Big wave surfer Garrett McNamara on cheating death and ‘Shredding Monsters’ documentary (2024)

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When McNamara was swallowed by a monster at Mavericks beach, California, no-one thought he was getting out alive. Not even him.

8 min


Big wave surfer Garrett McNamara on cheating death and ‘Shredding Monsters’ documentary (2)

Dragged to safety by jet skis, the surfer went straight to surgery. The biggest surprise was that he actually survived.

The brutal video of McNamara skipping off the wave before being swallowed whole went viral and was seen by millions of people worldwide.

In January, he returned to Mavericks to face the fearsome wave - and his own darkest demons - once more.

What happened next is the subject of Shredding Monsters: Mavericks.

Magicseaweed caught up with McNamara to talk about returning to the scene, the Olympics and so much more:

MSW: Shredding Monsters: Mavericks is more than just a focus on a few days at Half Moon Bay, this is a story about the wipeout, the recovery and getting back out there. In terms of your mentality and looking at the injury, how does that compare to the first few months post-injury to now?

GM: "It was definitely a long, drawn-out process. It took so long for my axillary nerve to come back. The docs even said, without that nerve, you just can't surf. They also said even if it does come back, your arm might not be able to work properly and then you gotta deal with your head ... so the nerve, I felt that was going to come back.

My arm, I knew I'd be able to tow, at the minimum but you know, I want to paddle [laughs]. The head, at the start after the injury, I didn't even think twice, I was thinking, 'pfft yeah, I'll be back in the game, no problem'."

"I thought about six months would be my window to start surfing again. I got in after six months and could barely paddle, could barely do anything. So the transition from then to now was kinda funny. My arm came back perfect, my nerve was perfect – still working with some scar tissue but there's no damage – but the head. The head was the most challenging."

"When I could eventually surf, I got pounded by a wave – I love being under water, it's like, my favourite place to be – then all of a sudden I was thinking, you know what, I don't want to be under here anymore.

"Then I went to Makaha. And Jamie Mitchell was always like 'you're gonna be back mate, don't you worry. You'll be just the same'. And Cotty too, 'you'll be alright', and I'm in the back of my head thinking, damn, I don't even know if I want this anymore...

So I'm at Makaha, it's like 30ft faces, it's a freight train. I got pounded on this monster and just... enjoyed it so much. And that was the turning point. Jamie said [puts on Aussie accent] 'Yeah, you're back mate!”

MSW: How did you prepare, mentally for getting back out at Mavs?

GM: "I did a lot of meditating, seeing myself on the boat after it's over [laughs]. Manifesting one good wave, making it one piece with no challenges or injuries. I did a lot of physical and spiritual preparation. In my head? I had to accept where I was putting myself and not think about what had happened or what could happen. Just focus on where I was, at that very second."

MSW: Has the injury changed your perception of Mavs?

GM: "The funny thing is, I'd been surfing Nazare for five years. I'd come home and surf Waimea, Sunset so when I finally went to Mavs, I hadn't surfed it for at least five years before going to Nazare, so you know, hadn't surfed it in so long.

When I got there, I was thinking, 'this place is a walk in the park, so easy'. Got every wave I wanted, everyone grumpy, but I was having the time of my life. Surfed with ease – and I got careless. No fear. But fear is a good thing and channels your focus. So in some respects, it's changed it in that way."

MSW: What made you want to return after surfing Nazare for so long? Unfinished business? Sense of duty?

GM: "I wanted to put in the time to get in the Mavs contest [laughs]. Wanted to surf with all my friends in the contest with no one else around. Honestly, it was the wrong approach. I should have wanted to be there for fun. Not focusing on the contest."

MSW: How difficult is it to turn the corner, take those negative thoughts, harness the energy and take positives away from it?

GM: "To take those negative thoughts and turn it into a positive is tough. Then you might even start dwelling on gotta think of your happy place and what you feel protects you. For me, I thought of a nice, purple heart surrounding me, keeping me perfectly safe. That's where I go when I start thinking negatively. Visualize myself at the outcome of the event too."

MSW: But how do you push through the barrier of negativity? For surfers going through such a similar process, what advice can you give them?

GM: "During the recovery process, I was going through so much pain. Such unimaginable, physical pain beyond anything. It was six months of the worst pain ever."

"The one thing I can say to anyone going through such excruciating pain, when it feels like there's no end ... when you feel like, almost like, you want to end your life ... and I just gotta say, I didn't want to be on the face of the planet when I got off the operating table - when the things they were doing weren't working. But the thing I'd say is; the pain does pass. The pain passes. And when it's gone, it's like it never existed."

"This pain consumed me for so long that it's still in the back of my mind when I start thinking about what happened. Usually I can just shake things off and go forward, this one. ... It's still lingering back there."

Big wave surfer Garrett McNamara on cheating death and ‘Shredding Monsters’ documentary (3)
A surfer on a huge wave at Praia do Norte in Nazare, Portugal, where Hawaiian surfer Garrett McNamara set a world record for the biggest wave ever surfed in 2011.

MSW: You were surrounded by a crew of absolute chargers on the Shredding Monsters day. Aaron Gold, Jamie Mitchell, Emily Erickson; how important is it to have those people around you who you have some form of connection with?

GM: "That crew, we surf together whenever we can. We plan things together often. We show up and have a lot of fun together. You know what was the biggest bonus? Having Shredding Monsters producer there JT [Jonathan Taylor], Luca Padua, the young gun who reminded me a lot of myself when I was young. There was a badass crew, and JT made it so easy, the entire shoot. Made it so we could be ourselves. JT was the ace in the hole. When you're filming, things get so challenging, I don't want anything to sway my decisions with a camera in my face. JT is amazing. The whole Olympic Channel crew just made it so comfortable for all of us. And having the surfers out there getting me fired up... I told Jamie Mitchell the year before, I want it 18-20ft day maybe glassy when I return and that's exactly what we got."

MSW: Luca, that kid's got a bright future ahead of him. He plays a role in the film of course – I'm not going to spoil too much – but this is the next gen of big wave surfing.

GM: "Yeah, he's super smart, hugely likable. He's always been the most respectable. The day I got hurt, he was helping me in the morning get my board ready. And I was saying to him, 'come out with me to Mavs', and he was like, 'nah, I can't I gotta go to school.' I thought – good kid. I wouldn't be going to school [laughs]."

MSW: Again, no spoilers, but Shredding Monsters: Mavericks is a story of what happened then, now and the journey of getting back out there. But it kind of left me thinking, where do we go next in the world of big wave surfing? Has the upper limits been reached? Are there still elements alien to us?

**GM: "**It's crazy because I thought there was nothing more we could do in small wave surfing 10-15 years ago and they just take it further every year."

"Big wave surfing, not much has changed. The only thing that's come in is flotation and rescue skis. We're able to push it, harder, go on waves that would kill us and then go again. In terms of equipment, we're similar. But we're just helping mitigate what happens when it goes wrong. That headspace. The pinnacle is,you can put yourself deep, that 50/50 realm and can survive."

MSW: And how was the whole process working with the Olympic Channel on this movie?

GM: "I'm just super, super proud to have been chosen for this project. I'm also really proud of Fernando [Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association, co-founder of Reef], for his persistence, his vision and he's succeeded at getting surfing in the Olympics."

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