Consider it the surfing equivalent of being the first to climb Mount Everest.
On Monday, Jan. 28 off the coast of Portugal, Garrett McNamara may have been towed into the largest wave ever documented on film. Estimated at 100 feet, the massive mountain of water was the result of a powerful swell that struck the small, picturesque town of Nazare.
McNamara, 45, and tow-in partner Keali’i Mamala, 34, tracked the swell for about a week before traveling half-way around the globe from their homes in Hawaii for a chance at wave-riding history.
“That morning everything was coming together exactly as we had planned and I was focused on surfing another spot that hadn't been ridden, and it doesn't break until it's much bigger,” explained McNamara. “I told Keali’i we’re waiting until low-tide, and then if the wave breaks, we're going to get it.”
Mamala said the set that produced the giant wave was among the largest of the day. He watched in awe as McNamara let go of the tow rope and plunged into the belly of the liquid beast.
“I look down and he starts disappearing, and he's not even half-way down the wave,” said Mamala. “It's what we've been looking for, searching for the 100 foot wave.”
Amazingly, McNamara said the ride didn’t provide the kind of thrill he expected. He says the wave appeared bottomless, but didn’t break with the kind of power he expected.
“It didn't feel like what I was looking for, but it was definitely the biggest wave I've ever ridden,” said McNamara. “I’ve surfed it over and over in my mind a million times, and the ride I got on that wave was nothing like what I envisioned.”
So, how will McNamara satisfy his seemingly insatiable thirst for larger, more powerful waves? Go back to Nazare when the time is right, of course. A deep-water canyon extending 130 miles west of the town amplifies swells to the point that a riding 150 or 200 foot wave may be possible.
“If the conditions are right, I think you can ride any size wave,” said McNamara. “I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I don't have to ride them anymore, but I just do it because I love it. The more I get pounded, the more fun I’m having. If I see giant waves, I’m like a kid in a candy store.”
“It's just a little piece of what Nazare has to offer,” Mamala said of the recent swell. “It can handle as big as it gets, and that kind of makes me a little scared. There was one wave that day that I told Garrett I don't want at all. This thing was top to bottom, 80 maybe 100 feet. I said I’m going to pass this one up today, and maybe ride it some other time.”
McNamara found out firsthand the kind of danger big-wave surfers face when challenging swells at Nazare. The wave crashes toward cliffs hundreds of feet high, and when McNamara kicked out of his possibly record-breaking ride, he was only 10 or 20 feet from the rocks.
“I didn’t realize where I was,” said McNamara. “It would have been certain death.”
Mamala meanwhile, had lost control of his WaveRunner and was swimming toward the watercraft when he saw a second crew race toward McNamara and pick him up.
“They got Garrett already and they're coming back out, and I'm like, 'Oh my god, thank you for watching over us.”