The Outside Blog

Camping : Surfing

Learning to Surf Without Feeling

The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do as a surfer is walk to the nose of my board, hang ten, cruise along like that, every little piggy happily dangling off the tip, me just minding my own business, not a care in the world, before cross-stepping back to the tail and kicking out, mission accomplished, all eyes on the beach on me, a couple of hoots received from my fellow surfers on the paddle back out, and then I do it all again. Is that too much to ask?

And yet, time and time again, I am denied. Whenever I try to move forward, my feet either refuse to lift, or tangle up with one another, or suddenly propel me backward off the board, windmilling into the drink. It’s the damnedest thing.

In fact, I am one of the biggest klutzes the surf breaks around my Wakefield, Rhode Island, home base have ever seen. It’s embarrassing. Taking off on a wave, I’ve heard snickers. Once, this hot-stuff longboarder named Carl paddled up to me and said, “You shouldn’t be out here, man. You can’t even surf.” And sometimes, during my bleakest moments, I have to agree. But I don’t plan on giving up anytime soon. You’ve got your ridiculous, far-fetched, half-baked dreams that won’t go away, I’ve got mine. I want to nose ride.

Which is what has brought me to Costa Rica, to the dusty, stray-dog surf town of Tamarindo, where I am nervously slurping down some predawn coffee poolside at the lovely Vista Villas hotel, looking over the railing at a few nice waves peeling in the distance and wondering just what I’ve gotten myself into. My traveling companion is a sandy-haired, 48-year-old surfer named Robert Weaver, from Santa Cruz, California, but everyone calls him Wingnut. For the most part, we have nothing in common. He starred in Endless Summer 2, the highly successful 1994 sequel to 1966’s Endless Summer, the greatest surf movie of all time, and is considered one of the best longboarders and nose riders of the modern era. Also, he’s always cheerful, always peppy, always entertaining, and always optimistic—one of his favorite sayings is “In my world, the glass is half full all the time”—while I’m more Danish and really have no idea what he’s talking about. He’s got muscles, I’ve got skin and bones. He’s well tanned, I’m deeply pale. You get the idea.

Yet for all our differences, we do share one thing. Both of us have a serious autoimmune disease. In Wingnut’s case, it’s multiple sclerosis (MS), which was first diagnosed in 1997, went into remission five years later, and hasn’t come back since. Mine is something called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), and it’s been having a field day with me for at least the past ten years, turning my immune cells against me and destroying the protective covering—the myelin sheath—that surrounds the nerve fibers in my legs and feet. As a result, many of those nerves are now dead, leaving me with calf muscles that are atrophied and as thin as cornstalks, toes that won’t wiggle, and feet that are so insensible they sometimes flop around of their own accord. I have scars on my knees from the times I’ve fallen. 

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"All toes on the nose."}%}

As it happens, CIDP is a fairly rare disease, afflicting at most 8.9 people per 100,000—MS is 30 per 100,000—and in my case is idiopathic, with no known cause and no way to stop its progression. It’s almost never fatal, but there’s a 30 percent chance a wheelchair is in my future and an almost zero percent chance I’ll be surfing ten years from now. At the moment, the worst thing is how it has messed with my balance. The remaining millions of nerves in my feet are incredibly slow to tell my brain how to get my body to react to the world around it. Hence all my clumsiness, and why I can no longer ride regular surfboards—they’re far too tippy for me—and have happily taken to SUP boards, which are wider, thicker, and much more stable. Even so, it took me two years to learn how to stand on one of them, and it’s been impossible for me to get to the nose. That’s why I got in touch with Wingnut, to see what he could do with me while there’s still time.

“OK, man.” he says. “Ready? Let’s go!”

I nod my head, but I don’t want to go anywhere, not really. I’d rather stay here and listen to Wingnut talk about his life as a professional surfer for hire, $2,500 a day, taking wealthy clients (hedge-fund operators, movie stars, famous athletes) to places like Ollie’s Point, a more remote Costa Rica break, where, if he’s in the water, you’d better understand that he rules the roost.

{%{"quote":"We could talk about my disease. I've got a lot to say, about spinal taps, interminable plasma infusions, and weird KGB-type Russian nurses who seem to delight in zapping my muscles with electrodes, to see how dead those nerves really are becoming."}%}

“This one time, there’s a kid I don’t know—he’s the best surfer out there, next to me—taking all the waves,” he says. “I paddle up to him and ask him to back off, let my guys have some. He’s like, ‘Hey, I want to get as many waves as I can.’ And I go, ‘Alright, let me rephrase that. Either you back off, or I will ride every wave you’re on, in front of you, behind you, I will take you out on every single wave, all day long. It’ll be fun. It’ll be something new for me to do, to ruin your day.’ See, I understand that need, that hunger, but you’ve got to be benevolent with your power as a dominant predator in the water. You’ve got to be responsible, or else I’ll fucking teach you some responsibility.”

I’d like to hear more of these stories featuring Wingnut as good-guy alpha enforcer. Or else we could talk about my disease. I’ve got a lot to say, about spinal taps, interminable plasma infusions, and weird KGB-type Russian nurses who seem to delight in zapping my muscles with electrodes, to see how dead those nerves really are becoming. But Wingnut doesn’t give me the chance. Instead, he bounces down the stairs to our room, slathers on sunscreen, grabs a towel, and is on the way to the beach, with me huffing and puffing behind. I’d run to catch up, but I can’t run anymore, either. Soon enough, though, we’re in the water, and shortly thereafter, I’m showing him just what I’m made of. It isn’t pretty.

It really is kind of a minor miracle that anyone can nose ride at all. You’re standing there, perched on the end of your board, nothing in front of you but the water rushing by. It makes no sense. By all rights, the board should lever up and smack you in the back of the head, leaving a knot to remind you of your hubris. But if you’re any good, it doesn’t. The board stays locked in, held in place by the counterbalancing force of the wave breaking on its tail. “It’s a very strange thing, when you think about it,” says Matt Warshaw, the former Surfer magazine editor and author of the History of Surfing. “When you see someone set up and hang ten for a long time, even as a nonsurfer, you just sort of stop and your jaw drops, like, how is that even happening? I’ve heard it described as the closest feeling to flight you can get. It’s bizarre and wonderful, and a bit freaky.”

And I want it. Back home in Rhode Island, I’ve sometimes wanted it so badly that, when the surf goes flat, I’ll turn off my phone, lower my shades, tell my girlfriend to go away, lock the doors, put my dog in the basement, bring my dog back up, cuddle with her in bed, and spend the next four hours glued to surf videos on YouTube, hoping that some of what I see rubs off on me. I typically start with videos from the early 1960s, roughly around the time that hanging ten, arguably first accomplished in the fifties by the late Dale Velzy, established itself as the most wonderful way to ride a wave. Big names of the era include early Malibu, California, fixture Mickey Dora, also known as Da Cat for his lightness of step on a surfboard, and David Nuuhiwa, who in old footage glides to the front, arms by his side, shoulders down, then lifts his left arm straight up into the air and leans way, way back into a soul arch that is cool-daddy-casual beautiful. Then there are the best of today—Joel Tudor, Alex Knost, C.J. Nelson, Mikey DeTemple, and, of course, Wingnut. I love watching them all.

After that, I’ll take a break and go work on my balance skills, warming up with a vintage Bongo Board that I’ve actually gotten good at; progressing to a wobbly electrified version of the Bongo Board called the uSurf, which doesn’t so much aim to improve your balance as to throw you against the wall; transitioning to a contemplative glance at my Wingnut-endorsed Goof Board, a type of advanced balance board that I’m too scared to try; and ending with me soaking my head in a fifth of vodka. Later, I’ll cruise the Internet in search of another “perfect” nose-riding fin or another “perfect” nose-riding SUP and fall asleep while rereading for the umpteenth time Tom Wegener’s seminal treatise on the physics of nose riding, in which he postulates his “suction + tension = hang ten” theory of why a board can stick to a wave and allow it to be ridden from the beak.

The next morning, I’ll wake up and head straight to one of my local rock-reef breaks, to get in a dawn-patrol surf session and wash off all the mortifying fatuity of the previous day. I know as well as anyone that what legendary Malibu longboarder Mickey Munoz says is true: “You can sit on the beach, and you can watch the waves, and you can watch people ride them, and you can visualize what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, but when you finally get in the water, all bets are off.”

Actually, it's been going unexpectedly well with Wingnut so far. On day one, after some initial flailing, I proved to him that I could catch a wave and ride down the line. “You can surf,” he says. “You can do a bottom turn. Fantastic foundation. Marvelous!”

On day two, I did something I’ve never been able to do before: take one step forward on my board without falling off. In fact, it looked as if I’d been taking that one step forever. Why here and not in Rhode Island, I don’t know. I just did it, right after Wingnut told me to do it, as in, “Do it!”

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"The author, right, with Wingnut."}%}

Now it’s day three, another sunny morning in Tamarindo, at the break right in front of Witches Rock Surf Camp, which has become our drinking hole away from Vista Villas and is where Wingnut’s longtime buddy Robert August, one of the stars of the first Endless Summer, is the surfboard shaper in residence and quite the 68-year-old ladies’ man. It’s early enough that Wingnut and I have the waves mostly to ourselves. He’s riding his slender, tippy Wingnut-model Boardworks SUP; I’m riding a superwide, superstable Starboard Whopper, ten feet by thirty-four inches, on loan from Marco Salazar, a former dentist who fell for SUP after retiring from his practice and moved to Tamarindo to start Costa Rica Stand Up Paddle Adventures. It’s just the ticket for my special needs. Even I have a hard time falling off this beast, and I can almost keep up with Wingnut as he paddles into position to wait for the next wave.

“When we’re out here, hover around the mother ship and you will be in the zone,” he says, watching a small dark line roll toward us. “There’s virtually no wind. The current’s mellow. OK, so here we go. Start paddling. Turn around. It’s all you! It’s all you!”

I pivot the Whopper, begin paddling like hell, catch the wave, execute an OK top turn, and start cross-stepping to the nose, to hang ten toes over and bring me all the joy in the world. Only, my feet stop moving after that first step. I look down and tell them to lift. They refuse. Stupid feet. I hate my feet, especially the right one, which is the more reluctant of the two and has told its toady brother to stay still, too.

“Come on!” I can hear Wingnut yelling. “Walk! Let’s go! Good step! Good step! Move it! Do it! One more! Again! Again!”

I’d love to, but no way. I kick out and paddle back. “My feet,” I say.

“Fuck your feet,” he says. “If you can take one step, you can take three.”

I nod, even though I know it’s not true. The farther up the board you go, the more unstable it becomes, the better your balance has to be, the more micro adjustments you need to make. It’s not anything you have time to think about. Your body has to sense what’s necessary and take care of it. Mine won’t do that, and that’s all there is to it.

“And once you get up there, don’t kick out, stay on the wave,” Wingnut continues, “because that’s when you start getting an idea of how much lift you have. See, it’s such a mental thing. It’s all about getting to ‘Yes, you can,’ because, well, you fucking can!”

I’m still halfheartedly bobbing my head when Wingnut says, “There’s another little set coming.”

I look where he’s looking and don’t see anything. But then, just like he said, almost like magic, there the set is, right in front of me—except that the first wave is a little too close and has jacked up a little too steep.

“You’re on it!” he says.

“I’m not!” I say.

“Yes, you are, Eeyore. Go!”

Strangely enough, he’s correct, I am on it. And this time, I take a bigger step to the nose, actually get off the SUP’s traction pad and onto the bare paint on the front third of the board. Wingnut’s shouting, “Go! Nice! Go! Take another step!” But the moment I do, my feet get confused and I bail out over the side, come up sputtering, blinking furiously, one contact lens lost. I flop onto my board and paddle back out, scowling at my ineptitude and irritated that Wingnut called me Eeyore. But I’m also thinking about something he told me earlier. “Smiling in the surf is good,” he said. “I mean, my whole thing is, unless you’re in serious stuff, why aren’t you smiling? Every time you go, there’s something out there to put a smile on your face, otherwise you shouldn’t go, right?”

So before I get back to him, I plaster this great big grisly rictus of a phony-baloney smile all over my face. The last thing I want is to get sent to my room. But Wingnut doesn’t look at me. He’s too busy scanning the horizon for what may come next. He’s always doing this. Even if he’s talking to you, he’s looking past you for the next good ride.

Then he starts paddling for a wave. It’s a slightly larger one that looks like it’s going to close out and slam him into the sand. I’d kind of enjoy seeing that. But, of course, it doesn’t. Wingnut just flies along, taking his time cross-stepping to the nose, in three easy-as-you-please steps. He hangs five for a few seconds, steps back down the board, lets it drop to the bottom of the wave, then rockets it down the line, where he banks off the top into a truly tremendous swooping-gull cutback, smacks the dropping curl, comes around again, slides along beneath the foam ball, starts to walk even before he’s back into the green, continues walking, little graceful birdlike steps, until he’s fully up front again, back arched so that his rear foot is more heavily weighted than his front. It’s just so pretty. It’s enough to make me weep.

In the evenings, after surfing, we usually head to Robert August’s sweet little hacienda for a veggie-heavy dinner, to a bingo night for the local gringo community, to some rich guy’s what-a-view pad, to a barbecue cookout, or to a charity auction, with Wingnut making new friends as he goes and greeting old ones with handshakes and hugs. His energy is relentless. It’s hard to see how he could possibly have MS skulking around his mitochondria.

One night, he tells me what it was like in 1997, when it first appeared, and how it affected his surfing. “I could stand up and get my trim,” he says, “but then I’d have to get down and take a knee. If the waves were kind of bumpy, I’d go to stand up and fall right over.” It took two years for that initial episode to fade and another three years before the doctors pronounced the disease in remission, a happy turn of events that Wingnut attributes to clean living and lots of vitamin D directly from the sun.

“Yes, it can and will return,” he says, “but my lifetime surfing goals are all done. I got to surf in Indonesia, got to surf Fiji, got to surf South Africa, surfed with Gerry Lopez and Mickey Dora. So if I never surfed again, it would be horrible, but I could deal with it. But when I was diagnosed, my son Cameron had just been born. He was three months old, and the thought that I’d never get to share a wave with him—that was the hard part and the thing that scared me the most.” He stops, wipes at his eyes, and says, “I still get choked up about it,” then starts smiling that great Wingnut smile and says, “But now, yeah, that little fucker drops in on me all the time.”

{%{"quote":"“Hey,” he almost shouts. “We're here to catch waves. I like this one. Come on, princess, this one is all you! It's a corker. It's a bobby-dazzler!”"}%}

As to my own surfing, it started in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, when I was 16, rode a shortboard, thought I was a ripper, decided to give up the sport after moving to Manhattan at 22, and returned to it with a new passion for longboarding, which is how most older guys ride, after I relocated to Rhode Island ten years ago—or right around the time that CIDP really began to mess with my feet, heart, and head. I’d first noticed it eight years before that, when I was 40 years old and my toes starting feeling all fuzzy. The numbness didn’t upset my mobility, so I didn’t think much about it, until I made the move to the Ocean State and hit the Matunuck beaches. Whenever I tried to stand on my board, I was overcome with dizziness and fell.

Two years later, a neurologist finally gave me the CIDP diagnosis. By that time, both feet were fully engaged and nerve death had begun to creep from the extremities up into my legs, atrophying muscle as it went. One thing I learned is that, while the disease can’t be cured, it can be fought. You can go after it with high doses of steroids, which sometimes work but is a method my doctors won’t let me try, since the side effects (crumbling hips, vicious mood swings, massive weight gain, and chronic girlfriend-irritating hiccups) are so dire. Or you can bombard the system with a plasma-protein replacement called intravenous immunoglobulin. IVIG works in about 80 percent of cases, allowing the nerve structure to regroup enough to create new muscle. That being the case, I’ve spent days on end hooked up to an intravenous drip at Rhode Island’s South County Hospital, only to find out that I’m a member of the fairly exclusive 20 percent club for whom IVIG does nothing at all. This also makes me wonder why cross stepping and nose riding continue to be my main surfing interest, since they’re vastly more difficult for a person with CIDP to accomplish. Must be I’m either stupid or stupidly perverse. Or both.

Wingnut is great, though. It’s hard not to think he’s great. He’s just so full of joy. At the same time, it gets to be a little much, how everything in his life always turns out for the best, how bitchin’  everything is, the way he’s always whistling, the way everyone brightens in his presence, the way he calls all the Costa Rican guys guapo—Spanish for “handsome”—making them laugh, him with his snappy shorts, his neatly pressed shirts, his easygoing flip-flops. Plus, everything’s usually all about him, which he easily owns up to. “Yes, I am megalomaniacal,” he says, “and I like the sound of my own voice. But a good, healthy ego can get you through a lot. Remember—the glass is half full.” I guess some people are just born that way, and sometimes, I suppose, it’d be nice.

Right now we're out at a tiny-wave break called Suizo—Wingnut, me, and Robert August’s very cool, athletically built assistant Kristen, nicknamed Waimea. Wingy is calling out waves for me, Waimea is hooting up a storm, and I’m getting closer to the nose. After one ride, Wingnut steams up and says, “You did so many things right on that wave. When you got to the paint, you kept your weight more on the outside rail, which keeps you better balanced. You had a really good vertical stance, with your hips square. You were real stable. You just got real relaxed and stood tall. And that’s the perfect thing to do. It’s like what Laird Hamilton’s dad, Bill, used to say: ‘Stand tall, do nothing at all.’ ”

I’m bobbing my head, smiling for real this time. But my toes are always still about a foot shy of finding themselves directly on the nose. Wingnut has tried telling me that being anywhere on the front third of the board is considered nose riding, which is how some people look at it. But I know better. As Matt Warshaw says, “Nobody gives a shit if you’re on the front third of the board. That’s not what people are thinking about when they think nose riding. Nose riding is hanging ten or hanging five, something way, way up there.”

But here’s the thing that has me scratching my head. During all our time together, Wingnut hasn’t ever actually instructed me in the ways of nose riding, the nuts-and-bolts -mechanics of it. He hasn’t directly addressed how much to bend my knees or when to start walking. He’s acted more like a surfing-lifestyle tour guide and an enthusiastic supporter of my hopes, and at that he’s been terrific. And so much about him is contagious. When he starts wearing his beach towel backward around his neck, I do the same. He likes to drink a single beer with his breakfast; I’ve at least thought about doing that, too. But why I’m getting closer to the nose I can’t exactly figure out.

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"The author, getting close to the nose."}%}

Two days later, our last day before leaving for home, again at Suizo, I’m wondering where the time went and looking down at my feet, the source of all my issues. More than anything, I want to experience that great aha, epiphanic, life-altering moment that leads to all my nose-riding dreams coming true, with me hanging ten or at least five. But there’s only an hour of sunlight left, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.

I look over at Wingnut. He’s blabbing away at some goo-goo-eyed surfer girl, saying, “I’m so hot right now. I’m like Hansel. I’m so hot right now,” and preening in his amusing, self-mocking way. But then he’s paddling in my direction. “You see that one?” I look around absently. “Hey,” he almost shouts. “We’re not here to fuck around. We’re here to catch waves. I like this one. Come on, princess, this one is all you! It’s a corker. It’s a bobby-dazzler!”

I start laughing and paddling and drop down the face of the wave, come around, stall, then walk. Behind me, Wingnut is yelling, “That’s it! That’s it! All the way up! All the way up! Don’t look down. Look where you want to go! Make it happen, motherfucker! It’s the last day!”

I glance at my feet, praying that what I see are ten toes over. Nothing doing. I’m still at least a foot short. Maybe even two.

Back in Rhode Island, the first thing I do is order a new SUP, a very handsome nose rider made by L41, out of Santa Cruz. It’ll have a wide, square tail, lots of tail rocker, a flat midsection, fancy step rails—and Wingnut has already proclaimed it bitchin.’ It’ll be here in a month or two. I can’t wait. And then I’ve got my eye on a board called the Hammer, made by a guy named Wardog, which is known to be a great all-rounder and probably perfect for me if all my further attempts at nose riding only lead me to pound the L41 into fiberglass smithereens on the local rocks.

Meanwhile, I’ve been pondering some things Wingnut told me after our final session. “I really like what you’ve done, but you’ve got a mental roadblock,” he said. “Nothing is stopping you but you. And, again, fuck your feet. They’re not an excuse I’m going to buy. You’ve got to have the right mental attitude, because you can talk yourself into success, or you can talk your way into failure, right?”

Yes, right, and I’ve heard this stuff before, and, yeah, I know, the choice is mine. But I’ve also come to believe that sometimes the choice isn’t yours. I mean this in a good way. Whatever nose-riding progress I made in Costa Rica, I made largely because, when you hang around Wingnut, what you get is Wingnut all the time, Wingnut without end, Wingnut smiling every second of every goddamn day, Wingnut constantly whispering in your ear, “I have faith in you.” At some point, whether you know it or not, whether you even want to or not, you can’t help but start to think that maybe, sometimes, the glass really is half full. His faith becomes your faith. That’s probably what got me so close to the nose in Tamarindo. And, if anything, that’s what’ll one day get me all the way up there. As long as he’s still with me, I know it can be done.

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Judging the World's Biggest Waves

On April 29, I received an invitation to the monolithic California headquarters of Billabong where I’d sit alongside a panel of journalists, filmmakers, photographers and big wave surfers to judge the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards.

What began as a far simpler single award called the K2 Big Wave Challenge back in 1998 has morphed into surfing’s night at the Oscars, providing big wave hellmen and women a widescreen recognition of the crazy risks they took the preceding year. Officiating our effort would be the former Surfing magazine editor who dreamed up the first K2 Big Wave Challenge—Billabong’s blonde bombshell Bill Sharp. 

What followed was probably the most difficult and carefully deliberated XXL judgment any of us had ever been a part of. 

First, some background. The XXL awards include “Wipeout of the Year” ($5,000), “Billabong Women’s Performance” ($5,000), “Ride of the Year,” which is the most lucrative prize at $50,000.

A surfing “Academy,” made up of a few hundred journalists, industry insiders, and surf legends, chooses these winners by online ballot. And while the surfers generally consider the academy's “Ride of the Year” the apex award, the media gives more attention to the XXL’s two final awards—XXL Biggest Paddle and XXL Biggest Wave. Why? Guinness recognizes the verdicts of these two in its Book of World Records. And this year, it seemed that a world record was on the line that could overthrow Garrett McNamara’s ride from 2011

As always, Sharp displayed a series of blown-up photos of mind-blowing rides, along with video and computer stills so we could examine waves, surfers, and camera angles down to the last pixel. 

{%{"quote":"This year, it seemed that a world record was on the line that would overthrow Garret McNamara’s ride from 2011."}%}

Judging the XXL’s biggest waves has always been equal parts science and art—and it’s always been controversial. “Biggest” is actually two categories: The “Biggest Paddle Award” ($20,000) goes to the surfer who strong-arms into the biggest “paddle” wave while “XXL Biggest Wave” ($10,000) can include paddling, but is typically focused on less challenging—but still perilous—jet-ski assisted tow-in waves. (Only once has a paddle entry won both categories—Shawn Dollar’s 2012 Cortes Bank behemoth.)  

The most important element in judging any wave is discerning the bottom or trough—the point at which a wave begins curving upward from the horizontal. From there, it’s a relatively simple matter of knowing the height of a surfer, then multiplying his height from the wave’s crest to its trough.

In first taking up the “Biggest Paddle” category, the consensus was that no one eclipsed Shawn Dollar’s 61-footer at Cortes Bank for the Guinness world record. After another hour, hunched over screens and posters, we unanimously ruled in favor of Hawaii’s fearless charger Mark Healey at Maui’s Jaws. In his crouch, Healey’s hail-mary backside widowmaker is ten times overhead, or 52 feet.

We then turned our attention to the "Biggest Wave" award. The most breathtaking photos in Sharp's arsenal showed Andrew “Cotty” Cotton, an affable 34-year-old British plumber, lifeguard, and father of two who charged down a Portuguese rogue spawned from the bowels of hell. Maybe it was the biggest thing ever ridden—even eclipsing Garrett McNamara’s 78-footer two years back. (McNamara actually towed Cotton into this wave.) But closer examination led to the longest jury deliberation in XXL history.

The difficulty of judgment boils down to this: At Mavericks, Jaws, or Teahupoo, where deep-running ocean swells abruptly jack up onto a ledging shelf and throw out gargantuan barrels, the trough is fairly easy to discern. That’s not the case at Nazaré, Portugal or with the sloping, giant wave that breaks off Belharra, France. And those were the waves we were looking at this year.

Nazaré and Belharra both have a gradual bottom transition that allows waves to reach enormous heights and for surfers to hit tremendous speeds—think of a super-G skier bombing a run.  But they’re not as steep, and in Nazaré’s case, most images are taken from a much higher vantage point, and are thus that much harder to judge.

In this case, every judge agreed that Cotty’s Nazaré wave was enormous. But was it world record? Some images shot from high on the bluffs indicated that he was only halfway down the face of a wave more than 80 feet high. But other frames shot at lower angles revealed that the apparent height of the wave is partly a function of its tremendous slope, which might indeed be a hundred or more feet long. But as judge and Mavericks veteran Taylor Paul points out in Surfing magazine, slope is not height.

Had Cotty gone left—where his wave wedges up into an apocalyptic maw—he would have been in world-record territory. But in a wise move that surely saved his life, Cotty went right, making a mach-ten turn at the wave’s bottom. As Mavericks lifeguard and photographer Frank Quirarte points out, that’s why it’s called a bottom turn, and it’s where we judge the wave’s trough. After painstaking measurements, we finally rendered a 60-foot verdict. “When he gets to the bottom and leans into his turn, that’s the wave,” says filmmaker and former Surfer magazine editor Sam George. “But the photos make it look like there’s 30 feet beneath that.”

Attention then turned to a wave that everyone initially reckoned was smaller than Cotty’s: a Belharra giant ridden by 37-year-old French photographer and amateur big wave surfer Gautier Garanx. Measurement after tedious measurement revealed that Garanx’s wave was slightly bigger than Cotton’s—62 feet by unanimous verdict.

Two feet of difference? Is this justice? Isn’t our ruling somewhat subjective? Yes on all counts. But even with computer-aided technology, finding the trough always comes down to human judgment and an inexact science. But we’re armed with some of the best photographic evidence—and the most experienced jurors—in the business. 

Some have long argued that assigning height to big waves is a fool’s errand and that as Buzzy Trent once famously said, “Big waves aren’t measured in feet, but in increments of fear.” There’s logic in that sentiment, but at the same time, the surfers themselves submit these ephemeral Everests for record consideration. And human beings, by their very nature, are fascinated with the highest, fastest, strongest, biggest, and tallest. That’s what makes the Guinness Book of World Records one of the best selling books of all time—beneath the Bible and Koran. 

And before anyone cries that the jury is biased against Europe, or specifically Portugal, remember: the XXL panel gave Garrett McNamara a still-standing world record at Nazaré.

Three nights later, Anaheim’s Grove Theater plays host to a packed house of the scantily clad, the highly devoted, the terribly inebriated and the painfully hip. For his 52-footer at Jaws, 34-year-old Mark Healey is hilarious and humble, “I ended up feeling really good about myself until I came in over the rocks and got my ass handed to me and made a complete fool of myself,” he says. “You never leave Jaws with your ego intact.”

When it’s time for Ride of the Year, 31-year-old Greg Long is rewarded $50,000 for navigating a giant backhand barrel at Puerto Escondido, Mexico. It’s one of the most technically challenging big waves ever ridden and marks a remarkable comeback for Long after a full-blown case of PTSD in the wake of his near drowning at Cortes Bank two Decembers ago.

“It’s been a pretty radical year in my life,” he says, before publicly thanking his Cortes rescuer and fellow big wave charger D.K. Walsh. “There are so many people out there I’ve met through this love of big wave surfing…you take away the awards , you take away the money, the sponsors and all the rest. I’m still the richest and luckiest person in the world.”

When it comes time for the "XXL Biggest Wave" award, Gautier Garanx is stunned. Holding a $10,000 check over his head he says, “Sorry for my very bad English. I’m not used to this kind of ceremony.” He then adds to huge applause, “I’d like to thank my first sponsor, my wife Sandy,” before strutting off the stage with the XXL’s micro-skirted check-handlers and a grin. 

In Garanx’s win though, it’s impossible not to feel for the unspeakably brave Andrew Cotton, who would have been the United Kingdom's first XXL winner. Especially when he writes a classy entry on his Facebook page. “Obviously gutted I didn’t take home a win, but honoured to make the top five.”

Don’t worry, Cotty, your time will come. 

Check out all the Billabong XXL winners on the official website

Chris Dixon is the author of "Ghost Wave." 

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Going Wild In The New Costa Rica, Part II

The earthquake came in like a gale, shifting and groaning, gathering force, as though fulfilling the idea of itself. April is the windiest month on Nicaragua's Pacific coast and at the beach earlier in the day we'd been pelted with sand by nearly constant 40 mile-per-hour gusts. So when the rumbling began, it was easy to mistake it for the wind rattling the walls or someone in the condo upstairs dragging furniture across the floor.

It was a little after 2:30 in the afternoon on our second day at Rancho Santana, a high-end resort about three hours west of Managua. We'd spent all morning swimming and had finally gotten our daughters, ages three and five, settled down for a nap in the next room. Steve and I stretched out with our books in the living room, the breeze blowing in through screen doors and ceiling fans whirring maniacally overhead. Siesta, Nica-style.


But the mind works in funny ways during an emergency, and almost instantaneously my brain started screaming "earthquake!" The shaking was coming from within the walls and the floor, from above and below and from all sides at once. It made a noise, not the telltale clattering you'd expect from dishes falling out of the drying rack, but a deep, almost primal roar that sounded like nothing I'd heard before.

There are a few exceptions for the old saying, "Never wake a sleeping baby." Earthquakes are right up there at the top the list. When I flung open the bedroom door, they were curled together like cats, cocooned in sleep. I grabbed Pippa and Steve picked up Maisy, and we ran outside into the courtyard. Housekeepers from neighboring condos had gathered on the steps and they looked at us with our flushed, discombobulated girls in our arms and cried, "Fuerte!" Strong.

We'd come to Nicaragua to find the wilder side of Central America, hoping for an alternative to the increasingly Americanized Costa Rica, where we could get a taste of local culture and live as close to nature as possible. In the week we'd been the country, we'd done some of the swankiest "camping" of our lives in the open-air bungalows at Morgan's Rock; been treated to the gritty, after-dark tour of Managua; wandered around the Plaza in colonial Grenada; and spent nearly every other waking minute playing in the pristine sea. Now we were being rocked by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake just 40 miles away. You don't get much closer to nature than that.


The quake was over almost as soon as it began, an aftershock to a quake that had struck Managua the day before, destroying buildings and leaving at least one person dead. The land-based tremor posed no threat of tsunami, but President Daniel Ortega had put the country on a red-alert earthquake watch. Our condo was exactly one foot above sea level, and for a while I stood vigil on the porch, watching the ocean and waiting with dread for the giant sucking surge of a tidal wave. But the afternoon heat was easing, and with it the wind, and the girls were clamoring to swim. So eventually I abandoned my post and we went to the beach instead.

Founded in 1997, Rancho Santana is one of Nicaragua's oldest and largest luxury resort  development, with a couple dozen condos and casitas and nearly 100 private villas spread along five of the Pacific Coast's finest beaches and some of its best surf breaks. Our tasteful two-bedroom condo had a full kitchen, a patio with ocean views, and—something of a shock after our airy, screened palapa at Morgan's Rock—air conditioning. It was a mere two-minute walk from both Playa Santana and the beach club, the heart of the resort with a pool and restaurant, oceanfront massage and yoga cabanas, bocce court and horseshoe pits, and unimpeded sunset views. With options like that right out our front door, it would have been tempting to stay put, but we only had three days to explore the ranch and its more remote playas.

South of Santana, the small, steep arc of yellow sand at Playa Escondida feels desert-island remote—a good thing for the green turtles that come ashore to lay eggs in the sand. When we arrived the next morning with the resort's resident naturalist, Fredder, he showed us the white board used to record the nests and estimated hatch dates. The Nicaraguan government employs round-the-clock turtle-watchers to monitor nesting beaches along the Pacific coast and guard against poachers trying to nab eggs (local lore claims they're aphrodisiacs) during the 51-day incubation.

As we left, Fredder asked the turtle man to call him at the first sign of a hatch. We hadn't gotten more than 100 yards away when Fredder's cell phone rang. "They're hatching!" he exclaimed, turning on his heels and motioning for us to follow. Back at one of the sand pits, the turtle man held a small, black writhing newborn in his palm. It was hardly the size of my three-year-old's fist, and its eyes were almost entirely encrusted in sand. Fredder explained that as soon as they're born the baby turtles have to make their way to the ocean on their own (their mother has long since left the nest), which somehow imprints the beach's location into their turtle brain, ensuring they'll be able to find their way back in three to five years to lay their own eggs. That is, if they survive. 


Within minutes, Fredder and the turtle man had plucked a couple of dozen tiny turtles from the pit, and they were already beginning to drag themselves toward the water, leaving what looked like miniature tire tracks in the sand. As he pulled more from the hole—there are often 80-100 per nest—he placed them gently in the girls's palms, where they fluttered like earthbound butterflies. The first turtle to reach the sea was tossed about in the waves at the water's edge, thrusting its head above the surface to breathe every so often, until at last it was carried out into the deep and disappeared into the turbulent surf. Back on the beach, the sand itself seemed to be shifting and rippling, alive with dozens of baby turtles crawling toward the light of the ocean—pure, animal instinct that left us nearly speechless.

It's hard to top the spectacle of new life being born before your eyes, but we came pretty close in our remaining time at Rancho Santana. We rode horses from the ranch's stables, along Playa Santana toward a jagged point of land called Magnific Rock, went tide-pooling along the jagged volcanic shelf in front of the beach club, ran sections of the ranch's 16-mile trail network, and spent a lot of quality time doing laps between playa and pool.


When it comes to surfing, Steve and I are opportunistic, lazy, and inexperienced. If there are boards on hand, and we can drag them straight from our front door across the sand to a low-stress, beginners' break, then we'll surf. But the break at Playa Santana looked fast and intimidating, and there were nearly always at least a dozen surfers bobbing on their boards, waiting to drop in—and just as many on shore, scoping the action in the simultaneously intent-yet-laid-back way that true surfers have. Clearly we had no business on that wave, so instead I watched the surfers watching the surf. Between sessions, tattooed, deeply-tanned twenty-somethings from southern California and Hawaii lazed in the pool and sprawled out in the shade of the canopied chaises that looked like hermit crab shells.

The breaks at and near Rancho Santana lure surfers from around the world, but at times it felt like everyone at the resort was American and that we'd stumbled into spring break in San Diego South. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Despite its groovy surfer vibe, especially during $5 margarita sunset happy hour, Rancho Santana also exudes a genuine, palpable sense of community, whether you're first-time visitors like we were, or more committed transplants who bought condos or built villas on the property.

By our second day there, we'd met families from North Carolina, Vermont, and New Mexico, who'd been drawn to the surf and gorgeous beaches, as well as full-time expats from Florida and Maryland, who loved it so much they'd moved down for good, with kids in tow. Rancho Santana is one of the only resort developments in Nicaragua with its own school, a sweet, two-room schoolhouse, next to the organic garden and just behind the beach.


On Saturday night, our last in Nicaragua, Steve and I dropped Pippa and Maisy off at school for the weekly kid's night out, where $15 each bought them dinner, a movie, and four hours of babysitting—like much of Nicaragua, a pretty great deal. Steve and I had been having so much fun with the girls all week that we didn't need the break, but they were clamoring to play with their new friends, so we obliged and headed off to a lobster-and-steak dinner at a gorgeous new villa overlooking Playa Escondida.

It was a fitting end to a nearly perfect Nicaragua family beach adventure. At three-and-a-half and five-and-a-half, our girls are old enough that we don't have to watch them constantly or shadow their every move; increasingly independent, they sought out children wherever we went and were game for almost everything Nica threw their way: tortilla-making, cow-milking, chicken-petting, turtle-birthing, hermit crab racing, horseback riding, even napping through their first earthquake. And after five years of lugging around a crazy mountain of gear—diapers and car seats and baby carriers and portable cribs—this time we got by with a couple of suitcases and booster seats. If one way to measure relaxation is by how many books you read while on a trip, then in Nica—where I notched a personal best of three-and-a-half—I really kicked back. For the first time since becoming parents, we felt like we'd had a true vacation.

More than that, though, in ten days we saw just enough of Nicaraguan culture to feel as though we'd actually left the U.S., and leave us wanting more—not always an easy feat on a beach trip. The girls are still too young to fully grasp the poverty that grips most of the country, but like the wilderness raft trips we've taken since they were babies, I like to think that exposure at any age becomes part of their subconscious, another link in a chain of memories that turns curious, engaged little girls into true travelers. Despite our doubts at the outset, from the moment we arrived, Nica delivered just the right dose of adventure, and then some. Earthquake and all. 

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A Surfboard You Can Travel With

Traveling with surfboards is a chore. They're bulky and fragile, and you have to bring more than one to accommodate whatever the ocean throws at you. Enter the Timbertek Baked Potato. Made from a standard EPS blank wrapped in three millimeters of sustainable paulownia wood, it's both stronger and lighter than a traditional board. The Potato builds on the recent trend of high-volume, shorter boards designed for the average guy but ups the performance factor, so it can be surfed in waves from knee-high to overhead. Despite its chubby profile, the turned-down rails combine with a deep V in the bottom to allow for super-smooth rail-to-rail transitions. And a rounded diamond tail and wide-set fins give the board drive without letting it slide out in bigger surf. A finishing coat of plant-based bio-resin extends the enviro cred, but it's the strength and versatility that make us want to take the Potato everywhere. 5'3" x 21¼"; from $740.

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Tiny Dude, Giant Wave

At five in the morning, there’s water in the streets of Nazaré. Dark and swirled with sand, it comes racing across the wide beach and into the town square, wetting the shoes of late-night revelers and lapping against the monument to the mulhers, the long-suffering women of this ancient Portuguese fishing village. You can’t see the waves yet, but the surf roars like a 747, echoing off the cliffs to the north. Big Mama is here.

An hour or so later, at Nazaré’s gritty fishing harbor, Garrett McNamara starts pulling on his wetsuit. Behind a makeshift screen, in a cinder-block warehouse once used by fishermen, his wife, Nicole, helps him wriggle into a tight-fitting Body Glove equipped with pads and armor to protect him from the beating he’s almost guaranteed to endure out there. If something goes really wrong, his base layer consists of a CO2-armed inflatable vest, capable of floating his unconscious body to the surface.

As McNamara dresses, he inhales and exhales deeply to oxygenate his blood and focus his mind. A 46-year-old professional surfer from Hawaii who has chased the world’s marquee big waves—Maverick’s, Teahupoo, Cortes Bank, and Jaws—the stocky, dark-haired McNamara will take on almost anything. He has even attempted to surf tidal waves produced by calving glaciers, an escapade that nearly got him killed. In 2007, a bodyboarder from Nazaré sent him a photo of a huge wave breaking close to a rocky headland. “It looked just like Jaws, my favorite wave, but with nobody on it,” McNamara says. He vowed to get a closer look.


He first showed up in the fall of 2010, at the invitation of town officials who viewed the surf as a potential tourist attraction. He liked what he saw, riding waves in the 50-to-60-foot range, big enough to hold his interest. He came back the next October, and on November 1, 2011, he caught a wave that was said (in a press release issued by the town) to be 90 feet tall, which would have made it the biggest wave ever surfed. In photos and video that flashed around the world, McNamara was seen streaking down an enormous pyramid of water, hammering over the chop like a Masshole bombing Killington. The image was terrifying and exhilarating: tiny dude, giant wave.

“Everyone gets that,” says Bill Sharp, the spike-haired impresario who runs the Billabong XXL big-wave awards, which are like the Oscars of monster surfing, with cash prizes up to $50,000. McNamara won that season’s prize for the biggest wave, which Guinness certified as a world record at 78 (not 90) feet. The ride made him a national hero in Portugal and led to a 60 Minutes Sports segment with Anderson Cooper. Then, in January 2013, McNamara rode an even bigger-looking wave that was said—again by others—to measure 100 feet, far taller than any wave ever surfed.

True or not, the claim instantly made McNamara one of the most famous surfers in the world, up there with Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton. But the reaction from his tribe of fellow big-wave riders was less enthusiastic. Some of the criticism focused on the wave itself, which many dismiss as being a mountain of mush rather than a majestic curl. McNamara often gets slagged, too, in part because he uses jet skis to tow into the things. “There’s hundreds of thousands of people that have the technical ability to be towed into a giant wave at Nazaré,” paddle-surfing legend Shane Dorian scoffed in the surfing publication Stab. “Hundreds. Of. Thousands.”

Why the hate? One reason is that tow-in surfing—which Laird Hamilton pioneered in Hawaii in the 1990s—has lately gone out of fashion and paddling is back in. But in a rare moment of candor, a blogger for Surfing magazine admitted, after the 2011 world-record wave, “We dismissed it because it’s Garrett McNamara, as much a cowboy as a legitimate big-wave surfer.”

According to his detractors, McNamara is a loudmouth who takes wild risks in search of an adrenaline rush and then can’t stop “claiming” his accomplishments. “People are always attacking him, saying, Garrett’s such a kook, and he gets towed in and loves claiming it and calls the media,” says Brock Little, a veteran big-wave surfer and Hollywood stuntman who grew up with McNamara on the North Shore of Oahu. “It makes me want to defend him.”

McNamara has been doing a pretty good job of defending himself. He withdrew his January 2013 ride from last year’s Billabong XXL awards, which in the past he had won in numerous categories (Biggest Wave, Overall Performance, and the coveted Best Wipeout, his personal specialty). He said the event was tainted by having an alcoholic-beverage sponsor, Pacifico beer, which puzzled many people, since McNamara had not previously been known as a teetotaler. Some argued that he was afraid his January wave would be dismissed on the grounds that it barely broke and perhaps wasn’t as tall as billed. But in an e-mail to Bill Sharp in 2013, Nicole complained that her husband had been “shunned” by the surf industry.

Now, with this swell shaping up on Super Bowl Sunday 2014, the cowboy was hoping to ride a wave so big, so unquestionable, that it would prove all his doubters wrong.

Two days earlier, on Friday, January 31, I woke up to this e-mail:

"It is going to be huge on Sunday!!! We are going to surf. It is the biggest swell we have ever surfed. No wind...Please do not tell anyone!! All the best!!! Garrett"

I boarded a plane for Lisbon that night.

I’d been weirdly fascinated by the Nazaré wave since I’d first seen it online. Usually, I watch surf movies and videos as a way to relax and open up the creative spaces of my mind. The footage from Nazaré was more menacing than soothing. The waves, dark and foam streaked, looked like they were about to break on top of a huge old fort with a lighthouse on the roof. They tossed the surfers around like toys, but sometimes they showed mercy. In one mesmerizing sequence, the Moroccan rider Jerome Sahyoun falls off his board and gets hoisted to the top of a wave, which tseems ready to fling him over the falls. At the last second, he somehow manages to escape down the back side.

This was my second trip to Portugal: I had come over in late November 2013 and spent a few days with McNamara and Nicole, a slim, intense brunette who’s 17 years younger than him. There was supposed to be a swell then, too, but by the time I showed up the waves had fizzled. On that visit, McNamara had hinted at the existence of an even bigger, previously unknown wave that broke in the same general area. He and his circle—a small group of local officials, surfers, and videographers employed by a Nazaré-funded effort known as the Project—called this one Big Mama and said it could reach a legitimate, verifiable height of 100 feet or more if the conditions were right. Which they seemed to be as I headed to Portugal a second time. Would it fizzle again? Fool me once…

As my flight crossed the Atlantic at 40,000 feet, we passed over a massive storm named Brigid, which was preparing to slam into southwest Ireland. Portugal would be its next stop. Surfers in Ireland and northern Spain were flocking to their favorite wave spots, but the unique geography of Nazaré would guarantee the biggest breakers of all.

The whitewashed little town, population 15,000, sits at the end of a huge undersea canyon that runs in a northeasterly angle from the open sea. There are comparable canyons off the East Coast of the United States, but they get deep dozens of miles out in the ocean; the Nazaré canyon drop-off is only yards from the beach, and it ultimately reaches a depth of more than 15,000 feet. Historically, the canyon attracted fish by the ton, which is why Nazaré has been a commercial-fishing hub for 500 years. But it also created the monster wave that McNamara compared to Jaws, the famous break off the north shore of Maui.


The Nazaré wave is so big, first, because Portugal sticks farther out into the stormy North Atlantic than any other part of Europe except Ireland. And, second, because it is composed of not just one wave but two. The prevailing swells tend to march in from the north or northwest, which is why the town huddles to the south of the point. But the canyon also gathers its own swell from the west-southwest, funneling it directly toward the fort, which has somehow clung to the cliff since 1577. The canyon swells are subtler, until they hit the edge, where the depth changes suddenly from several hundred feet to about 60. When the two swells combine, they rear up into what McNamara calls a “rogue wave” that explodes, hugely and frighteningly, just off the rocks in front of the lighthouse.

These waves haunted the town for centuries, like the mythical monsters and dragons of ancient folklore. Making matters worse, Nazaré had no natural harbor, forcing fishermen to launch their boats directly off the beach, often into pounding surf. (The current there is called the widow’s rip.) The Portuguese government finally opened a modern fishing harbor in 1986, but even then the monstrous waves claimed victims, many of whom were drowned on the wild, exposed beach to the north, Praia do Norte.

“To my parents and grandparents and uncles, who were all fishermen, that beach was a place of death,” says 36-year-old Dino Casimiro, the local bodyboarder who first reached out to McNamara. The older generations were shocked when Casimiro and his friends began riding the waves off Praia do Norte. But by the early 2000s, Nazaré was well known in the bodyboarding community as a fun but challenging shore break, the site of many competitions.

McNamara saw something more: the potential to ride the kind of monster wave that rarely forms close to shore. “Here you have a rogue wave that breaks on the beach,” he says, “which doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

And he was the first guy crazy enough to try and ride it.

McNamara wasn’t born to surf, necessarily—he came into the world in landlocked western Massachusetts, in 1967—but he’s certainly a natural risk taker. When he was 18 months old, he wandered away from the Berkshires prep school where his folks worked. He made it over a mile, in his diaper, before a neighbor found him. “He had an extreme childhood,” says his mother, Malia McNamara, on the phone from Hawaii. “He was always escaping.”

Malia, whose birth name is Mary, was a wanderer herself. In 1969, when Garrett was still a toddler, his parents moved to Berkeley, California, during the era of peak hippie. They cofounded a commune in Sonoma County, where Garrett spent all day running around naked with other kids. One of his earliest, fondest memories from this period is an image of, in his words, “watermelon seeds on my ding-dong.”

The commune lasted two years before his mother and a guy named Mad Bob split town with Garrett in tow (parking a younger son, Liam, with her husband). Along with Mad Bob’s two daughters, they headed south into Mexico in a VW bus, living on Malia’s modest inheritance as they bounced from town to town. Mad Bob ran off to work as a strongman for a traveling circus, and he was replaced by a man named Luis. After multiple trips south, they all ended up living in Belize, in a house on a lagoon.

That idyll lasted a while, but eventually the inheritance ran out, and Garrett wound up in Berkeley with his father. Malia joined a group called the Christ Family, whose members had forsaken their worldly possessions to wander the countryside barefoot, wearing only white robes. On the plus side, their “sacrament” was smoking pot.

At ages six and four, respectively, Garrett and Liam joined their mother for an extended trek around Northern California and the Pacific Northwest that left their feet blistered and their souls mortified. “Imagine walking up your street where all your friends are after being gone for six months,” McNamara recalls, “and you have nothing but a white robe on and a little white blanket rolled up strapped to your back—no shoes, no nothing, exactly what Jesus wore!”

The experience scarred him, and he was only too happy when, a few years later, his mother decided to move them to Hawaii. “I decided I really wanted to stay somewhere and be straight and raise the kids,” she says. “I wanted them to not have to be embarrassed of me and to have a home.”

{%{"quote":"McNamara hauls himself over a whitewashed cement wall and I follow, dropping down only to realize that we’re at the bottom of the funicular railway. I’m pretty sure this is illegal."}%}

They ended up in a barracks-style apartment complex known as Cement City that McNamara calls “the armpit of the North Shore.” He remembers eating his Frosted Flakes with powdered milk, because they were on food stamps and real milk was too expensive. The saving grace was the generosity of a neighbor who gave the boys their first surfboards. The sport became the McNamaras’ escape. “I think he found solace in the water, away from everything,” says Nicole.

It was freezing on the beach, but now we’re sheltered from the wind, and McNamara strips off his shirt to reveal a body that’s more aging rugby player than surfer god. He hauls himself over a whitewashed cement wall and I follow, dropping down only to realize that we’re at the bottom of the funicular railway that connects the lower village with the upper town, several hundred vertical feet above us. I’m pretty sure this is illegal. - See more at:
It was freezing on the beach, but now we’re sheltered from the wind, and McNamara strips off his shirt to reveal a body that’s more aging rugby player than surfer god. He hauls himself over a whitewashed cement wall and I follow, dropping down only to realize that we’re at the bottom of the funicular railway that connects the lower village with the upper town, several hundred vertical feet above us. I’m pretty sure this is illegal. - See more at:

The North Shore turns out pro surfers the way the Dominican Republic produces big-league ballplayers, and despite their relatively late start, Garrett and Liam both found some success in the lineup. Liam proved to be the better competitive surfer, although his reputation, and maybe his scores, were damaged by a tendency to get into scrapes, and sometimes fistfights. Garrett did his best, until a 1990 mishap at Waimea Bay left him with a broken back and effectively ended his career. By age 30, he was pretty much retired, running a surf shop in Haleiwa. But he wasn’t cut out for a nine-to-five life. “Every day, I would drive by these perfect waves on my way to work,” he says. He hated it.

When McNamara was 34, he made the first of several radical life decisions. At a point when many of his contemporaries were finally phasing out, he decided he would go back into surfing, big-time. “Riding big waves was my passion,” he says. “It’s all I wanted to do.” He wrote his goals down on a sheet of paper. It’s an ambitious list that includes winning the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau, or the Eddie, a prestigious contest in honor of the legendary North Shore lifeguard, held when conditions are big enough at Waimea Bay. He spent months training at Pipeline and Sunset, the classic North Shore surf spots. And then, in 2002, he got his big break.

In the opening scene of the classic 2004 big-wave documentary Riding Giants, we see a massive, 50-foot Jaws wave curling over, with more intense fury than God’s own washing machine. Suddenly, a lone figure shoots out of the barrel, arms raised in triumph. It’s Garrett McNamara, a guy everyone on the North Shore thought was washed up. “It’s never been equaled, before or since,” Sam George, a former editor of Surfer who cowrote the documentary, says of the ride.


The Jaws barrel capped an amazing comeback year for McNamara. In January 2002, he’d won $70,000 in a tow-in contest at Jaws—the first time he’d ever surfed there. That summer, he caught a huge wave at Teahupoo, in Tahiti, that made the covers of surf magazines. He had exposure now, and that attracted sponsors like No Fear and Red Bull that would pay him to surf, traveling to wherever the swells were best. “I was always Liam’s brother—like, Who is this Garrett guy?” he says. “But that solidified it. And it was like, OK. I’ll keep surfing.”

McNamara tells this story as we’re driving back to Nazaré from Lisbon. The night before, he did an on-stage interview in front of an enthusiastic Portuguese crowd, answering questions about surfing and life and spirit from a journalist whose main job is covering the Pope. I can’t help but point out that, according to the speedometer, he’s flying down the A8 highway at 130 miles per hour. “Am I going that fast?” he asks. “Wow. Holy shee-it!

He doesn’t slow down much. Even in the fraternity of big-wave surfers, a group that rocker Dave Grohl has praised as “the craziest motherfuckers I’ve ever seen,” McNamara stands out as a gambler. Never the most stylish of riders, he’s known for taking off late or deep on a wave, where one of two things will generally happen: Either he’ll get “barreled” and enjoy a perfect tube ride, or he’ll get the living crap pounded out of him. One particularly nasty wipeout at Teahupoo, a notoriously shallow reef break, scraped most of the skin off his right leg. In 2007, he and tow partner Kealii Mamala went to Cordova, Alaska, to surf waves created by calving glaciers. Riding frigid tsunami waves filled with chunks of ice turned out to be more difficult than expected (surprise!). They had several near-misses, in which chunks of glaciers nearly hit them. In retrospect, McNamara admits “it was not a good idea.”

“He’s almost naive, to an extent, as to how gnarly some of the things he does are,” says Little. “I’ve seen him do things that are just stupid and come up smiling.”

The secret, though, is that McNamara actually enjoys it. “I love getting pounded,” he likes to say. “It makes me feel more alive.”

His current tow partner, Andrew Cotton, a shy, sandy-haired Brit who works as a plumber and lifeguard to support his surfing, told me a story about a particularly bad wipeout that McNamara took at Nazaré, where he got hit by two waves in a row, right on the head. “He finally surfaced, after probably the most horrific wave on the head I’ve ever seen, and he had a big smile on his face,” Cotton says. “There’s just something not quite right about it. There wasn’t an ounce of panic. That wipeout for him was just as good as catching a wave.”

“It’s calculated,” McNamara says, at last dropping his speed below 100 mph. “It’s a calculated crazy. The only safe plan is don’t go.”

To moderate the risk, he embraces new technology, such as the inflatable Patagonia vest he wears under his wetsuit—and, more controversially, a self-propelling surfboard called the WaveJet. Core surfers detest the WaveJet, but McNamara views it as a useful tool for beginners or handicapped surfers. He also uses it himself, as he did one day in December 2012, on a swell at Cortes Bank, a frightening break that lies 100 miles off the coast of San Diego.

On December 21, McNamara went for a wave at the same time as Greg Long, who was paddling. They both wiped out, but while McNamara popped right up to the surface, thanks to his vest, Long’s vest malfunctioned and he was held down for three waves, a horrifyingly long time. He was brought to the boat unconscious. “There were a few moments there when I was no longer spiritually present in my body,” Long says now. “It was wild.”

Many reflexively blamed McNamara for dropping in on Long, one of the most beloved icons of the sport. Few were aware that McNamara’s safety team brought oxygen and a stretcher to help stabilize Long. “People drop in on each other all the time, and nobody makes a big deal about it,” McNamara sighed to me one night at dinner. But when it’s Garrett McNamara, the “cowboy,” and he’s riding a WaveJet, then it’s a big deal.

{%{"quote":"A local bodyboarder first reached out to McNamara. “To my parents and grandparents and uncles, who were all fishermen, that beach was a place of death.”"}%}

Long doesn’t fault McNamara for what happened. “Straightforward, Garrett is one of my friends. He was before and he still is,” says Long. “In no way do I blame him for what happened in my accident.”

The fact remains, though, that McNamara is out of sync with his fellow big-wave surfers. As people like Long and Dorian have reverted to paddling big waves, emphasizing human power and style over sheer size, McNamara continues to rely on towing into ever bigger challenges.

“He’s just marching to his own drummer,” says Sam George. “He doesn’t walk along in step with the current big-wave vogue.”

McNamara himself thinks the criticism has more to do with sponsor envy than core surfing values—and the fact that he, of all people, is the guy bringing mainstream attention to big-wave surfing. “They all want it so bad,” he says. “Don’t let ’em fool you for a second.”

McNamara continues to insist that he split with Billabong because of the alcohol sponsor, a point he reiterated during his Lisbon Q and A. He told the audience that “nothing I’ve achieved in my life has ever come about because of alcohol.”

He must not have been thinking about his wife, Nicole, whom he met with a significant assist from Señor Tequila. They were in Puerto Rico in April 2010, where she was competing in a paddleboard race and he was attending an event for Surfers Healing, a group that introduces autistic children to the water. At a banquet, he kept staring at her. “It was love at first sight,” he says now.

At first she brushed him off as just another old guy on the make—she was in her mid-twenties when they met, McNamara was past 40—but he persisted, plying her with agave shots. By November 2010, six months after Puerto Rico, they were in Nazaré together as a couple. The situation was complicated considerably by the fact that McNamara was married but separated at the time, with an infant daughter and two older children back home in Hawaii. Nicole had also recently parted ways with her college sweetheart.


These days, Nicole wears several hats at once: She’s Garrett’s handler, wave spotter, agent, sentence finisher, and protector. They’re rarely more than ten feet from each other, except when McNamara is surfing. In the six days I spent with them, she was constantly on her laptop or iPhone, answering his e-mails and handling countless requests from sponsors and media. More than that, she channels his hyperactive energy and keeps him on track and in check. “I have two settings,” he said, “full speed and stop.” When he’s not surfing, Nicole tells me, he enjoys gardening. (She then bursts out laughing.)

In Nazaré, he was in full-speed mode. He’d been in training since August 1, when he weighed nearly 200 pounds. Now, on an alcohol-free, vegan-ish diet, he’s down to 175 or so, on a five-nine frame. He wakes up between three and five every morning and runs to the lighthouse to check conditions. If things look good, he’ll go surf or practice paddling; if not, he’ll go to the gym or do yoga, or both. He and Nicole eat lunch and dinner at Restaurante Celeste on the beach, and the menu never changes: salad, “Garrett soup” (chickpeas and cabbage), and perhaps a bit of grilled local octopus. He doesn’t even drink coffee.

But the couple isn’t as tightly wound as this sounds. During my two stays, they invited me to their big first-anniversary dinner, and Garrett showed me the results of Nicole’s home-pregnancy test (it’s on!). “It’s a boy, I know,” he said, to Nicole’s eye rolls. Garrett was constantly pranking me, as well, stuff like calling my room in a fake Portuguese accent, pretending to be a hotel staffer. The fact that his voice sounds a little like Bill Murray in Caddyshack makes everything that much funnier.

The McNamaras do not get paid directly by Nazaré, but the town provides an enormous amount of infrastructure and support, starting with three brand-new, four-stroke Yamahas, plus a warehouse to store them in. The point of the Project is to publicize Nazaré’s extraordinary waves—and, town officials hope, to draw more visitors during the winter season.

Like many other fishing villages, Nazaré has suffered from the decline in global fish stocks. As the industry sagged, Nazaré missed out on the upscale tourist development that transformed the Algarve region to the south. There are a few dated hotels, and some locals rent out rooms to tourists, as they always have, but the vibe is more like Asbury Park with a bullring than South Beach. The beach itself is wall-to-wall during the summer, but in winter the place was usually deserted. “The town was empty when we first got there,” McNamara says.

By the time I showed up last November, that was no longer the case. Even without a swell, there were tourists in the cafés and walking along the beach. The Project had grown considerably, with sponsorship from a national cable company, Zon, which broadcasts McNamara’s exploits whenever he’s in the country—about three months a year.

Now they were trailed by an entourage of photographers, safety and logistics people, a publicist, and a fleet of logoed vehicles. The Portuguese navy had long ago dropped special wave buoys in the canyon, which allow McNamara to measure the size of the swells. When he went back to Hawaii during December and January, he monitored the buoys and weather patterns from afar—and had a private jet on standby near New York if he needed to get back to Portugal fast. The Project has already paid off: By last January, anyone with access to CNN had heard of Nazaré and its giant waves. The arrival of storm Brigid made national news, and when I got to town on Saturday, February 1, there wasn’t a hotel room to be had for miles. Yet big-name surfers still stayed away, for the most part, remaining unconvinced by the wave itself. “It’s really a novelty wave,” says Greg Long, reflecting a widely held view among surfing’s big guns. “It stands up tall for half a second, and then it’s over with, so there’s no real ride.”

“It will look incredibly huge in a still photograph, because it is—for a few moments,” agrees Sharp. “But over the course of the wave playing out, it tends to lose some of its size. That’s a conundrum for evaluating its height.” The Billabong panel judged McNamara’s 2011 wave to be 78 feet high, exactly one foot taller—no more, no less—than the previous record.

Not everybody downplays the wave, though. Grant “Twig” Baker, a South African surfer who won this year’s big-wave contest at Maverick’s, believes that McNamara is on to something important.“It’s a ginormous wave, and it’s brought new attention to big-wave surfing,” he says. “That’s what we all want to do—find a new wave and break records. And Garrett went out and did it. And yet there’s all this negativity around him, and I don’t know where it comes from.”

Nazaré commands a bit more respect from those who’ve actually been there. “It’s a fun and exciting wave when it’s small,” says Kelly Slater, who surfed there before McNamara ever showed up. Two years ago he came back, and McNamara towed him into some 30-footers. He was impressed. “It’s terrifying and bizarre when it’s big,” Slater says. “You can quickly get yourself in a bad situation there. The place is a freak of nature.”

{%{"quote":"“McNamara's just marching to his own drummer. He doesn’t walk along in step with the current big-wave vogue.”"}%}

One problem is that conditions are often sketchy, which makes for dramatic photos but risky surfing. In late October, Red Bull surfer Maya Gabeira, one of the few female big-wave riders, broke her leg on a choppy wave face. After she was rescued by her tow partner, Carlos Burle, he went out and caught a wave that was said to be—wait for it—the biggest wave ever surfed.

The jury is still out on that claim, at least until this year’s Billabong awards, on May 4, but others have run into trouble at Nazaré—including Shane Dorian, who flew over in January 2013 for a paddle session on a pretty big swell. In a video interview, Dorian described the Nazaré surf as “super challenging” and said, “If you paddled into the biggest wave today, it would probably be the biggest wave ever paddled into.”

“He got his ass handed to him,” says McNamara.

“You can’t ever feel really comfortable over there,” says the Basque big-wave rider Axi Muniain, who surfed Nazaré in January 2013 with Jerome Sahyoun and took a high-speed, tomahawking biff that earned him a Billabong nomination for Wipeout of the Year. “You have to be pretty crazy to surf there all the time.”

The next morning, I see what he means. Leaving McNamara and his team at the harbor, I ride over to the lighthouse with Nicole and Paolo Salvador, a squat, muscular local nicknamed Pitbull who’s in charge of safety for the Project. We enter the old fortress at the point and climb up the nearly 500-year-old stone steps to the roof, where the lighthouse sits. Nicole’s job is to spot the waves, while Pitbull directs a crew on the beach below that includes firemen, a quad, an ambulance, and a tractor.

The cliffs and hillsides are already packed with spectators, thousands of them, all focused on the ocean, which rages with a fury like I’ve never seen before. Enormous, angry swells are thundering in from the north, and when they meet the canyon swells, they form huge peaks that break 200 yards or so from the rock in front of the lighthouse. The rock is roughly 60 feet high, and it’s getting buried by wave after wave.

It looks like unsurfable chaos. Mammoth waves are breaking at right angles to each other, sending whitewater churning in every direction, like the most savage avalanche you’ve ever seen. Inside, I see what looks like a square mile of whitewater, tinged the color of cappuccino foam. This is the most dangerous place, because the jet skis lose traction in the bubbly, aerated water; meanwhile, a rapid current will drag any swimmers directly toward the rocks. This is where Gabeira got in trouble. “If someone falls in the wrong place, they might not come home,” McNamara said the night before. My knees are wobbly, and I have to sit down.

Earlier, McNamara himself dismissed his supposed 100-footer from 2013. “It wasn’t a world record,” he said over dinner. “It was a mush burger.” He wants Big Mama, but will she show? It seems likely. The swell that produced his “record” wave measured 5.9 meters on the navy buoys. These register close to nine meters, which means the actual wave heights will be that much higher. “This is the biggest we’ve seen it,” says Nicole.

Finally, three jet skis emerge from the mouth of the harbor, about a mile away. They’re having a tough job just getting out, laboring up the wave faces and then smashing down into the troughs. Two fishing boats are having a worse time, taking waves over the bow almost as soon as they pass the jetty.

McNamara had spent the previous day preparing his gear, including a brand-new surfboard—sleek, silver and gray, and emblazoned with the logo of his newest sponsor, Mercedes-Benz in Portugal. The board came with a striking silver Mercedes helmet and was supposedly created by Mercedes engineers in Germany, but actually it was made by a deaf Portuguese shaper based outside Lisbon. Unlike most tow boards, which have a lead weight bolted between the rider’s feet, this one has the weight embedded inside. It is a bomb and a thing of beauty.

McNamara is also carrying a phone in his wetsuit, equipped with sensors and software that record his speed, height, and body position in the water. It will measure his track on the wave: velocity, drop, even the angle of pitch and roll, all in three dimensions and real time. This is science-show cool, and it could help lay to rest any doubts about the height and overall gnarliness of the Nazaré wave.

But so far this morning, things have not gone smoothly: Even before the jet skis left the harbor, one of them stopped dead, probably because it inhaled a piece of floating trash. The ski was hoisted out and towed back to the shed, where McNamara crawled under it, grunting as he pulled out bits of plastic netting with pliers.


Now at last they were under way. From the cliff we watch them battle the swells, until they reach the relatively calmer waters of the Canyon, where they cluster together and confer. Today’s game plan is simple: Go for Big Mama. No inside stuff, no tube rides, just the biggest wave.

The previous night, I asked Nicole if she thought Garrett would ever slow down, given that he’s about to become a dad again, at age 47. She thought for a moment and said, “Maybe if he gets his big wave tomorrow, he’ll start thinking about it.”

Whether he’d get his wave was an open question. Big Mama is out there, but she seems cranky today. Rows of enormous swells are lined out to the horizon, rearing up into giant faces when they reach the canyon edge. But they’re breaking sloppy. We watch the jet skis zip around, looking for a rideable wave. They tow into one, then another, but neither breaks. This goes on for an hour, then two. Frustration builds.

“They’re standing up, standing up, standing up—but then they’re not doing anything till they crumble on the inside,” Nicole says into the radio.

“Patience,” says Pitbull.

“What’s that?” Nicole asks sarcastically.

Actually, Cotton tells me later, McNamara seemed calm out there, which was out of character. “He was really mellow in the water. He said, Take your time, let’s not rush this. Let’s wait for the right wave. He’s not usually like that.”

Finally, around 10:30, Nicole spots a set of three waves that stand up taller than all the others. Cotton is on the tow rope, and McNamara zooms across the channel and slings him into the third wave, even as it’s still building. From the cliff we watch Cotton ride, a tiny dot ripping a seam into the face of the wave. He’s going extremely fast, slamming over the chop, but the wave is moving faster, and the peak topples over into an avalanche of whitewater that he cannot outrun. The dot disappears.

“Garrett!” Nicole shouts into her radio. “Cotty’s down!”

{%{"quote":"“I was just barely hanging on, because it was so bumpy, and there was nothing smooth about it. I didn’t come out thinking I’d properly surfed it.”"}%}

The jet skis swoop in and converge on a tiny figure bobbing in the foam and whisk him to safety. Now it’s McNamara’s turn on the rope. A few sets later, Cotton flings him into another huge wave that builds to a foamy crest—but somehow doesn’t break. This one is moving even faster, and the anticipation mounts as McNamara hammers down the face, until he finally turns out over the wave’s right shoulder and the crowd sighs.

After another hour, they decide to call it. It’s getting too windy, and the swell direction is not quite right. Instead of heading for the harbor, McNamara guns it for the beach, threading his way in between huge, dangerous breakers and then zinging his jet ski up onto the sand. He climbs off, grabs his Mercedes surfboard, and climbs up over the rocks toward the lighthouse, looking like a knight in his silver helmet. Spectators rush down to meet him, and he spends the next 45 minutes lost in a sea of people, shaking hands, taking photos, giving quick sound bites to one TV crew after another. “He enjoys this part,” says Nicole as we wait patiently.

Finally, he makes it to the car. He throws the surfboard in back, gets in the driver’s seat, and exhales deeply.

“Big Mama was a cock tease today,” Nicole says from the backseat, and he laughs.

After McNamara leaves, the crowd on the cliffs thins out a little. But not completely. As the afternoon wears on, hundreds of spectators remain rooted to their spots, still watching the waves. In town the promenade is thronged with onlookers, closed to cars because the water is coming up over the road again. At the north end, a front loader is dumping sand on the beach in a futile attempt to slow the advance of the sea, but it’s not working.

The main show is on the beach, where 20-foot breakers are smashing the shore. The town shakes from the force of their impact. Farther out, even bigger waves rear up and smash on the rock in front of the lighthouse. It’s enough to draw out the denizens of the dark, smoky Bar Galé, an old fishermen’s hangout on the beach. The men line the sidewalk, holding their glasses of double-bock beer and squinting into the sun as the waves pound endlessly.

Back at the harbor, McNamara and Cotton and Hugo Vau strip out of their wetsuits and change into street clothes. Pitbull and his crew help wheel the jet skis back to the garage and rinse off the salt water. There’s a quiet heaviness in the air, a feeling of vague disappointment; they spent five hours on the water and caught two waves, only one of which actually broke. Cotton digs for his cell phone and studies it intently, looking at photos of the session in Mullaghmore, Ireland, that he skipped so he could ride one wave at Nazaré. Shoulda gone to Mully, he thinks. He texts his wife that he’s back safe.

Then a local photographer named Pedro Miranda arrives with good news. He takes out his phone and passes it around. On it is a shot of Cotton’s wave, and it doesn’t just look huge: It’s death-defying, the surfer a tiny dot about to be swallowed by a maelstrom of white-water. The relative size of the spectators in the foreground makes the wave look that much bigger, as does the distance—Miranda was shooting from the top of the hill, at least 200 yards above the lighthouse. Foreshortening and perspective and cropping help make the scene look even more dramatic than it already was.

McNamara moves in for a look. His face brightens. “Hey, Cotty!” he shouts. “You got the wave of the day!” Cotty breaks into a half-smile.

Within hours, Cotton’s ride will make news around the world. In England, a headline in The Daily Mail asks, “Has a British plumber conquered the biggest wave ever surfed?” The journalistic consensus is that Cotton’s wave was 80 feet tall, though based on what, nobody knows. In the photos, it’s almost impossible to see the bottom of it.

Nevertheless, the video goes into heavy rotation on CNN, and the taciturn Cotton will be interviewed a dozen times by the BBC and other international media. Even better, he will learn that his ride has been accepted into the running for this year’s Billabong XXL biggest-wave award. It’s a breakthrough in his career, at age 34.

“I don’t think my wave is a world record,” Cotton tells me later, modestly. “One, I fell at the bottom; and two, Garrett’s [world record] wave broke top to bottom, and if you look at mine, it just sort of crumbled. And number three, that wave for me, I was just barely hanging on, because it was so bumpy, and there was nothing smooth about it. I didn’t come out thinking I’d properly surfed it.”

But the data suggests that the waves were world-class. The sensors in the phone in McNamara’s wetsuit recorded a drop of 55 feet, from the beginning of his ride to the end, and a top speed of 40 miles per hour—yet he never came close to reaching the bottom of the wave. Cotton’s wave was much bigger. Still, it wasn’t Big Mama. She’s still out there.

Late that night, the wind kicks up, lashing the village with rain and beating against my hotel-room window so hard that it wakes me from a sound sleep. Then comes a knock at the door. It’s McNamara. “Are we going running?” he asks, eyes blazing. “I’ll be waiting downstairs.” He trots down the hall.


We drive to Praia do Norte and park on the beach. It’s bleak and forlorn, covered in storm trash and raked by a vicious wind. We start running toward the lighthouse on the wet sand, but our way is blocked by waves, so McNamara finds a trail snaking up through the grass and bamboo in the dunes. Emerging above the lighthouse, we drop down into the lower town, which is just stirring awake, and make our way through a maze of tiny streets.

It was freezing on the beach, but now we’re sheltered from the wind, and McNamara strips off his shirt to reveal a body that’s more aging rugby player than surfer god. He hauls himself over a whitewashed cement wall and I follow, dropping down only to realize that we’re at the bottom of the funicular railway that connects the lower village with the upper town, several hundred vertical feet above us. I’m pretty sure this is illegal.

“I did this every day the first year we were here,” McNamara says, and starts trotting up the steep incline.

In summer, the trains ferry tourists to take in the view from the top of the cliff. But now it’s off-season and the train cars are parked, home only to a clan of stray cats who flee at our approach. There are numbers written on the concrete, and McNamara stops at the 30-meter mark and looks back. “Thirty meters,” he says. “This is what a 100-footer looks like.” He keeps going, slow and steady, climbing high above the town, past the second car parked near the top, and then finally to where the track disappears into a tunnel in the cliff.

He climbs up into the tunnel, then turns and drops into his surfer’s stance. The tunnel arch frames a view of the whitewashed town and the beach beyond. It’s like he’s in the tube, the train tracks dropping away from him like the face of a huge wave. “This is how I see the barrel of Big Mama,” he says, swaying to stay on his imaginary line. “I’ve ridden it a hundred times in my mind.”

Bill Gifford (@BillGifford) is an Outside contributing editor.

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