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Big Wave Surfer Garrett McNamara On His Chase For The '100 Foot Wave'

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

And finally today, many surfers dream of that perfect wave, the one where everything lines up just right - from the water and wind conditions to maybe even getting that perfect barrel. Big wave surfers dream of all that, but on a massive scale, with waves that can reach 50, 60 or even 100 feet tall.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "100 FOOT WAVE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: These waves come out of a 10,000-foot deep trench and just lurch up out of the ocean. I mean, they're basically sea monsters. The scariest thing overall is the unpredictability. It's a 100-foot beach break, and it's over sand. What that means is waves break everywhere.

SNELL: That's a clip from the new HBO documentary series called "100 Foot Wave," describing conditions off the coast of Nazare, Portugal. As a professional big wave surfer, Garrett McNamara prepares to surf the massive walls of water there, and he joins us now to talk about it. Garrett McNamara, thanks so much for joining us.

GARRETT MCNAMARA: My pleasure. Thanks for your interest. Thanks for having me.

SNELL: You say you always wanted to ride a wave over 100 feet. Where does that come from?

MCNAMARA: Well, it was - big wave surfing was my job. And I had to accomplish some great feat every year. And we kept finding bigger and bigger waves until there was no wave too big. And then all of a sudden, we were trying to find this 100-foot wave. And I have no interest in a 100-foot wave anymore. I have a wife. I have five children. So, you know, I got college funds and all types of different things I got to pay for. So it's got to be a 120-footer. That way, there's no doubt about it.

(LAUGHTER)

SNELL: You know, there are several moments in the series where we watch your whole body disappear inside the barrel of a wave and then come out in the spray. You know, I've been wondering since I started watching this what it looks like when you're on the inside. Are you able to kind of take in the moment, or does it pass too quickly?

MCNAMARA: Oh, it's so beautiful. It's like time stands still. You can feel your heart beating. You can almost hear it at times. And it's like you're in your own little world, and you just - it's like eternity, but then it's so quick. And you're looking out of the hole trying to make it back out into the world. And at times, you get so deep, and there's a curve in the barrel, and you can't see out. And, you know, I think all of us surfers, our happy place, the place we like more than anywhere on the wave is in the barrel. And so I named my son - he's 6 now. His name is Barrel.

SNELL: That's very poetic. You know, I think one of the things that really struck me about this was that often, we're used to seeing photos of surfers or even videos from the outside. But in this series, there's just this amazing footage throughout - in the water, on the surfboard, in your doctor's office. How did this film come together?

MCNAMARA: You know, are you a surfer?

SNELL: I am not.

MCNAMARA: You've described everything about surfing and just this - entering this conversation better than anybody I've ever spoken to. Even a surfer hasn't done as good as you. And it all started when we arrived in - we got a letter to come to Nazare to see if their wave was any good, if it was big and if it was good. And if it was big and good, could we help promote their town? And then I instantly said - next email was, send me a picture. And they sent me this magnificent photo with a little Jeep on the cliff, on the lighthouse, right next to the lighthouse. And I was captivated. I was - instantly wanted to go, but didn't really know where Portugal was, didn't - you know, my next email was, is there any jet skis around?

So this went on for five years. This guy Dino and I are emailing back and forth. And finally, my wife sees this chain of emails, and she's like, what's going on here? What do these guys want? They - oh, they want me to go to Portugal. They want us to go to Portugal. And she's like, should we go? Do you want to go? And I'm like, yes, but - yeah, I think it's a good idea.

One month after my wife found the email, we were on a plane. So behind every good or great man, there's an even greater woman. And she is the sole reason that we made it there.

SNELL: Yeah. And, you know, it also strikes me that there's a lot of teamwork required to be able to ride a wave like this and to capture it. Can you tell me about the teamwork that went into your specific plan and the way that you went about this?

MCNAMARA: Oh, without my team, I'm nothing. And, you know, No. 1 is Nicole. But then we called in Andrew Cotton, who is just the most amazing person, one of my favorite people in the world, from U.K. He was a plumber from Devon with dreams of being a professional surfer. And he's - you know, he wrote his goal. He wrote his plan. He ended up as - now he is still a professional surfer today.

But there is - you know, there's the spotter on the cliff. There's the ambulance on the beach. There's this - the thing with tow surfing, you have the one person that puts you on the wave. And he's the guy who you want picking you up, but he can't always get to you. So you need a backup safety ski out the back that shadows the surfer. And he follows the surfer, and he tries to watch the surfer the whole time he's riding so he can pick them up really quick if the driver misses. And then when it's really big, we even have a third ski out the back.

And then, you know, there's the trainers. There's the nutritionist. There's Mama Celeste at the restaurant cooking our amazing food. And there's - in the harbor, we have our support crew in the harbor. And then there's the cameramen that capture it. Without them, nobody ever sees it. And then there's amazing people like you who are interested, who share it with the world. So, yeah, you're part of the team now, too. Thank you so much.

SNELL: (Laughter) Your family is a big part of this team. You've mentioned your wife. And we also - in the film, your brother-in-law is a major part of the series. And we see your kids riding surfboards and sticking with you during your recovery from some significant injuries. You know, what is it like chasing a dream like this, one that could have serious physical and, you know, possibly deadly outcomes with your family watching?

MCNAMARA: Before the injury at Mavericks in 2015, it was like a walk in the park. It was second nature. I was more comfortable in the water than I was on land. And there was no wave that was going to take me from my family. After the wipeout, the pain was so severe. I sat with it for so long. I'm still getting through a little bit of scar tissue, a limited range of motion. So it's still there six years later. And it weighed on me. I sat there pondering on the pain and pondering on not being ready when the big waves come again, not surfing as much as I used to. It definitely changed.

I started to let fear enter my mind. I started to be a little bit afraid of was I going to be ready? Was I going to enjoy it? Can I survive it? And, you know, it's a choice. Fear is when we're thinking about the past or thinking about the future, two things that do not exist. If we stay in the moment, do our best in the moment, enjoy the moment, there is no fear. But without being prepared 100% or without feeling as prepared as I was in the past, I've been toying with - choosing a bit of fear.

And I've had a couple really big wipeouts since the wipeout. And I was so happy that - I didn't want to have to go through a big wipeout, but when I went through them, I was so happy because I thoroughly enjoyed it. I love being underwater. The poundings are I think my favorite place because you have no control. You can't control where you're going or what you're going to do and when you're coming up. And you're just at the mercy of the ocean, and it really makes you feel alive.

SNELL: That is a - that's a challenging place to find something that you love, is at the verge of being pummeled, as you're saying.

MCNAMARA: Yeah (laughter).

SNELL: That seems - it seems like it could be so overwhelming. What is the hardest part about surfing in those conditions?

MCNAMARA: In those conditions is the conditions - the wind and the tide and the swell direction. But the main challenge is the wind. If we have a huge swell - 100, 120 feet - the wind has to be right. Without good wind, it's pretty much impossible to ride them.

SNELL: So now that you've surf these monster waves and turned Nazare into a real surfing destination, how are you feeling these days? Are you done with surfing big waves?

MCNAMARA: I'm definitely not done. I'm feeling like helping my teammates accomplish their goals and dreams. I really would love to get Andrew Cotton the biggest wave of the year, if not the 100-footer. And I'm training. I'm in the game, but I'm, like, skating on the outside, not like - I don't have to ride every wave anymore. I don't have to be at every swell. I don't have to chase every swell around the world and make sure I'm there. I'm very comfortable with where I'm at. And my physical ability, I'm about - I'd say half to three-quarters of the way there. Hopefully over the next two months, I'll physically be ready to ride whatever comes at us. And if that day comes and the giant day comes and I'm feeling ready, then I will definitely surf. And I know Nazare, she loves me so much that she'll send me whatever I'm manifesting.

SNELL: That was big wave surfer Garrett McNamara. The new HBO documentary series about him is called "100 Foot Wave." Garrett McNamara, thanks so much for joining us.

MCNAMARA: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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