Meet the newest member of the Astral family, Garrett McNamara—big wave surfer, ocean advocate and dedicated conservationist. Best known for surfing a 100-foot wave at Nazaré, McNamara splits his time between Oahu and Portugal with his wife Nicole and their kids. He’s on a mission to change the world by reducing plastic pollution, protecting the ocean for generations to come.
McNamara captivated the world with his big wave surfing exploits. But his heart for connecting to nature and defending the ocean runs deeper than any career milestone, on or off the surfboard.
From wave-slayer to wave-defender, McNamara’s humility, fearlessness and gratitude make him one rad ambassador for the saltwater community.
CEO and whitewater surfer Phillip Curry caught up with McNamara for an intimate convo about his childhood, career and favorite wetsuit.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL CHILDHOOD
McNamara was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, far from any ocean. His family moved to Berkeley, California, where his parents worked for Stockbridge boarding school, his mom serving as the live-in mother, while his dad pulled triple duty, teaching English and Latin and coaching basketball.
One day, police officers found a baby girl wandering alone at the end of the school’s mile-and-a-half-long dirt road, right by the highway. They called up to the school to ask if anyone was missing a child.
“And my mother frantically looks around—well, maybe not frantically. She looks around and ‘Oh, oh my god. Oh, he’s not here, he’s missing, check the diaper. Yup. That’s my girl.”
He was only one-and-a-half at the time.
After Berkeley, there was the hippie commune (where he ran around naked for five years). Then there was the cult phase, when his mother decided she wanted to find God.
She also wanted to see the world. So, she left her husband, packed Garrett and his brother into a Volkswagen van and took off. They drove all the way from San Francisco to British Honduras (I looked it up, it’s 2,698 miles).
HAWAII AND BIG WAVE SURFING
When McNamara’s mother decided to move them to Hawaii, McNamara was devastated. Moving meant leaving behind an idyllic Berkeley life and classic American childhood, full of sports, friends and freedom.
“We moved to Hawaii, kicking and screaming—who’s kicking and screaming to move to Hawaii?”
Things didn’t go according to plan. When his mother’s new husband promptly abandoned them as soon as they got to Oahu, they ended up in a cement city in the worst part of the North Shore with nothing.
But then he laid hands on a surfboard.
“It didn’t matter what was going on on the land. We had everything we needed. We had a surfboard, we had warm water, we had shorts—we were surfing.”
McNamara started the sport later in life than most pros. He was already at the advanced age of 11 when he picked up a board. He went pro at age 17 after competing in the Triple Crown.
He took up tow-in surfing (so named because surfers are towed into the wave by a jet ski) to get away from the crowds, and ended up on the vanguard of a brand new sport. In the first decade of his career, he was based out of Japan for reasons that become clear when you meet him.
When his favorite surf spot was overrun by Japanese surfers, rather than yell at them to get out of the water, he befriended them and launched a decade-long career in Japan. He later pulled the same trick with the Brazilians.
Make a friend, win an endorsement deal. Rinse and repeat. To this day, McNamara speaks fluent-ish Japanese.
BREAKING RECORDS AND HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
Ten years of billboards all over Japan led to ten years of billboards all over Brazil, which led to billboards all over Portugal. It was at Nazaré that he faced his biggest wave yet.
In January 2013, McNamara surfed a 100-foot monster wave and lived to tell about it. Among some of his other career highlights: riding tsunami waves generated by calving glaciers in Alaska and winning the Jaws World Cup.
In 2016, he suffered a near career-ending wipeout at Mavericks in El Granada, California.
“When you’re going that fast the water turns into cement and it just shattered my shoulder on impact.”
The head of his shoulder exploded into nine pieces and the humeral shaft broke off the head and lodged itself into his pectoral muscle. After surgery, he felt great and ready to go. Back home, a friend who also happened to be a doctor insisted that he get a follow-up x-ray. Turns out, the surgery had failed, with one of the pieces popping back off. He went back in for a second surgery.
“[The Doctor] said ‘Your axillary nerve is not firing. It’s intact. But it got stretched and it might not come back. And if it doesn’t come back, you will never surf again.”
After his second surgery, McNamara had the worst pain of his entire life.
“And I’m like, Nicole, give me a plastic bag. I want to die right now. And she wouldn’t give me a bag and I’m like, I’m gonna run up to the roof and jump and I was totally serious.”
After working hard at recovery, he is now in the best shape of his entire life mentally and physically. Up next: back to Nazaré. It’s not that he doesn’t have inspiring projects on land, mentoring kids through surfing and working to reduce plastic waste. He just loves the game.
“I’m definitely going back out—how big is the question—and then if that 100 foot day does appear, I just want to be ready.”
LIGHTNING ROUND QUESTIONS
Pineapples or bananas?
Kelly or Shane?
What does “mahalo” mean?
What’s your favorite meal in Hawaii?
Vegan poke. If I was gonna go old school—what I would enjoy back in the day when I wasn’t very conscious of my consumption and what it did to the planet—I would go with kalua pig, squid luau and Lao Lao.
What’s your go-to meal in Portugal?
Soup and salad. They have this thing called migas, which is kale, cornbread and black beans. And then they have amazing sweet potatoes.
Jazz or rap?
I would definitely prefer jazz, but rap just seems to prevail on all the [radio] stations. I like all music. But I try to listen to music that is uplifting.
Do you read or listen to books?
My Bible is “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” by Deepak Chopra. I’m currently reading Shaman Durek’s book, “Spirit Hacking.” I just read Ana Forrest’s “Fierce medicine.” That book was pretty amazing.
Do you speak other languages?
Only one. I only speak Japanese. I can understand Spanish and Portuguese. But Japanese is the only one that I can speak.
How do you feel about plant-based medicine?
Ayahuasca—if you feel you need some answers, you’ll get ’em. But it’s super intense. I wouldn’t say go do it all the time. Go do it once with some really deep intentions and some questions, and you’ll get the answers. But it’s almost senseless if you don’t write everything down that you felt and learned, and then work on it every day. Because other than that, it’s just this experience you got, and then the next day it’s gone. And you forget all about it. Go back to robot.
Jet ski or a wave runner?
What’s the biggest wave you’ve ever surfed?
Two or three telephone poles tall.
What’s your choice of wetsuit?
When I’m towing, I like a five mil just because it’s more of a body brace with all that flotation and the inflation underneath. Paddling. I like a 1-2-3, one mil arms, two mil body, three mil legs.
How long can you hold your breath?
Four-and-a-half, five minutes.
Have you ever kayaked in a river before?
I have in Brazil but just a little bit.
What made you want to work with Astral?
I want to work with brands I can grow with and become family. Astral has a passion and a connection with water. They are all about nature—being in nature and making as little of an environmental impact as possible. We have the same values of sustainability, spreading positive and inspiring messages, and making a difference. It takes a community.
Astral could not be more stoked to partner with McNamara as the brand grows into the saltwater community. To learn more, follow McNamara and his family’s journey between Hawaii and Portugal on Instagram.