Nicole McNamara observed the rumbling of the cliff beneath her feet and listened to the sound of “explosions” as waves off the central Portuguese coast continually broke on the rocks a hundred feet below her position. For one breakneck moment Monday, she looked dead ahead and saw her husband surfing toward her, and then down toward the rocks.
In November, over the Thanksgiving holiday, Nicole stood firm-footed in the location, as she did Monday, alongside big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara. She exchanged vows with the man searching for the 100-foot wave only yards from where their nuptials had been announced.
Perhaps, in Nicole’s passing glimpse of Garrett almost two months later, as he reached her height near the Nazaré lighthouse under which they were married, the surfer may have become the first ever to ride the sought-after 100-foot wave.
Garrett’s apparent record-breaking ride on Monday—he’s waiting for Guinness World Records to certify it—took the rider into a dangerous area where rocks define the Nazaré coast.
“I didn’t realize where I was and I promised my wife I wouldn’t surf there,” Garrett said. Trying to maneuver the massive swell, Garrett found himself within 10 feet of the perilous rocks as the wave diminished.
A member of Garrett’s rescue team helped him recover after his primary safety apparatus rolled over. “The white water almost sucked me over, and if it had sucked me over I would have been on the rocks,” Garrett said. He added that had the recovery effort gone wrong he “probably would not be speaking” with The Daily Beast.
After Garrett was lifted from the surf on a ski, his rescuer also was recovered safely.
“He is definitely not allowed to surf that spot again,” Nicole said of her husband.
When Garrett surfs the Portuguese sand-bar break, Nicole remains near the lighthouse, to communicate with McNamara team members about incoming swells and rescue locations, via a walkie-talkie system. With all the surfing she had watched her husband do, from Fiji to the Cortez Bank off San Diego, and beyond, this was first time she’d wanted to put her hands over eyes. “I’ve never once been worried or scared and not wanting to watch, this was the first time,” she said.
The American surfer, who has been surfing professionally since age 17 and is now 45, decided in 2000 to focus his career on a conquering a record-setting wave. Laughingly, he said he “wanted to be the first to ride a 100-foot wave.”
He landed in Nazaré for the first time in 2005, at the invitation of a local friend, wanting to see the coast’s big-wave potential for himself. “I saw waves over 100 feet the first day I got here, and I was in awe, and couldn’t believe what I’ve found,” he said.
Not until 2010 did Garrett see Nazaré as the location where he could achieve his biggest-wave feat. On Nov. 11, 2011, he gained the record for the tallest wave to date, with an estimated 78-foot ride, verified by Guinness. He was struck by the date: “2011! On the 11th month on the 11th day,” Garrett said, “I swear it was at 11 o’clock, but they are telling me it was at 9:30.”
The McNamaras marvel at the geological uniqueness of the Portuguese town on the Atlantic Ocean in which they were married just two months ago. “Out of all the big-wave spots, it is the only one where you are super, super, close to it all. I mean you literally can get grazed by these waves that they are riding on,” Nicole said.
The Nazaré wave brings riders so close to the cliff that “you can literally yell to your friends on the cliff and they can yell back at you,” Garrett said.
Garrett says he is less concerned about his place in history—assuming his wave is verified as the new record to beat for future high-surf achievers. A large part of his and Nicole’s satisfaction in riding this historic swell is in the attention the feat might bring to the people, culture, and waves of Nazaré.
“There is nowhere in the world even remotely like it for enjoying the power and size of waves so close,” Garrett said. “It is mesmerizing to sit on the cliff and watch the waves and there is nowhere like it. But all I feel is that we will be able to share this place with a few more people.”