Stab Magazine | “It Was A Cinderella Story For The Whole Country, For Me, For Everyone.”
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“It Was A Cinderella Story For The Whole Country, For Me, For Everyone.”

G. Mac on his game-changing Mercedes-Benz tow boards, his influence on his second home in Portugal, and watching his nephews proudly carry on the McNamara name!

style // Nov 14, 2018
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Earlier this year Stab was made aware that some of the crafty engineers at Mercedes-Benz had gotten involved in developing tow surfboards with Garrett McNamara and his band of merry madmen at Nazare.

We would have been remiss had we not taken the chance to chat with one of the sport’s most recognizable and divisive names. So, we caught up with Garrett at his home in Portugal, where he spends the lion’s share of his time these days, hanging with his family while keeping the skis and sleds in top working order, should a purple blob come wobbling across the North Atlantic.

Stab: How long have you been living in Portugal for now?

G. Mac: Since 2010, we’ve been coming here a lot. We’re kind of half and half, between here and Hawaii—I think we spend a little more time here than Hawaii.

People probably assume it’s a pretty drastic change, the lifestyle from Portugal to Hawaii, but I actually feel like they’re pretty similar in a weird way—the vibe of the people, and the sort of pace. It feels like they’re set in the same time period almost, I don’t know.

Yes, the cold’s different. The weather. But as far as the people, definitely—30% of the Hawaiian people in Hawaii have Portuguese blood, so maybe that’s a little bit of it.

What originally drew you over there? Was it just Nazare being that sort of impressive of a wave, or were you drawn to Portugal in general?

Well I’d been searching for the 100-foot wave for about 10 years. I was really on a mission to find it, and I never thought of it being here, in Portugal. I was heading to France next, and to look at Belharra—that was my first choice in Europe to go to see what was happening.

Then I got an email to come to Portugal. They sent me a picture of an empty wave with the Jeep in the foreground on the cliff and the big giant wave that looked similar to Jaws. That’s what I had envisioned, I was like, “That looks like Jaws, but with nobody out.”

I had been surfing Jaws a lot at that time, except there are 50 guys out.

He sent me pictures of some guys attempting to tow it, and it ended up in a yard sale, all the skis on the beach and all the equipment everywhere. I saw that picture, then we emailed for about five years, me and this guy, before I actually decided to come over.

The first day I walked up to the cliff, there wasn’t one soul in the town, not one surfer, not one person on the lighthouse—and there was definitely a 100´ wave out front, when I walked up that first day.

GMac 03

How many times did you surf it before you realized that it was the real deal?

The first little while when I was there, I would just paddle around from the village and surf it. I was surfing by myself, basically nobody around, on the smaller days. I could go out from the beach, and on the bigger days, I’d have to paddle around.

Then, a decent day came–[speaking to his wife, and one-lady support crew, in the other room] Nicole, do you remember how long it was until we actually towed?

I guess about three weeks in—I’d been doing a lot of research, I went to the hydrographic institute, and they gave me all the maps of the ocean floors, and eventually they helped us put some buoys out there so we could register what was coming in, the height and the period.

They were open doors. The Navy just opened up the doors and wanted to share all the information they had, which was just amazing. I guess they were pretty happy some American big wave riders were over and wanted to test out their waters—and I think they wanted me to survive, I guess [laughs].

They just didn’t want to be held responsible if anything went wrong. They’re like, “He had all the information he needed.” [laughs]

[Laughs] Yeah, up until that point, that place was only known as a place of death. It was off limits, nobody in the village was allowed to go on that side of the harbour.

But… the one thing I have to say is, there is a very tight solid bodyboard community in Nazare, and that was there was when I got there. They were always out on the good days, the good little days–

…I was going to say—they weren’t surfing the big days, right? That place when it’s six foot is incredible, but it’s not the same thing. [laughs].

Well, it’s exactly the same, but small [laughs]. When it gets big, it does the same thing it does when it’s small, but it’s huge.

Yeah, ok, sure… But, I think that’s hard for people to wrap their head around. When you see a wave like Puerto, or one of the more traditional big wave beach breaks, you’re like, “Okay, I can understand what that feels like.” When you see Nazare, it’s the biggest, craziest shorebreak sandbar you’ve ever surfed, but 50 times the size. So talk about those first sessions and what happened after?

Well, it’s pretty crazy what happened. We got here, and [the locals] really wanted to let the world know about the wave. That’s part of what that first email said: “Can you come to my town and see if my waves are big and good? If my waves are big and good, can you help me promote the talent?”

The first time I towed, was with Jose Gregorio [legendary European pro], he took me out—Jose’s the guy who actually went out and tried to tow before, and had a yard sale. But we got some waves, and then got worked one day, so he was done for a little bit, and then he had to get back surgery, so I was left sort of all alone again.

I’d met Andrew Cotton at the Nelscott contest event. We surfed up there together in the event. I didn’t really remember him or anything and then– Actually, the guy who introduced us was Towsurfer.com Eric, and he knew I was coming to Portugal somehow. So Andrew and I Skyped, and he was like, “Lad, you gotta come to Ireland.”

I kept saying,  “No, maybe you guys should come over here.” They’re like “Come on, mate! Come on over to Ireland.”

I’m like, “Listen, do you guys ever drive in beach break?” They’re like, “Oh yeah, we learned in beach breaks!” So I told them, “Listen, if you’re sure you’re good in beachbreaks, you guys come over— there is good swell coming.” And they came.

But what happened after those first sessions was beyond my imagination. I had been dabbling in these sorts of adventures, where we could engage mainstream media, and I’d figured out how to go beyond the surf industry a little bit with some of it, through different crazy things that I would do.

Without knowing it, really, I was in a position to promote the place beyond their expectations, beyond my expectations. Our goal, our focus, was the BBC and CNN.

We’ve had the BBC and CNN here for the last eight years, every year.

It’s been a massive push for Portugal as far as tourism and its profile around the world.

Yeah, that’s been incredible—not just in Nazare, but the whole country. At the time, the economy here was next to be Greece—we were going to crumble. Our country was done and everything was crumbling around everywhere. But surfing’s brought so much positive attention to the whole country. The country just flourished.

It was a Cinderella story for the whole country, for me, for everyone here.

You know what also flourished? The surfing world.

The surfing world itself got mainstream attention. Every single person in the world now is interested in surfing, because they see this crazy giant wave that they can’t even imagine. You got guys in Saudi Arabia, guys in Idaho, guys all over the world, that are now interested in surfing that would’ve never even thought about it. Even if they don’t ever step foot on a surfboard, just being interested in the pursuit because it resonates with them.

The same way that you and I are probably interested in people that are really into crazy downhill mountain biking or…

Or, you know the insane snow guys, or guys with skis.

It’s cool to see the community of surfers in Portugal also get attention, and a handful of the European guys making a name for themselves there. Joao De Macedo and Natxo…

Nic Von Rupp. Yeah, it’s been good for all of Europe.

Is this your first time living away from Hawaii for a long time?

Yes, and it’s amazing. The people are really awesome, the food is so good, the waves don’t stop. We get 60 to 80 foot swells. At least 10 good swells a year. Probably 50 days that are good. It’s crazy.

In Hawaii, we want to get these 50’, 60′ swells, maybe 80’, or the elusive 90’-footer that might happen at Jaws or at Log Cabin once a blue moon—it’s been about 20 years. 

Here, they come all the time. That’s the good part about it. The challenge for me is, in Hawaii, I live on the beach, I got two skis sitting there, I got a private wave that gets up to 70 feet with nobody out—it’s the longest left on Oahu.

But over here, I used to have my own wave. Now it’s the most crowded with skis of any any wave there is. It’s amazing to watch the transformation. I actually enjoy sitting on the beach watching now, instead of being in the water.

I’m sure it’s nice to let somebody else go out and learn something from it, instead of having to go learn those lessons first hand.

Totally, it’s just fun to watch. Because it was like for so many years there was nobody to watch, and now I can actually go up and watch people. On the good days, I’ll be out there.

What’s it like being back in Hawaii nowadays and seeing your nephews charging?

Makai and Landon are awesome. I love it. I love seeing what they do. I guess Liam was as good as them, but I was never really as good they are. They’re pushing it. It really makes me proud to see them do so well, and just carrying on the name, I guess.

He’s very well regarded amongst his peers, for sure. And watching Landon stroke into third reef bombs, on a Lopez with a helmet on—that’s gotta be pretty rad to see.

And then he gets on the beach and grabs a guitar. Landon, with his music—that’s a whole other level.

This board project with Mercedes-Benz, how did that come about? Who did you build it with?

They came to me right after I got here and said, “I’m not sure if you know but the Mercedes-Benz star, the three-point star—the points stand for Air, Land, and Sea. We don’t do too much in the sea. We want to get back in the sea with you. We don’t just want to sit on the land in our car and watch you from a cliff, we want to build you the ultimate board to survive these waves. Are you interested?”

I said, of course, “I would love to.”

They flew me straight to Germany. I met with all these seven-foot tall Germans, and they were like kids in a candy store. We were just having a blast. They were really just like kids at Christmas. They’d been engineering so many cars, and all of a sudden they’re doing surfboards? It was amazing.

I brought my board that I liked, and we looked at the materials, and looked at what materials they had, and did a lot of research, and they picked my brain, and then we came back to Portugal and built the ultimate board here with this company called SPO, who is really advanced with blanks and springers.

We put carbon fiber and lead and a DVC stringer. We dropped the lead into the board in this very specific spot, so there’s no spring weight. But it doesn’t wheely and it doesn’t bow-steer. Everything has to be super on point. One little inch or one little half inch off with the weight and it doesn’t work.

We put only four-ounce glass on the nose. It’s got really amazing flex in the nose, so it conforms to the wave, to the chop, similar to a snowboard or a ski, how they conform to the snow. It’s stiff in the back half, so it goes super fast and it’s still loose. It’s amazing. The board works amazing.

Pretty validating, bringing back proper German engineering to that level of surfing.

It worked. It was so on point it’s not even funny. It is the best—Okay, here is a good example: Andrew Cotton my partner, for three years I kept telling him, “Look, try my board, try my board, try my board…” And he wouldn’t try it. Then one day his board broke or something, I forgot why, but he said, “Can I try yours today?”

He rode it and he was like, “Oh my God what was I doing for the last three years?”

The guy who shapes the boards originally said, “Look, I’m not going to build these for anybody else.”

I said, “No you can build them for everybody. I like to share what I’ve learned and if they want your board let them have one,”

The builder’s name is Hugo Contadina. SPO Surfboards. They’re actually building some new blanks right now. They’re going to be the only blank company in Portugal—they’re supposedly the most amazing blanks—higher volume, crazy flex patterns, they’ll have polyester and epoxy, all one blend to do different flex patterns, different strands and stuff.

Every single person who surfs here now has one. Rodrigo Koxa rode one on the world record wave.

I let him have one of my boards, because they were all just eating shit—they couldn’t surf at all and they’re all crying: What the hell’s wrong? It was not surfing; it was survival. Now everybody’s surfing those waves, and everybody has one.

Well, you got a good thing going over there, G. Mac. Thanks for taking the time.

Of course, I’m stoked you’re familiar with the zone. Any time you see anything happening, reach out. Come over, I’ll tow you into a couple waves if you want.

Don’t threaten me with a good time. [laughs]

[Laughs].

Thanks to Mercedes-Benz for facilitating this interview and for investing time and resources into the world of surf.

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