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A good break

How a Hawaiian surfer resurrected a Portuguese town—and set the world record for the biggest wave ever ridden

Author Eric Benson Photography Götz Göppert


“You got three giant waves coming,” a woman’s voice intones over the radio, staticky but clear.

We never see the first wave, the smallest of the set. We cut right to the monstrous second as it roils and tumbles, surging toward us and passing off the bottom of the screen. Then we see the third wave. It’s even bigger than the second, even more menacing—heavier—and at the very top of it, right below the perilous crest, we catch our first glimpse of the surfer.

He’s standing on his board and darting across the face of the wave, pulled by a Jet Ski roaring across the midnight-blue expanse. The surfer is holding on to a towrope, and we imagine that he’s hanging on for dear life. But he’s not. He releases his grip, the Jet Ski peels off, and suddenly he looks very, very small and very, very alone. The crest behind him grows. We watch as it cantilevers over the sea, seems to pause for a moment in suspended animation, then topples, first with the softness of falling snow, then with the force of an avalanche. The surfer has managed to stay out in front of the collapse, but further escape now looks impossible. The water is closing too fast. Near the bottom of the wave, he swings to his left, a last-ditch attempt to avoid the brunt of the impact. But he appears not to make it. He is engulfed in a plume of crashing, churning water and disappears from view. There is a very long half-second where the screen is mostly white. Then, like a wetsuit-clad Superman, the surfer, a Hawaiian named Garrett McNamara, emerges, still standing atop his board, still zooming to his left.

Video of McNamara’s November 1, 2011, ride went viral around the world, with speculation rampant that it could be an all-time feat. “American Breaks Record for Biggest Wave Surfed,” trumpeted a headline from Turkey’s Cihan News Agency. “Il surfe la plus haute vague du monde” (He surfs the highest wave in the world), said the French newspaper Le Parisien. By the following May, Guinness World Records had made it official: McNamara had ridden a 78-foot wave, the largest ever surfed. Soon, Anderson Cooper was profiling McNamara for a “60 Minutes Sports” segment. From the stage at that month’s Billabong XXL Awards—where he was honored for his achievement—McNamara began his acceptance speech not by thanking his sponsors or his family or God, but by plugging the little-known fishing village where he’d set the record: Nazaré, Portugal. “That is my family, and the people are just so amazing there,” McNamara said. “It’s the best-kept secret in Europe—in the world for that matter.” Last fall, at the start of big-wave season,  I went to Nazaré, a 90-minute drive north from Lisbon, to find out for myself.

On a rocky promontory, a few crumbling stone steps downhill from the Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo, a 16th-century citadel built to repel pirate attacks, I find the 47-year-old McNamara studying the waves breaking onto Praia do Norte, the desolate sandy beach that sits just north of the village of Nazaré. Standing next to him on the cliff are two other surfers—Kealii Mamala, a dreadlocked native Hawaiian, and Cliff Skudin, a blond and buff New Yorker. Having arrived just a day earlier from the U.S., they listen intently as McNamara maps out the constantly shifting seascape before them. He gestures to a point a half-mile straight out to sea, where he believes he will one day catch a 120-foot wave—“Big Mama breaks out there.” Then he points to the area beneath them, where he once came close to being pummeled into a column of jagged rocks. He motions away from the rocks and up the beach toward the multiple wave breaks near the shore. “It’s coming,” McNamara says, before pointing excitedly at a sharply cresting barrel. “Look at that left!”

A few surfers are already zooming down the waves, and every so often one gets smashed by a crossing swell and tossed into the air like an exploding kernel in a popcorn machine. But this is all prelude. A storm has been raging in the North Atlantic, sending powerful swells surging toward the Portuguese coast, and McNamara has been obsessively checking the wave charts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Navy to gauge what it’ll mean for Nazaré. Over the next 12 hours, McNamara knows, the swells are forecast to grow markedly. By the morning, the seas will be big, maybe even capable of giving him a magical ride. “It’ll be A-frames, teepees—exploding,” he says, the future already visible in his mind.

Mamala has surfed Nazaré before and coolly assesses the challenge. “These are not our big guns, more of our medium,” he says to McNamara in his Hawaiian lilt. But Skudin is a newbie. He spends much of the year traversing the globe looking for great surf, but what he sees churning at Praia do Norte makes him giddy. “That’s so sick right there—we have a front-row view,” he says, looking down at the latest set of swells crashing close to shore. “You don’t get that—”

“Anywhere,” McNamara says, cutting Skudin off with more than a touch of pride.

Nazaré had big waves long before Garrett McNamara or anyone else thought about surfing them. Its cliffs rise from a depth of 500 feet—the end of a vast underwater canyon that stretches 125 miles out to sea—but Praia do Norte, just to the north, lies along a shelf where the water is only around 65 feet deep. The water traveling through the canyon moves much faster than the water traveling along the shelf, creating an effect called wave refraction. As a slower-moving wave begins to crest in front of Praia do Norte, the faster-moving canyon water will slide into it from the south, causing a dramatic upsurge that can amplify a 15-foot wave into an 80-foot monster. On the heaviest days, watching the waves surge, peak and crash here is like witnessing Mount Everest’s creation and destruction over and over again. And unlike at the world’s other great big-wave breaks, all of the action is easily visible from shore.

Those who live in the shadows of 100-foot waves, much like the people of the Himalayas, know that nature is not to be trifled with, and throughout Nazaré’s history, its people have looked upon the ocean before them with a mixture of fear and awe. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, European and North African pirates raided the coast so often that local fishermen and their families sought refuge in the hills and cliffs. In the early 19th century, Napoleon’s troops occupied Nazaré and its fort. For much of the last century, fishing boats would offload their catch directly onto the town’s beach, and during heavy seas it wasn’t uncommon for wives to watch from shore as a swell broadsided their husbands’ boats. One stretch of beachfront water with a particularly fatal current is known to this day as Widow’s Rip.

By the mid-2000s, Nazaré had a protected harbor and far fewer fisherman fatalities, but it also had a whole new set of problems. The village was in the midst of a major economic downturn. For decades, Nazaré had sustained itself on fishing, tourism and religious pilgrimages—the promontory is home to one of the most visited Catholic sites on the Iberian peninsula, a statue of the Virgin Mary called Our Lady of Nazaré that has been worshipped since the 12th century. But over time, those income sources became less reliable: The global supply chain kneecapped Nazaré’s small-boat fishing industry; modernization diminished the town’s tourist appeal as an immaculately preserved 19th-century fishing village; and in contemporary Europe—even heavily Catholic Portugal—religious pilgrimages alone can’t float a town’s economy. When the global financial crisis ravaged Portugal’s economy in 2008, this village of 15,000 people sank further still.

It was those lethal waves that, improbably, came to the rescue. Nazaré had never been a major surfing destination—surfing hadn’t even been particularly popular there—but in the ’90s and ’00s, a wave-riding culture began to take hold. Still, even as Nazaré’s teenagers began to win national competitions, no one dared surf the giant waves that rock Praia do Norte in fall and winter. Riding barrels was one thing. Putting yourself at the mercy of a skyscraper-size wave was another.

In 2005, a local surfing enthusiast named Dino Casimiro decided he would try to change that mentality. For years, he’d been championing the giant waves of Nazaré to other Portuguese surfers, many of whom were skeptical. “When I went away to study, I remember telling my friends that we have waves in Nazaré of 15 meters,” Casimiro tells me. “They’d say, ‘Are you crazy? You are a liar. That is impossible.’” Casimiro knew that the best way to prove that the waves were indeed world-class was to photograph a surfer riding one. And he knew that he needed to look elsewhere to find a surfer capable of doing so.

Casimiro had never heard of Garrett McNamara, but when he read up on the surfer’s career and watched videos of his best rides, he was duly impressed. An early adopter of tow-in surfing—the technique of using a Jet Ski to drag a surfer into a wave that would otherwise be too powerful to catch—McNamara had won the first-ever Tow-In World Cup in 2002, and since then he had solidified his status as one of the icons of the sport. He traveled the world (on the dime of sponsors like Red Bull and No Fear) to pursue the biggest breaks, with awards, magazine spreads and, eventually, viral GoPro videos following in his wake. Casimiro emailed McNamara a photograph of a huge break off Praia do Norte, and hoped for a response. A few hours later he got an excited one: Where is this? Has anybody surfed this? What size is this wave?

Meanwhile, Pedro Pisco, a city hall administrator tasked with boosting the town’s economic development, had become convinced by Casimiro and other local surfers that the big waves of Praia do Norte could be a major tourist draw. All they needed was sponsorship money, and Pisco came up with a novel plan: They would invite an elite, internationally known surfer to town to conquer the waves. Since McNamara was already in touch with Casimiro, he was the obvious choice. It took five years from when Casimiro first made contact with McNamara, but in 2010, the village of Nazaré finally extended an official invitation to the surfer to “explore” its big waves. They called the effort supporting McNamara the North Canyon Project, choosing an English name to better bring about an international following. They would give McNamara a crack team that would help coordinate his surfing, his speaking appearances, his sponsor commitments, and make sure all of his quotidian needs were met. They would air a documentary on Portuguese national television and hoped the attention  McNamara would attract would not only boost Nazaré’s surfing community but the prospects of the entire town. If all went right, McNamara would raise all boats.

McNamara arrived in Lisbon on an October morning in 2010 with his future wife, Nicole, and a few boards. Neither McNamara nor Nicole knew a word of Portuguese or had ever so much as spoken on the phone to anyone affiliated with the project. They’d decided that, at the worst, it would be a fully paid, month-long vacation. That afternoon, McNamara went to the promontory and looked out toward Praia do Norte. The weather was stormy, almost violent—“victory at sea,” he remembers, surfer-ese for choppy waters—but the size of the peaks was shocking: “The biggest waves I’ve ever seen were that first day. I’m like, da-dun, Holy Grail.”

Every year McNamara has come to Nazaré, the length of his stay has increased. In 2010, he spent a month. Last year, he arrived in late August and stayed until just before Thanksgiving. (And if big swells are forecast in January or February, the North Canyon Project will fly McNamara into town on a few hours’ notice.) It’s not hard to see why he’s so taken with the place. When McNamara is at home on the North Shore of Oahu, he’s another professional surfer, and one who’s not especially popular among his peers. He’s been branded a shameless self-promoter and dismissed by Surfing magazine as being “as much a cowboy as a legitimate big-wave surfer.” In Nazaré, though, he’s practically King Neptune: He drives a new Mercedes GLK-250 (on loan from the German automaker, one of his sponsors); he lives in an impossibly picturesque bungalow that overlooks Praia do Norte; he gives motivational speeches to adoring audiences at nearby schools and businesses. When he needs something done, Pisco or another team member is happy to do it at any hour. McNamara rarely even has to open his wallet, with nearly all of his expenses paid by the North Canyon Project and its sponsors. Restaurant A Celeste, a family-run seafood joint, not only offers a special deal to McNamara’s team and has a prix-fixe menu named after the surfer, its Wi-Fi password is “mcnamara.”

This kind of adulation and support transcends Nazaré. Last summer, when Nicole gave birth to the couple’s first son, Garrett (better known by his middle name, Barrel), the news was covered in the national newspapers. When McNamara leads local children in a beach cleanup, it’s not uncommon for three Portuguese TV networks to send crews to cover the event. Portugal’s national tourism board recently signed a contract with McNamara worth more than $75,000 to promote the country as a surfing destination, McNamara has a direct line to Portugal’s Secretary of State of Sport and Youth, and Portugal’s navy made McNamara the first-ever foreigner to  win its Medalha Naval de Vasco da Gama in 2013.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Nicole says one afternoon as we’re sitting in their house. “Who else can say they have a whole country that loves them?”

What makes it all the crazier is that not much more than a decade ago McNamara was somewhere between a surfing has-been and a never-was. After a peripatetic youth in which his hippie mother exposed him to life in a commune (in Sonoma, California), a VW bus (through Mexico, with a guy called Mad Bob) and a cult (the notorious Christ Family, where they were forced to burn their money and material possessions), McNamara ended up in Hawaii and quickly took to surfing. He went professional at age 17, broke his back at age 22 on a wipeout at Waimea, and for the next 13 years surfed more for fun than as a career. For a while he got by on “$3,000 a month at the most, if I was lucky,” from his Japanese sponsors. Then he ran a surf shop in Haleiwa while raising his two eldest kids. It wasn’t until he was 35—a senior citizen in the surfing world—that he recommitted himself to the sport and won the career-reviving Tow-In World Cup. And it wasn’t until McNamara was 44, when he broke the big-wave world record, that he became a crossover star.

McNamara is not an obvious candidate for mainstream appeal. He now has big-time sponsors like Mercedes, Thule, Body Glove and Red Nose (a Brazilian extreme sports giant), not to mention the entire Portuguese Republic, but he remains delightfully unselfconscious and sometimes loopy—a surfer to the core. He peppers his speech with generous helpings of gnarly, heavy and awesome. When he tells a story about a dramatic ride or an epic wipeout, he opens his eyes full-moon wide and sometimes slips into a voice that’s halfway between Hawaiian pidgin and baby talk. When he tells a joke, he often sells the punch line with a manic cackle that can resemble the famously wild laugh of the actor Nicolas Cage. One day when we were talking at his house, he picked up his infant son’s pacifier and placed it between his teeth. Sucking on it gently, he continued with the interview.

Unsurprisingly, when McNamara arrived in Nazaré, there were doubters. People wondered why the town was extending itself so that a zany American surfer could ride some waves. They also wondered when he was going to drown. “The town thought I was nuts,” McNamara tells me. “They said, This guy’s crazy, he’s going to die. Then the next year, they said, This guy’s crazy, he’s going to die. And then the third year, I’m still going, and they’re like, Well, this guy’s maybe got something going on.”

Now, when big waves are forecast, as many as 7,000 people flock to the promontory above Praia do Norte to witness McNamara’s feats. “It’s madness,” Nazaré’s mayor, Walter Chicharro, tells me one day over lunch at Celeste. “Big waves have helped us reach a new audience. We get people from all over the world now: Australia, Indonesia, France, Ireland. Both surfers and common people.” Chicharro is not ready to stop there. He tells me that he’s hoping to poach the country’s biggest surfing event—a stop on the major-league ASP world tour—from the nearby town of Peniche, and he has dreams of starting a big-wave event that would attract a global sponsor and all the world’s most famous big-wave surfers. These lofty, perhaps quixotic goals would have been inconceivable only a few years ago.

“In 10 years,” says Casimiro, “if you make a study to show how Nazaré was before Garrett and how Nazaré was after Garrett, you’ll see the increase—easy.”

Economic development via big-wave surfing is not without risk. In October 2013, the Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira nearly drowned in the swells off Praia do Norte, and if the past is any guide, sooner or later someone will die under the waves of Nazaré. McNamara has unrivaled experience and, like an aging matador, his gray hairs are emblems of both his expertise and his good luck, but he knows the dangers. In addition to breaking his back, McNamara has cracked his ribs, ruptured his eardrums and received too many stitches to count. He has gotten so tired of getting sewn up by doctors that he now treats all but the deepest wounds with superglue. When he surfs, his hard, reinforced boards often get dented. I assumed this was because the boards hit the ocean floor during wipeouts. In fact, McNamara tells me, the dents are caused by the board smashing against his own body.

McNamara does what he can to turn a dangerous, chaotic situation into a predictable one. He has trained with an expert free diver to greatly enhance his capacity to hold his breath underwater, and he never surfs big waves in Nazaré without multiple safety Jet Skis on the water and a host of vehicles—including a fire department rescue truck—standing by. But waves follow their own logic. When riding a giant swell in January 2013, McNamara ended his run perilously close to Nazaré’s cliffs, then watched as another wave toppled his would-be rescuer from his Jet Ski. Both men had to be fished out by another Jet Ski, hoping for the best as the swells tossed them ever closer to the rocks.

“Why would you keep doing this?” I ask McNamara one afternoon, while he, Nicole and I are sitting in their living room. After all, he’s a father of four, a husband to a 31-year-old woman he’s plainly wild about, and he’s told me he has enough money to retire. He still loves surfing, he says, but he doesn’t get a rush from it anymore. What’s left to do?

“I’ve never actually surfed what I’m waiting for here,” McNamara answers. “I’m just waiting for the day.”

“What are you waiting for?” I ask.

“The right wave to come,” he says, almost in a trance.

“A 120-foot wave,” Nicole breaks in. McNamara nods: Big Mama.

“Have you seen something that big?” I ask.

“I’ve seen pictures, and I’ve seen predictions and forecasts. So, yeah. I should get a rush out of that.”

When the first big swells of the season finally roll into Nazaré, McNamara is ready.

Fourteen hours earlier, when he was showing Mamala and Skudin the breaks off Praia do Norte, the waves looked backbreaking. Now, as they roll in like a parade of small mountain ranges, they look metropolis-leveling. Whitewater froths from the edge of the shoreline to a quarter-mile out at sea, and the mist from all the churning rises up hundreds of feet, whipping against the faces of the spectators gathered on the promontory. But as the sun rises, a heavy fog rolls in, making it too dangerous to attempt a big wave. McNamara, Mamala, Skudin and the British surfer Andrew Cotton are left bobbing on their Jet Skis, invisible to the crowds.

After three hours of waiting for the fog to lift, McNamara decides he’s had enough. “I’m getting excited for Celeste,” he says over the radio.

There will be many more mornings for McNamara to find his perfect wave, and for now he’s not leaving anytime soon. He tells me about his plans to start a small eco-resort here. He talks about the opening of a government-sponsored high-performance surfing center just inland from Praia do Norte. He’s eager to the point of ebullience to show off Nazaré to as many world-class surfers as he can. McNamara has not saved Nazaré’s economy overnight—the tourism boost and the mayor’s big plans aside, the city government is still digging itself out from nearly 50 million euros of debt. But no one could have imagined in 2010 that a centuries-old Portuguese fishing village would now be spoken of in the same breath as Jaws off Maui, Mavericks and Cortes Bank off California, and Teahupo’o off Tahiti as one the greatest big-wave surfing destinations in the world.

Eric Benson is a writer based in Austin—a great city, but not necessarily the best spot to wait for the next big wave.

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