicited email. A resident of a small, Portuguese fishing village called Nazaré sent Garrett a picture of a massive peak that broke below their coastal cliffs. Garrett was impressed enough by the photo to travel to Nazaré in 2010, where he was quite pleasantly surprised.
Magnified by a deep underwater canyon that focused swell energy on one shallow point, the peak at Nazaré looked to Garrett like a potential big-wave contender. The following year he returned and was towed into a wave estimated to be 78 feet tall, a new record that instantly made him world famous. The accomplishment was marked in the Guinness World Records as the tallest wave ever ridden. On January 28, 2013, Garrett rode another wave at Nazaré that many believe to be bigger than his own record. He withdrew the wave from consideration for the XXL Biggest Wave Award, however. In a primetime interview on Anderson Copper 360°, Cooper asked McNamara if he got an “adrenaline rush.” Garrett responded, “No rush … I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but there’s definitely something wrong.”
[Feature image: Photographer Bo Bridges compared the setting of the glacier wave attempt to Stephen King’s The Shining. “I remember being way out of my comfort zone,” he said. The summer sun never set, but a gloom hung over the brown river. Locals had been mauled by the ever-present bears. The glaciers creaked and thundered. The entire landscape could change in an instant. And then there was the wave—“the craziest and stupidest,” Bridges said, “a wild, elusive, beast of an idea.” Photo by Bo Bridges.]