GARRETT MCNAMARA photos by Jeff Ho and Bo Bridges

GARRETT MCNAMARA

INTERVIEW BY JEFF HO
INTRODUCTION BY JEFF HO
PHOTO BY JEFF HO and BO BRIDGES

 

Garrett is a big wave maniac. He’s always been a big wave rider. I’ve known him for years, from surfing and working in Hawaii. He comes from a family of surfers. Garrett is one of the most colorful people that I’ve ever known. He’s always been really dedicated to the sport of big wave riding. He trains for it. He lives it. He’s always doing something to facilitate his goal, which is to ride the biggest wave. He is a big wave champion.

“IT WAS A DISGRACE TO BIG WAVE SURFING AS FAR AS I’M CONCERNED. IN THE RULES, IT SAID YOU HAVE TO SUCCESSFULLY RIDE THE WAVE.”

Okay, Garrett. Let’s talk about your life. Where did you live as a kid?
My heritage is mostly Irish, with a little German and French. I was born in Pittsfield, Massachussetts. When I was one and a half years old, I moved to Nor Cal, Berkeley and Sonoma County. We moved to Hawaii when I was 12. Now I’m a Hawaiian at heart. My mom actually forced us to move here. We weren’t interested in moving to Hawaii, until she mentioned that there was surfing in Hawaii. We were heavy into skateboarding at the time. She said, “It’s just like skateboarding, but on the water. There’s no cement when you fall.” We were like, “Okay, that sounds good.” So my mother, my brother Liam and I moved to Hawaii.

How many brothers do you have?
I have five stepbrothers, Bill, Allen, Mike, Joel, BJ, a half-brother Michael, and Liam.

I didn’t know that you had that many brothers.
Yeah. It’s hard to keep track of them all.

Where did you live before that?
We lived in Berkeley, California. We were skateboarding freaks. We played other sports, too, like baseball, football and some soccer. We kept playing baseball for a while in Hawaii. Liam was planning to be a professional baseball player. I quit a few months after baseball season started. I had a gnarly coach who would beat his son right in front of us, and slap us if he felt like it. I was out of there. I wanted to go surf. I would walk or ride my bike past the baseball field, and I’d see Liam running laps, doing push-ups and sweating like a dog. He was always saying, “You’re going to be a surf bum and I’m going to be a pro baseball player.” I was like, “Okay. Whatever. I’m having fun. That’s all I know.” When I started surfing, I was way behind all the other young surfers. To top it off, I started surfing at Haleiwa, which was light-years behind Sunset. Sunset had all the good shapers and all the cool guys. Everyone was up at Sunset. In Haleiwa, we had our 10-foot 50-pound boards. We went straight on the white water. The Sunset crew would come to Haleiwa and surf circles around us. We were blown away. Being a pro surfer never entered my mind. I was surfing because I loved it.

What year did you move to Hawaii?
1978.

You started surfing after you moved to Hawaii?
Yeah. When I lived in Berkeley, I remember seeing surfing on TV on the “Wild World of Sports”. I thought, “That looks cool.” My dad used to take us to the beach every weekend, but we never tried surfing. We never thought much of it. We started surfing when we got to Hawaii.

As you progressed in your surfing, when did you get your first sponsor?
We were surfing Haleiwa, and we used to hang out at my best friend Kui’s house. Right in front of his house was Roy Patterson, who glassed for Ed Barbara. He was like our dad. We pretty much lived with him. Roy got me my first free board from Ed Barbara. He paid $15 dollars for the shaped blank, and he glassed it for free. After that, I went through a lot of board sponsors. I was sponsored by Steve Elliott, then Jamming Surfboards, the Willis Brothers, and YU. You even shaped me a few boards. Now I’m sponsored by Dick Brewer. Stretch from Santa Cruz made me a few boards. The first 5’10” was so fast. I couldn’t slow it down when I was testing it in Tahiti. I loved it, but I broke it. Stretch sent me a 5’8” that I tried in Hawaii. I’m not sure if I like it or not. We need some surf, then I will know.

In your teenage years, you talk about Ed Barbera.
He gave me my first good board. It was awesome. It was the only one that I got from him.

What was your next surfboard?
I won a surfboard at surf night in the Haleiwa Community Center. I won a custom Bill Barnfield and got a Shaun Tomson airbrush. Shaun was my hero back then. He was the only guy who would come to Haleiwa Beach and give us all free shorts, stickers and stuff. Of all the surfers in history, Tomson made the biggest impact on me during my childhood. Although he wasn’t my favorite for his surfing ability, he made an imprint in my mind out of the water.

What company was he working with then?
He was working with Instinct. It was awesome to have someone give us stuff. In Haleiwa, we didn’t have much. My mom was a single mom, raising two kids. It wasn’t easy for us. We just barely got by. To have someone do that, I will remember it forever.

Where did you go to school?
I went to Waialua High School. I graduated in 1985. When I showed up at Waialua Elementary, I was the only haole in the class. The first day of school, this Filipino guy tried to pick a fight with me. He started pushing me, so I punched him and took him out. A couple of days later, I formed a gang with the heaviest guys in the school. We all had our leather jackets. The principal called us into the office and took our leather jackets away. He said, “There will be no gangs in this school.” Coming from the city of Berkeley, I was used to gangs. Fighting black guys or Mexicans was a daily activity. I was a haole, but I fit in pretty quick.

Who went to Waialua High? Was Kui there?
Kui was there, but when we moved up to Sunset, we fell out of touch. Noah Budroe, Christian Budroe, Brock Little, Clark Little, Jason Majors, Ricky Irons, Kalohae Bloomfield, Sean Wingate, Chris Roberson, and Chris “Angel of Death” all went to Waialua High School. We had the surfer’s wall where all of the surfers would hang out. The girls would walk by and we’d harass them.

What about Christian Budroe?
Christian was the little man, but Jason Majors was the best of all. Then there was Noah, Kalohae and Ricky. Christian was a little guy, but he was the best surfer around, for his age. It ended up that all of the best guys got burned out on drugs. My brother and I started at the bottom, but we’re still going. All of the guys that were light years ahead of us were done a long time ago.

I heard some stories about smoking weed before school.
We used to smoke weed all day, every day. I don’t want kids to think that’s okay. Sooner or later, someone brings along something else. Then before you know it you’re really messed up. I stopped smoking in 1989.

Did you surf contests?
I surfed some contests. I really liked competing, but I hated losing. Every time I lost, I’d swear I’d never surf another contest. Then another contest would come and I’d go do it. Then I just stopped surfing contests and got away from it all. I just started surfing to have fun, which was the reason I started surfing. I’d go surfing out in the middle of the ocean to get away from everybody. Then the sport of tow surfing started. I was fortunate to get into it from the beginning. I ended up being in the middle of a cool sport, the sport I now live for.

Let’s go back to high school. Who did you hang out with then?
The surfers that I hung with were Chris Roberson, Chris Angel, Kimo Ukauka, Sean Wingate, Jason Majors, Alan Moi Pono, Rainos Hayes, Kip Orian and all the boys at that time. Clark Little, Brock’s brother and my brother Liam were best friends. I used to hang with them as well. Brock was doing his own thing. He didn’t really hang out with anybody. He would surf the biggest waves Haleiwa had to offer. When we were in high school coming home on the bus, I remember seeing Brock riding 20-foot Waimea on his red board. I think it was Eddie Aikau’s board. He was out there, all by himself, charging 20-foot Waimea. I was thinking, “Brock is crazy.” I looked up to him, as far as big wave riding was concerned. Brock could hold his own in small waves as well.

Did you graduate from Waialua?
Yeah. I graduated in ’85. We moved to Sunset during my last two years of school, so I had to ride the bus down to Waialua. My brother had to go to Kahuku. He didn’t like that too much. Liam decided to get his education at Rocky Point and Pipeline.

When did you get into riding big waves?
The first time I went out at Sunset, I was about 14. It was a nightmare. I went out on too short of a board, slid down the face and vowed never to surf big waves again. Then when I was 16, my friend Gustavo from Peru forced me to go out there. He gave me the right equipment, a Sunset Point gun by Pat Rawson. He said, “You’re coming out with me, Punky. Come on.” I had the time of my life. From that day on, I’ve lived for big waves. I started out at Pipe and Sunset. Then Waimea became my favorite place in the world. My goal in life was to surf for Eddie in the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational. It’s still one of my favorite things to do in surfing. It’s just you and your friends surfing in honor of a very special person, Eddie Aikau! Plus, I live closer to Waimea then anyone in the contest. It’s my home.

What happened after you moved to Sunset? Did you hook up with Randy Rarrick?
Randy Rarrick was sponsoring my brother and I with Surfers Alliance. He’s the director of the Triple Crown. He said, “I’m going to put you in the Triple Crown.” I was like, “Okay.” I made the main event and won money at Sunset and Pipe. When you won money, back then, that made you a professional surfer. I was like, “Okay. I’m a pro surfer.” I was 17 years old. I was getting ready to graduate. I barely went to school, because I was surfing all of the time. I was barely passing my classes. I did really well when I went to school, but the waves were so good that I didn’t go too often. I was actually contemplating trying to flunk to stay in school for another year so that I could figure out what I wanted to do with my life. All of a sudden, I was a pro surfer. I knew what I was going to do with my life.

What year was it that you won your first money? Was it a Triple Crown event?
Yeah. It was the winter of ’84-’85. It was December/January. They used to have the contest later in the year. The competitors used to have to stay during Christmas. Now they have it before Christmas, so the competitors can go home. It was the first time that I’d ever entered the Triple Crown. I won $250 at each contest. Nowadays, that’s not much, but it was good for back then.

Were you still surfing for Surfers Alliance?
Yeah. We surfed for Surfers Alliance and the Willis Brothers. The Willis brothers helped us out a lot at the beginning of our careers. Randy took care of us with Surfers Alliance. Then we went to Peek-a-boo Clothing in Japan. I focused the first half of my career in Japan. Almost everything was from Japan, except for my surfboards. I actually ended up with a surfboard sponsor from Japan, YU.

Did you tour Japan a lot?
Yeah. Every year, we’d go to Japan, surf in the contests and do promotional stuff over there.

Did you have a good time?
Yeah. My brother and I both speak Japanese, so we had a great time. Our family has always accommodated the Japanese here in Hawaii. Some say we’re the Japanese ambassadors of the North Shore. We have a lot of good friends in Japan, so they take good care of us. I love Japan.

What year did you hook up with YU?
That was around 1995. YU was hanging with Gerry Lopez and the boys back in the Lightning Bolt days. That’s how he became such a good shaper. I got with him through my brother.

Did he pay you a salary and boards?
Yeah. He gave us $500 a month and 24 boards a year.

Nice. When did you get married?
1994.

What’s your wife’s name?
My wife’s name is Connie. She was my next-door neighbor. I invited her over for Haagen- Dazs, we fell in love, and all of a sudden, we’re married.

What are your kid’s names?
Ariana Kaimana McNamara is my 10-year-old princess. Titus Waimea McNamara is my boy. He’s eight years old. I’ve got him surfing. He comes out at Haleiwa with us. I’ve also got him towing. Ever since he started tow-surfing, he says, “I don’t want to paddle anymore. I only want to tow.” It’s the same thing I went through with my tow craze. I stopped paddling, because it was boring compared to towing. Then I got invited to the Eddie Aikau contest. I hadn’t been paddling, but I went out there and had the time of my life. Eddie gave me back my love for paddle surfing. Its more personal. It’s you the waves and your ability to be in the right place at the right time. There’s nothing like it!

When was this?
2000.

How’s the family doing?
My wife is awesome and the kids are great. They’re growing so fast. We’re coming to California for a month. We’ll be in Topanga Canyon. My brother has a place right by the Convention Center. He’s running a restaurant there, so we stay with him as well. My other brother works at Santa Monica BMW. We’ll hang with him, too. We will be all over Cali from Sanoma County to San Diego. Family fun!

Mike is at Santa Monica BMW?
Yeah. You probably know Lefty from back in the day. He was around when everything went down in the DogTown days. Mike lives with Lefty. Mike’s doing really well for himself. We’re really happy for him.

How’s Liam doing now?
He got to the finals at Teahupoo. He got second in the finals and made it into the CT event. He is doing good. Now he’s getting ready for the Pipe Masters.

I want to know what happened at this year’s Billabong XXL Awards. Do you have any comment?
Are you talking about the “go straight tow” or “fall at the bottom” Billabong XXL awards? It was a disgrace to big wave surfing, as far as I am concerned. In the rules, it said you have to successfully ride the wave.

There was some controversy there.
In my eyes, there was. I knew they weren’t going to give me any of the big awards because I ride for No Fear and Sobe. The sponsors of the event are Billabong and Monster, so it’s not in their best interests to give me an award. I knew they should give us the Team Award, because nobody did half of what Ilaika and I did last year. Nobody was even in the same realm. I went there expecting to get the Team Award. I was thinking they couldn’t take that away. Then they decided not to have the Team Award. They didn’t even tell anyone. They just said, “Yeah. We canned it.” They decided to give the extra money to the guy who paddled in at Mavericks and fell at the bottom. In a surf contest, if you go straight or fall at the bottom you receive a low score. I feel they misrepresented big wave riding with the awards. They put it in everyone’s mind that all you have to do is get the biggest wave and wipe out to win. Anyone with a ski or balls can do that. There’s no skill needed. This whole sport is about the team. I couldn’t do anything without my team. I brought the boys from Maui and the boys from San Diego to the awards. These guys are really good friends of ours. They take care of us every time we go to Maui and San Diego. My partner couldn’t be there, so I went with the rest of the team to win the team award. It was only $5,000, but for me, it wasn’t about the money. It was about the team. It’s a team sport. There’s no “I” in team.

Who’s on the team?
It’s my partner, Ilaika Kalama and me. Then we have our Maui crew, Bobo, Analu, Dane and the boys, our Chili crew, Tomate, Fletcha, and Ramone, and the Tahiti crew Dede, and Ra’a Tep’s. It’s all the boys having fun. They all surf as well. I try to hook everybody up with what they need.

Dan Moore won the contest. What was the controversy?
He went straight. He could have pulled in, but he went straight. I’m might try going straight next year, if that’s what it takes.

I don’t believe it. I just saw the still photo.
The guy that paddled in and won at Mavericks fell at the bottom. Another guy won the Tube Award for a 10-foot barrel in Tasmania. The guy who won the Barrel Award rides for Billabong. Dan Moore has no sponsors, so he’s no threat. The guy who won at Mavericks rides for Billabong. This is the first year that they did a bad job. The last few years, I thought they did really well.

You didn’t win last year? I thought you won something.
I got a Best Barrel Award, but that was a “Surfers Poll”. O’Neill said it really well. They have a t-shirt out that Jamie Sterling likes to wear. It’s got a little O’Neill logo and in big, big letters on the front, it says “Fuck Billabong.”

That’s crazy.
Yeah. Billabong does their marketing well. They have a few top players, but as far as the taste they’re leaving in everyone’s mouth, they’re doing a really bad job.

I heard there was a fight at the awards show between you and Brad Gerlach?
I didn’t fight with anybody. The only guys who should have been knocked out were the top dogs at Billabong or somebody like that. They’ll get their Karma.

What did they do?
They decided not to honor the Team Award, and didn’t announce it.

You were there to win the award and they just cancelled it?
Yeah. It was still on the ballot. It said, “Best Team Performance Award – $5000.” They just said, “We’re not having it.” They just made it disappear. Gram Stapelburg at Billabong told me that they’d give me a public apology. Then they decided not to do that either. You’ve got to stand by your word or you’re worth nothing.

What events did you guys do last year?
I did the Maverick’s Men Who Ride Mountains. Besides that, we just travel around and surf big waves. I look at the computer every day, track the storms and go chase them down. It’s really fun. I love it, but it does cost a lot. Everything that we do comes from what we create.

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