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Hawaii big-wave great ponders the surf after the wipeout of a lifetime

  • DENNIS ODA / 2013

    Garrett McNamara in Mokuleia.

For the first time in his 20-plus years as a big-wave surfer, Garrett McNamara began to question why he was still chasing the walls of water.

It seemed an inconceivable notion for someone like McNamara, one of surfing’s big-wave godfathers. The slightly stocky Hawaii resident was in the lineup the day Laird Hamilton, the sport’s most influential ambassador, was first towed into a wave. McNamara even holds several big-wave records, including having surfed a 78-foot swell — the largest ever officially measured — off the coast of Nazaré, Portugal.

“Big-wave surfers have this extra twitch to trust themselves, and part of the Garrett McNamara show is watching him yell as he is about to drop in,” said Curt Myers, a photographer who often shoots McNamara.

But in recent years, especially as 2016 approached, the adrenaline surge that McNamara, then 48, felt as he sped down the wave’s face had waned.

“I had gotten too comfortable,” he said. “I was desensitized whenever I got in the water. I started riding big waves for that rush, but now that feeling is nonexistent. I couldn’t figure out why I still ride these giant waves.”

McNamara considered retirement. With a long list of sponsors, he could provide for his wife, Nicole, and their 2-year-old son, Barrel, without going anywhere near the ocean.

Yet McNamara still itched whenever he heard whispers of a forthcoming swell half a world away.

“My mind froths,” he said.

Like all big-wave surfers, McNamara consults weather maps several times a day. When he recognized an ideal set of conditions last January at Mavericks, a big-wave mecca south of San Francisco, he knew he had to be there.

Equipped with an inflated survival suit to keep him afloat if knocked unconscious and a Gun surfboard, which is thicker than a standard board, McNamara paddled slowly into what he described as a “normal” 70-foot wave.

That wave last Jan. 7 would alter McNamara’s life and surfing future.

A third of the way down the wave’s face, McNamara lost his footing and catapulted off his board, skipping like a rock several stories into the surf. The lip of the wave broke onto him.

“It was one of the gnarliest falls I have seen,” said Myers, who had towed McNamara to the site.

McNamara attributed the fall to his upright stance, which prevented him from absorbing the wave’s momentum.

“I didn’t fear these massive waves anymore,” he said.

Upon impact, McNamara suffered a four-part fracture of the humerus bone in his left arm. Like a cracked egg, the head of the humerus shattered into nine pieces, and the shaft was stuck in McNamara’s pectoral muscle, where it remained for 24 hours until doctors could remove it during emergency surgery.

His shoulder was stabilized with a metal plate and pin, and though the injury was the worst of his career, McNamara was told that if he began stretching immediately, he could be back in the water within six months.

Several complications clouded this rosy prediction. A bone on the back side of his humerus was elevated 2 centimeters out of position, and the humeral head sagged out of its socket. This indicated that the deltoid muscle’s main nerve, which keeps the shoulder in place, was significantly damaged. A week after McNamara’s initial surgery in mid-January, his shoulder again blew apart.

“It was the most severe pain I had felt in my life,” McNamara said. “I didn’t want to be on Earth anymore.”

Dr. Ed Weldon, a Honolulu-based orthopedic surgeon who performed a second operation on McNamara, said he could not repair the nerve.

“We thought it best not to explore the nerve and just give it time to see if it would return,” he added.

There was a chance McNamara’s shoulder “wouldn’t work well again for any type of daily activities,” including surfing, Weldon said.

After an hourlong procedure, McNamara’s left arm was strapped into a pulley system. The machine kept his arm in a constant state of motion and helped slow the growth of scar tissue. But the pain was severe.

“The pain was never-ending for the first three months,” McNamara said.

The prolonged recovery changed his outlook on surfing, too.

“For the first time in my life, I didn’t have this monkey on my back that I needed to catch swells,” McNamara said. “I was missing the biggest winter we have ever had in surfing history, and I didn’t care.”

He did not idly let his body heal on its own course, though. McNamara worked out in the same manner that he charged big waves — with a ferocity that to others seemed maniacal.

During a trip to Malibu, California, in June, McNamara rode a few small waves. “I had no business being out there, but it made me feel better,” he said.

After that confidence boost, he redoubled his rehab efforts in August, meeting daily with Daniel Bachmann, a trainer whose specialty is shoulder mobility and mechanics.

By December, his left shoulder’s range of motion was at just 80 percent.

Every big-wave surfer has at least one epic wipeout story. As Ion Banner, another big-wave great, said: “That gas is taken out of you at some point, but you have to get back on the horse. If you wait too long, the fear inside of you builds up.”

That is why McNamara quickly accepted an invitation to the World Surf League’s Big Wave Tour’s inaugural event in Nazaré, which began in October.

The spot, off a sleepy hamlet in central Portugal, is McNamara’s home base, and he has long been revered in the country. Jamie Mitchell of Australia won the top honors in Nazaré when the contest wrapped up in late December. McNamara was not in shape, or confident enough, to compete. Rather, he helped officials organize the event.

“I’m still not comfortable riding anything larger than 20 feet,” McNamara said. “I went out recently on one that big and I was scared. I kept thinking about whether I’d get injured again.”

Surfing has largely defined McNamara’s life, and those around him were concerned that he would become a shell of himself without that passion.

“I worried about his mental health if he didn’t get back to surfing,” said his wife, Nicole. “He always has said he’ll be a woodworker when he can’t surf anymore, but he’s never made anything for me out of wood.”

McNamara hopes to return to Mavericks on the anniversary of his accident. Even after the crash, he kept poring over daily weather maps, so by Wednesday, three days before the accident’s anniversary, he will know whether to risk his health to join the other big-wave obsessives in the water.

To McNamara, being at the place where his life forever shifted is important for his recovery.

“I might just paddle out to hang out, and if I get a wave, I’d do it, but if I don’t, it’s still worth it,” he said.

He maintained that the wave that derailed his past year was the best thing to happen to him.

“The question ‘Why am I still doing this?’ had entered my mind often,” McNamara said. “Haven’t I had enough? It was challenging to get that rush I felt when I first started.

“I now know better than to freak out like I used to and try to ride every one, but I’d like to find out if I get the rush again after this wipeout. I hope I will. That would be cool.”

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  • Never been in surf anywhere near that kind of monster. But I remember some scary moments back in the 60’s when we had no leash to help find the surface and wondering which way was up. LOL

      • Allie, you need to come out of your shell and experience life. We are all going to die, so might as well live life to its fullest and power slide into your grave, as apposed to withering away your last days in a nursing home…

      • Go do something this island is famous for rather than sit and collect welfare or free education. You’d have a safer, less scary and cheaper life in Porkland Oregon or other city on the mainland than here. So unless you participate in something the island is famous for you’re sucking up valuable space that could be reserved for someone that would love to come out here and enjoy the natural gifts the island offers.

  • Don’t do it, McNamara!

    If you can get by with sponsorships as the article says, do that. You have a young son who needs an active dad! (Not an injured one.)

  • “Barbarian Days” is a great read if you are interested in what drives the search for a perfect wave: autobiography with description of surfing days on Oahu (childhood), Maui, South Pacific, Africa, California and Portugal.

  • Kawabunga dude, rip the curl’s bra, ride the lip, shoot the tube. I remember all those saying’s the adrenaline rush was awesome, as I sat on the beach and watched…WHAT? Hehehe

    • Yes, after reading the story it is time to give up the extreme big wave surfing and surf the ‘small’ (20 ft or less) ONLY for the fun of it and not as a job as he said he can retire from riding exteme size waves. Walk away while he can still physically walk away and not get in another exteme wioeout that might either kill him or leave him paralyzed. He was fortunate his big wipeout cause damage to his arm and shoulder but not his spine or a head like a concussion that can permanently affect his brain. Seems Alec Cooke had a death wish and wanted to leave this earth early and end it the same way as Mark Foo. McNamara should follow what happened to Olympic gold medalist Kaitlyn Farrington after her gold medal win she got injured in a half-pipe fall and was temporarily paralyzed. It turned out she had an unknown congenital spinal conditon that pinched her spinal column that with even a minor back injury coud leave her permanently paralyzed. She recovered after her first injury and could walk again but retired from competiton and the half-pipe or doing any aerials and instead just rides snowboards for the fun of it. Like McNamara, with Farrington’s accomplishments she gets paid by sponsors just to ride even without having to compete in contests. McNamara, like Kaitlyn Farrington, got a wake up call of getting seriously injured that they can walk away from. Don’t tempt fate with trying to continue to ride the world’s largest waves as the next extreme wipe out on his 48 year old body might end his life, leave him with permanent brain damage or put him in a wheelchair forever.

    • I think the idea is that it’s a nationally syndicated story from the NYT that is of specific local interest and serves to provide some balance in an otherwise depressing landscape of the same old headlines of war, graft and politics.

    • I’d rather read this than another top headline with another rail budget over-run or Krook Caldwell hugging his 400lb wife and telling us thanks to Obamacare doctors didn’t need to amputate her feet this month just yet!

  • Great read. He’s a prime example of who should be living in HI. Too bad many others are sucking up valuable land and resources that have no purpose in participating in the natural gifts that the islands offer. So unless you hike, surf, golf or actually enjoy the nature here, just do us all a favor and move to Idaho, Texas, California or NY and continue to do what you do because those places are more suited for homebodies and offer better opportunities in life to make money.

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