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Is Garrett McNamara’s wave really a world record?

April 18th, 2012
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Was Garrett’s Nazaré monster wave really 90ft?

On November 1, 2011, Garrett McNamara seized the tow rope off a scarcely acknowledged hamlet on the Portuguese coast called Nazaré. McNamara had been invited some time before to work with local officials eager to promote Nazaré and to prove that a 3 mile deep slice in the near shore seafloor could focus deepwater swells to create waves that equalled those found at Belharra, Jaws, Mavericks, and the Cortes Bank.

Garrett is a 3x XXL winner and, of course, no stranger to monumental waves. Waiting about in outback locations for something extreme to happen is a big part of how he makes a living. This is the same guy who, in 2007, sat shivering for hours, bobbing among car sized lumps of ancient, fizzing ice, waiting for Child’s Glacier to calve a 30 story skyscraper so he and his friend, Kealii Mamala, might tackle a tsunami. Garrett is recognised for both escaping and being obliterated by some of the heaviest barrels in history and emerging from devastating wipeouts, specially at Teahupoo, laughing like a madman. He once allowed himself to be shot as a giant millipede crawled out of his mouth. He is, in the words of Greg Long, “One of the most extreme high sensation seekers on the planet.”

Contrary to many other big wave surfers who had also been alerted to the potential at Nazaré, McNamara heeded forecasts that signalled a low pressure system might blitz Europe with a truly colossus swell. McNamara was met by Andrew Cotton and Alastair Mennie, a Brit and an Irishman widely acknowledged for charging through the head crushing Gaelic barrels off Mullaghmore Head. The trio discovered 27 feet of deep water swell creating towering peaks off Nazaré’s Praia do Norte (North Beach) in the 50 to 60 ft range. The wave was not as critical as, say, Mavericks or Jaws, but it was among the heaviest beach breaks ever seen.

As Mennie bobbed gobsmacked in the channel, a wave, or perhaps a joined pair of waves, focused into a single towering peak that Mennie described as “a rogue.” Cotton nailed the throttle and Garrett bounded and skipped into a monolithic, emerald left, ran down the line for about 20 seconds, avoiding a cascading lip and deepwater punishment.

Word of the mighty wave was leaked through a Tweet by Kelly Slater on November 3: “I just saw a shot of Garrett Macnamara from Portugal on a stupidly big wave. He should post that thing ASAP. Looks like huge Jaws.” On November 6, a newly registered mystery man, who identified himself as “Mattice,” created a post on Surfermag.com’s online Forum. “Garrett McNamara breaks record for world’s biggest wave ridden” he wrote. “Will be on news soon.”

2 days later, a press release from Praia do Norte public relations became viral with the headline: “Garrett Mcnamara Breaks World Record Riding The Biggest Wave Ever In Nazaré!!” Sports caster Jim Rome said: “That is CG right there, and I don’t mean computer generated, I mean completely gnarly.” ESPN Sports Center host Scott Van Pelt brushed aside Kelly Slater’s 11th world title win by stating, “That’s great, but he can’t touch Garrett McNamara.” And although SURFER scribe Kimball Taylor’s ESPN blog remarked that the only source for the world record claim appeared to be a public relations statement from Nazaré, even his account carried the headline, “Garrett McNamara breaks world record for largest wave ever surfed.”

A world record was announced on Good Morning America, CNN, SI.com and The Daily Beast. Gizmodo blogger Andrew Tarantola wrote: “Apparently born without a sense of fear, Garrett McNamara just broke the world record for largest wave surfed by successfully navigating this 90 ft wall of watery death. The previous record, 77 feet, was set by Mike Parsons in 2008. Sorry Mike.” HuffingtonPost sports reporter Dan Treadway sourced Tarantola, berating Mike Parsons for “surfing a paltry 77 ft wave,” at the Cortes Bank.

A great deal of the surf media, including SURFER, The Surfer’s Journal, and Surfline, mostly disregarded the wave, a fact Mavericks surfer, XXL judge, and Surfing Editor Taylor Paul remonstrated in their blog. “We ignored it because Garrett, or somebody in his camp, claimed it,” he wrote. “Ninety feet. World record. And that doesn’t ride well with us because it breaks the surfer’s code…that we must let our surfing do the talking and appreciate whatever recognition may come of it.”

Garrett McNamara said that he had no idea how big the wave was when he was riding it. When he examined it, he only knew it was big. Nicole (Garrett’s wife), nevertheless, recommended he send the footage to a former XXL judge (who said it could be as big as 85-90 ft) along with an oceanographer and a fistful of surfers, including Kelly Slater and Greg Noll. All of them assured Garrett it was a big wave, among the biggest ever documented, so it was then forwarded to Bill Sharp for consideration by XXL judges for both “Biggest Wave” and “Ride of the Year.”

“There is also a Kinetics Sports Movement Institute where they have the latest technology,” Garrett said. “They frame-grabbed three different times through the wave at different points and got anywhere from 28-31 meters [91-102 ft].”

McNamara said that he didn’t tell the North Canyon team to identify his wave as a 90 ft high world record, giving some acceptance to Luis Pinto’s assertion.

“I did not agree to put 90 ft,” he said. “They put around 90 feet, which I didn’t agree to either. It’s not my project, so in the end, they did what they wanted. Then for some reason, the mainstream media ran with it and the surf media did what they usually do: If it was one of the surf companies’ team riders who dictate to the magazines, he would be a hero. I think the reason the mainstream media grabbed a hold of the story is because this year has been full of negativity, even sports has had a rough year.”

“Garrett’s wave—it really was an accomplishment,” said Greg Noll during a phone call. “And you know, he doesn’t always get the kind of credit he deserves for the shit he does. It’s hard to get recognized if you’re dancing to your own tune, as opposed to when you have six guys attacking a spot. I like and respect the hell out of the guy. He’s so sincere. He’s just off doing his own thing, and he stumbles into some incredible stuff.”

The Billabong XXL Awards are the inspiration of previous Surfing Editor Bill Sharp, whose primary idea was that the longstanding custom of under calling big waves was doing surfers a ill service. Why should a wave that is clearly 50 ft high be addressed as a 25 footer? Measure the year’s greatest waves, and reward the surfer accordingly. The awards now include more subjective categories like Monster Tube, Best Overall Performance, and Ride of the Year, and thousands of entries in these categories are vetted annually by a 300 member “academy,” of surfers, journalists, and photographers, but the assessment that still matters most, and the one subject to the most scrutiny, is the judgment for the year’s biggest wave, which is adjudicated by an 8 to 10 person board of big wave surfers, meteorologists, and journalists that has included Sean Collins, Jeff Divine, Steve Hawk, Sam George, Chris Mauro, Evan Slater, and the late Larry “Flame” Moore and Philip “Flippy” Hoffman. Records have been set at Jaws, Mavericks, and the Cortes Bank, and forwarded to Guinness, which assumes the XXL ruling as law. In 2008, XXL panelists unanimously decided that a 4 year old, 70 ft record held by Pete Cabrinha at Jaws was overshadowed by Mike Parsons on a 77 footer at Cortes Bank, a ride Hoffman once described to me as “the biggest goddamned thing I ever saw.”

When the judges on last year’s XXL panel announced Benjamin Sanchis the Big Wave winner for a ride at France’s Belharra (a tow in that was not in consideration for a world record) and ruled on Shane Dorian’s Monster Paddle wave at Jaws, which everybody thought as a potential world record, everybody was aware that the conclusion would alter the lives of Sanchis and particularly Dorian, and every attempt was made to measure precisely and reach a consensus. To do anything less for somebody willing to put himself into such a deathly position would be the peak of disrespect. Everybody scrutinised and measured the waves from every photographic angle available. Using a known height of Dorian crouched in position, they unanimously calculated the wave to be 57 ft high, a mere two feet higher than Shawn Dollar’s Maverick’s paddle in record from the year before.

With such close measurements, the process is fraught with peril. Where’s the trough? How tall is the surfer to the inch? What about varied camera angles? What constitutes a successful (and thus XXL-eligible) ride? As important as big wave surfing is becoming, how do you quash any perception of bias? These are questions Skindog, and a humble group of big wave surfers he has been in talks with, have been wrestling over.

The wave could be 90 ft. It might still be a world record. But only time, and the XXL panel, will tell, but meanwhile, we might do well to hear some parting words passed along by Greg Noll:

“You ride big waves for the love, and the joy, and the adrenaline rush, and that’s what Garrett, hell, what all these guys have in common. How they express themselves may come out a little differently, but they’re all part of the same family.”

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