GARRETT MCNAMARA INTERVIEW BY JEFF HO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FRANK QUARTET AND TOMO MCPHERSON COURTESY OF G. MCNAMARA
Garrett is the pioneer that has always wanted to master the art of riding big waves. He is an ambassador for surfing, a family man and mentor to generations of surfers with his sharing of knowledge in the water. Garrett is progressing beyond the realms of what seems possible in his pursuit of riding the biggest waves. It takes a team to put your life on the line for the big thrill and you can always bet on Team Garrett. – INTRODUCTION BY JEFF HO
Where did we meet? I know it was on the North Shore.
We met at B Rad’s at Pupukea, or it could have been Rocky Point. You were probably dropping in on me, or Liam was dropping in on both of us. [laughs]
Liam was dropping in on everybody.
He was behind us taking every wave.
Yeah. I heard about you because I was building boards and we have a common friend, Charlie Walker. You and Charlie were pioneering tow-in surfing. Charlie was always talking about the boat.
And how to make it better.
You guys were at Backyards towing in. I used to live on Oopuola, which is the street that goes right into Backyards. Brewer lived across the street. In the ‘90s, you and I became really good friends.
I was super lucky. You shaped me some boards and I was riding for you a bit.
Yes. Here is something I wanted to ask. How did your skateboarding background influence your surfing?
That’s a good question. I grew up in Berkeley, California, and, from ‘76 to ‘78, our favorite thing was skating. We loved BMX, baseball, football, basketball and soccer, but skateboarding was our thing. They had just built the BART Station and we would go there and have contests and we had ramps everywhere and we’d skate crazy downhill. We felt like we were a part of Dogtown, even though we were in Berkeley. Then I moved to Hawaii in ‘78. When we moved to Hawaii, there wasn’t much skateboarding, so we built a ramp right away. Then my mom bought us a surfboard and that was like skateboarding on water, except when you fall, you don’t hit cement. Usually, you land in nice soft water unless you hit the reef once in a while, so that was an easy transition and super natural. That was where we fell in love with surfing. Skateboarding had a profound effect on the natural progression from skating to surfing. Then I was super lucky and I became friends with Jay Adams and Buttons and many other guys who took surfing style to skateboarding and skateboard moves to surfing. You and those guys were the legends of all time.
We were from different places and ended up on the North Shore. Then you became a big wave riding pioneer and went to Nazaré and showed the world that there was an unbelievable wave that had been there for many years.
Nazaré was an amazing fairytale love story. I got married there. Once we saw that the wave was so big and then we figured out that you could actually surf it, it was just waiting for perfect days and bigger waves. It’s going to get a lot bigger, and there are going to be much bigger waves ridden there in the future. It’s crazy because it’s right there in front of everybody. Kelly Slater was there two weeks before I got there. He was at the lighthouse, and he texted me and goes, “Garrett, one mistake here and you might not go home. Please be careful.”
Was there a bit of red tape you had to go through to actually surf that wave?
It was special because the Nazaré City Hall invited us, but the rules that were put in place were the same Personal Watercraft Jet Ski Rules that we have in the United States. You need somebody on the back of your personal watercraft looking back at the person you’re towing. That doesn’t work for big wave riding, so we were going out illegally if you follow all the rules to a T. Luckily, City Hall was behind it, and the Navy would let us go as long as we had a Portuguese or European driver with us.
That’s crazy – defying death. The big risk in my heyday was surfing with no leashes.
The real pioneers were out there with no leashes with boards that were almost impossible to ride until guys like you came along and made them more functional. Let’s hear your experiences, Jeff. Where was your favorite spot on the North Shore?
“I would say there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of undiscovered, uncharted and unsurfed waves. All of the waves that we surf at our normal spots around the world, are our local spots that we know about, but there are spots we don’t go to in a different direction that might have a wind that will be offshore at some weird spot where we’ve never thought about looking.”
I loved riding Sunset and Lani’s. You can tell when there’s a good winter coming when you get the first North swell and it wraps all the way around Lani’s and it goes for what seems like a mile. I would always see Ben Aipa on those first swells.
Yes. I remember when I was working with you, and Brewer was working with Laird, and I got lucky enough to get in the room with Brewer and he made me a board. They were so ahead of everybody. I had a few Lopez boards too. My first few tow boards were Lopez. That was when YU came in. He worked at B Rad’s too. Yoshi Ueda was awesome. He was an old Japanese Lightning Bolt shaper. Brewer made the best boards I had at that time, and then Ron Bloomquest who was funding the Brewer Project stepped out. Then I got some Stretch Boards and he was leading edge. I got a magic Stretch and a magic Brewer and I took what I liked out of the Brewer and the Stretch and made something in between. We went to Mercedes in Germany and took my magic board that had the best parts of the Stretch and the best parts of the Brewer and made it even better. It was a dream. What surfer gets pitched by Mercedes? Mercedes called like, “We want to pitch you.” I’m like, “You want to pitch me?”
That doesn’t happen.
Mercedes said, “We want to sponsor you, but we don’t want to just sit on the cliff and watch you surf. We want to get in the water with you. Most people don’t know that the three-pointed stars in the Mercedes symbol are air, land and sea. We want to go in the sea with you and we want to build you the ultimate board so you can survive and come home to your family.” That was the pitch.
Yes. I’m still dreaming about getting a board from you again though. I want one of those Sarlo models so bad. When we started working together, you were making my boards a little thicker and wider, but I was trying to get them thinner and narrower. Now I’m riding boards that are thicker and wider, so you were way ahead of me. You knew what I needed.
I was going, “We need to add a little more to these boards.” At the time, I was having a hard time getting thicker blanks from Clark, so I could only go so far with them. Now, with paddle in boards, the theory is that you’re closer to 4” or over 4” thick. They’ve gone to EPS and that gives you a little more flotation, but you have to make the board have a little weight. We’ll do something. Let me ask you this. What’s the mentality when you’re riding a wave as big as Nazaré?
Well, I always searched for giant waves and tried to ride them as deep as possible to get the rush. Now I do it for fun, first and foremost, and just to let everyone know it’s never too early, never too late to follow your dreams. Write down your goals, make a road map, a blueprint. You can still do everything you want to do. You just have to prepare for it. Everything is possible.
What happens when one of your sons, Titus or Barrel, says he wants to ride Nazaré?
If they want to, I’ll make sure they train properly, more than everyone else. I’ll be there for them in the water, watching over them. I’ll get the rush every time I put them on a wave because I’m responsible. The funny thing is that I have towed both of them into Nazaré. Titus loves big waves, so we’ll see what tomorrow brings.
You’re active in bringing awareness to environmental concerns. How do your sponsors support the work you do for the planet?
Everything I have came from the ocean – my whole life and my livelihood. We live on the ocean and it’s so scary what’s happening to the ocean and to Mother Earth. We are so impressionable, all of us humans. If you see someone pick up trash off the beach, all of a sudden, you’re doing it too. As far as going to other countries, especially third world countries, it’s so challenging when you show up and you think you’re going to do a beach clean-up and make a difference and you get to the beach and the whole beach is trash. I was in shock in Angola. We got a group of people together and we put our gloves on and we went to town. All of a sudden, this beach that was 100% trash was clean in a couple hours. I was like, “We can make a difference.” We have got to outlaw single use plastic. Plastic is an amazing material and you can make medical supplies and things that we need from it, but single-use plastic should be outlawed. The number one thing that we can do today is get a reusable water bottle and never buy a plastic water bottle again. The challenge with that is there is not always somewhere to get clean drinking water, especially in third world countries. I think all businesses should have a refill station in their office for all of their employees and customers. It’s an easy solution. Plastic bags are the other easiest thing to change. Just bring a reusable bag when you go to the store.
“The first season of 100 Foot Wave won an Emmy, and it just had such a good story. It was the discovery of the wave and all the old archival footage, so it was really special.”
When we saw you in Venice in 2019, you brought your daughter, Theia, and Mason Silva to the skatepark.
Theia was 1 and Mason ollied over Theia that day and Juice Dan got a great photo.
Mason Silva won 2020 Skater of the Year the very next year.
Yeah. He is a family friend. We were very fortunate to align with Todd and Michelle with Pau Hana Surf Supply. They have a son and two daughters, Haley and Ginger. Mason is Ginger’s boyfriend and they were saying how much of a big deal he is in skating. We got to know him and he’s such a nice person. When we got to go skate with him, he flew over Theia and it was mind blowing.
That was such a good time. Do your younger kids like surfing and skating?
Barrel is amazing, and he just started loving surfing. Theia was the craziest little skater and then she had a little spill. She’s getting into surfing and catching a few waves and she’s got the fire so, if she wants to, it’s gonna be on. Fe Fe will probably do it all. I’m trying not to force the kids. I’m doing my best to just be there for them and listen to what they want. It’s hard to not be somebody who is saying, “Hey, let’s go. Come on.” It’s a fine line. Sometimes I think you just have to say, “Let’s go! Come on!”
How do you feel about the importance of passing down tradition in skating and surfing to the next generation?
The kids are the future. They need to know where it all started and where it came from and who paved the road for us. It’s really nice to know the history and be able to feel it and see it. There’s so much we can learn. History always repeats itself.
How did the concept of your 100 Foot Wave show on HBO come about?
It’s about who you surround yourself with. I happen to be so lucky to join forces with Nicole, my love, who wrote a script for a 1 1/2 hour movie on the human spirit and the fact that everything is possible. Nicole sent it to her cousin, Yara, who is married to Joe Lewis, a big-time producer and co-founder of Amazon TV. Joe took a look and said, “This can win an Oscar. I can point you in the right direction if you want me to get involved.” Nicole instantly said, “Here, take it.” They took it and pitched a bunch of directors. Chris Smith happened to be one of them. Chris Smith had no desire to do anything with surfing in any way shape or form, but Chris took a Skype call with me, Nicole and Joe. Chris saw the intensity in my eyes and said, “That guy is a character.” All of a sudden, he was interested. Then we sent them all the footage that we had compiled for 10 years at Nazaré. They started looking at it and they were like, “Holy shit! This is much bigger than a 1 1/2 hour movie. This is a docuseries. We’re going to do four or maybe six episodes.” It was all because of Nicole. She masterminded the script and sent it to her cousin who showed it to Joe who got Chris. Then Topic Studios got involved and brought in HBO because they had wanted to do something with Chris for a long time. Joe Lewis is the best producer ever, so HBO really wanted to work with both of them. We just happened to be lucky enough to be the subjects they were pitching.
It’s beautiful because 100 Foot Wave won an Emmy. Now you have two seasons done and you’re working on a third?
Yes. The first season and second season are out. They’re filming the third season now and it’s already greenlit, so we have a season three coming. We have had an amazing trajectory. We’ve compiled a lot of really good stuff already and we’re only about halfway through season three.
How did you end up picking the people to be in the series with you?
It’s funny. Once you release the rights to something, you have zero control. Luckily, the director and the producer are receptive to our thoughts and desires. At the end of the day, they do what they want and include who they want, so we have no control over any of that. Luckily, the characters are very inspiring and amazing. They chose people that the public will love and gravitate to and love their story as they go through trials, tribulations and triumphant moments. We helped pick the cast of characters, but they decide who is in and what happens. They send us what they made and we get to help fact check. I’m so grateful that we have Chris Smith and Joe Lewis because they’re receptive to what we feel is good factual representation of that athlete in that spot. They are really about the facts. Season two is incredible. I didn’t think there was any way to top season one and I’m pretty sure they topped it. I’m pretty sure Nicole will get at least two Emmys this year. [laughs]
Wow. What other surfers are in it?
To be honest, Mason Barnes, Reggie’s son, should be in it and we wanted him in it. They left him out saying that what he did might make it into season three, which would be great. He actually got the biggest wave of the year and did things that nobody could ever do. He went to Nazaré with no driver or rescue guy. He was showing up and making calls and getting a guy to say, “I’ll drive you.” He then got a guy to say, “I’ll do rescue for you.” Then he won biggest wave of the year. Is that not the best story?
That is the best story. You’ve known Mason a long time, and mentored him, so that must be a great feeling.
It is a great feeling. He’s excelling and he’s happy. The other characters in season two are Lucas [“Chumbo” Chianca] and Kai Lenny who are the super freaks of nature and they go through some crazy heavy stuff. Then there’s Ian Cosenza and Michelle [Des Bouillons], his girlfriend, and there is Justine Dupont and Fred David. They have an amazing love story and an amazing team. I love working with them. Then there’s Kosha who always comes in here and there. Then there’s Alemão de Maresias. If you want to go out at Nazaré, you want Alemão as your driver. There are a lot of good characters and good stories. CJ is Nicole’s brother and I think that he is the star of the whole season because of what he went through and how he goes through life and shares his experiences. He’s really articulate and good. There’s so much good stuff. There is Tony who is super inspiring and Cotty is the man as always.
I look forward to seeing that. You said that season two of 100 Foot Wave is better season than the first one, but the first season won an Emmy.
The first season of 100 Foot Wave won an Emmy, and it just had such a good story. It was the discovery of the wave and all the old archival footage, so it was really special. I didn’t think there was any way to top it. Luckily, the footage these guys compiled was gold. We filmed for two years and the things that happened during those two years were out of this world. COVID really slowed things down, but we were still filming through all of COVID and then the next year started. They were like, “We’re going to put one and two together.” Honestly, I think season two might be better than season one.
The music in the soundtrack for the series, did you influence that?
That was all Chris and Joe and Topic or HBO. They’re Philip Glass fans and I didn’t even know who Philip Glass was. They didn’t really score the movie. They just laid over tracks that Philip has for you to grab. Since he’s so good and the music is so smooth, it works. If they had somebody score it, it would be even better. Philip Glass is the man though and some people watch the show just because Philip Glass did the music. If Philip Glass had scored every beat to every emotion and every ride and every turn and every fall, it might have been even better. You know how much better surfing movies are when they are actually scored to the beat and the action. They do have the most amazing segment with Barrel and they use the song “This Magic Moment”. They got a little Jimi Hendrix or something similar for CJ. CJ is the star. Cotty is the star. I’m just a guy in the background having fun.
You’re the guy that motivated all this stuff. Nicole was writing about you and your life story? What is the story now?
It went away from our lives a bit in the first pass and they reeled it back in and hit home and included us in a good way and I’m really happy with the final product. It’s well done and we’re well represented and included. For some reason, they’re having fun with the things that I’m doing out of the water as well in the water. You’ve got CJ and he’s not really a big wave rider or a professional surfer. He was a professional volleyball player. He’s always said that he is in a league of his own, but he’s more of a normal person. He’s like, “I might want to go, but I don’t know if I want to go.” He’s going through what an average person would go through and that helps them relate. He is the main character and the most well-spoken champion of season two. There is Cotty who has his challenges but he works through them and excels and prevails. There are a lot of great characters in the show and I’m really happy with the way it turned out.