Is This Wave a World Record?

The politics of quantifying big-wave surfing, from our March issue

The wave in question: A Portuguese PR firm kicked off a media blitz when it circulated an unsubstantiated press release stating that this wave, caught by Garrett McNamara, was a 90-foot new world record. Photo: Caldeira

On a pleasant April day in 1953, a soft-spoken, 21-year-old New York Yankee named Mickey Mantle took the plate against Washington Senators’ home-team pitcher Chuck Stobbs. With two men out and Yogi Berra leading off first base, Stobbs slung a chest-high fastball. Mantle gave a mighty swing and sent the ball soaring into a 20-knot tailwind. It was a clear home run—the longest ever in the small stadium. Yet on its downward arc, after traveling 460 linear feet over the heads of slack-jawed fans, the ball ricocheted off a billboard for National Bohemian Beer and bounced clear out of Clark Griffith Stadium. Smelling a big story, the Yankees’ enterprising PR agent went to find the ball in the street. When he returned, he reported that the ball had traveled an additional 105 feet. It was a front-page story in the next day’s New York Daily News. The news spread around the world like wildfire.

It was an epic blast, but was it really 565 feet? And what about that extra bounce off the sign? In the end it didn’t really matter. The PR agent’s story stuck. Mickey Mantle had set the first of a lifetime of world records.

I spin this yarn because it’s a modern parallel to a media event that began to unfold on November 1, 2011, when a not so soft-spoken hellman named Garrett McNamara grabbed the tow rope off a barely-known hamlet on the Portuguese coast called Nazaré. McNamara had been invited some time earlier to work with local officials eager to promote Nazaré and to prove that a three-mile-deep gash in the near-shore seafloor could focus deepwater swells to produce waves that rivaled those found at Belharra, Jaws, Mavericks, and the Cortes Bank.

Garrett is a three-time XXL winner and, of course, no stranger to massive waves. Waiting around in remote locations for something radical to happen is a large part of how he makes a living. This is the same man who, in 2007, sat shivering for hours—bobbing among car-sized chunks of ancient, fizzing ice—waiting for Child’s Glacier to calve a 30-story skyscraper so he and his friend, Kealii Mamala, might harness a tsunami. It was a feat justifiably termed “Stunt of the Year” in a story I later wrote for another publication. Garrett is known for both escaping and being obliterated by some of the heaviest barrels in history and emerging from skin-shredding wipeouts—particularly at Teahupoo—laughing like a lunatic. He once allowed himself to be filmed as a giant millipede crawled out of his mouth. He would make an excellent contestant on Fear Factor. He is, in the words of Greg Long, “One of the most extreme high-sensation seekers on the planet.”

In an echoing of Alaska, Garrett’s efforts and patience appeared set to pay off in November. Unlike several other big-wave surfers who had also been alerted to the potential at Nazaré, McNamara heeded forecasts that indicated a low-pressure system might blitz Europe with a truly giant swell. McNamara was met by Andrew Cotton and Alastair Mennie—a Brit and an Irishman widely known for charging through the head-splitting Gaelic barrels off Mullaghmore Head. The trio found 27 feet of deep-water swell creating towering peaks off Nazaré’s Praia do Norte (North Beach) in the 50- to 60-foot range. The wave was not as critical as, say, Mavs or Jaws, but it was one of the biggest beachbreaks ever seen.

As Mennie sat gobsmacked in the channel, a wave—or perhaps a conjoined pair of waves—focused into a single towering peak that Mennie described as “a rogue.” Cotton pegged the throttle and Garrett bounced and skipped into a massive, emerald left, then ran down the line for about 20 seconds, avoiding a cascading lip and deepwater punishment.

Word of the wave was leaked through a Tweet by Kelly Slater on November 3: “I just saw a shot of Garrett Macnamara [sic] from Portugal on a stupidly big wave. He should post that thing ASAP. Looks like huge Jaws.” On November 6, a newly registered mystery man, who identified himself as “Mattice,” created a post on Surfermag.com’s online Forum. “Garrett McNamara breaks record for world’s biggest wave ridden,” he wrote. “Will be on news soon.”

Who was Mattice? What did his cryptic words mean? Other message-boarders waited, wondered, and hurled praise and insult onto Garrett, Laird, and one another.

Two days later, a press release from Praia do Norte public relations went viral with the headline: “Garrett Mcnamara Breaks World Record Riding The Biggest Wave Ever In Nazaré!!” Sportscaster Jim Rome frothed: “That is CG right there, and I don’t mean computer generated, I mean completely gnarly.” ESPN Sports Center host Scott Van Pelt brushed off Kelly Slater’s 11th world title win by stating, “That’s great, but he can’t touch Garrett McNamara.” And although SURFER scribe Kimball Taylor’s ESPN blog pointed out that the only source for the world-record claim seemed to be a public relations statement from Nazaré, even his story carried the headline, “Garrett McNamara breaks world record for largest wave ever surfed.”

A world record was declared on Good Morning America, CNN, SI.com and The Daily Beast. Gizmodo blogger Andrew Tarantola wrote: “Apparently born without a sense of fear, Garrett McNamara just broke the world record for largest wave surfed by successfully navigating this 90-foot wall of watery death. The previous record—77 feet—was set by Mike Parsons in 2008. Sorry Mike.” HuffingtonPost sports reporter Dan Treadway sourced Tarantola, chiding Mike Parsons for “surfing a paltry 77-foot wave,” at the Cortes Bank.

Mike Parsons’ XXL-winning wave at Cortes Bank from 2008. The XXL panel measured it at 77 feet, which is still recognized undisputedly by Guinness as the largest ever ridden—it will remain so until XXL judges determine if a new world record has been set this spring. Photo: Brown/BillabongXXL.com

The Huffington Post, NPR, and a host of newspaper writers who also gave McNamara the record cited a website called SurferToday.com, a website that did little more than regurgitate the original press release. I’d never heard of SurferToday, so I asked editor Luis Pinto to see what he made of all this. Turns out that Luis is both Portuguese and apparently worked with the North Canyon promotional team in deeming the wave a world record. “Fortunately, I’m not a journalist, a judge, or a member of the Guinness Book of Records,” he wrote me in an email. “I simply have my own opinion.”

Much of the surf media—including SURFER, The Surfer’s Journal, and Surfline—largely ignored the wave, a fact Mavericks surfer, XXL judge, and Surfing Editor Taylor Paul pointed out in their blog. “We ignored it because Garrett, or somebody in his camp, claimed it,” he wrote. “Ninety feet. World record. And that doesn’t sit well with us because it breaks the surfer’s code…that we must let our surfing do the talking and appreciate whatever recognition may come of it.”

Garrett was understandably cagey about talking to me, but to his credit, he answered my questions unflinchingly. Contrary to assumptions and accusations, he said, “I did not have a publicist or any ‘PR Machine.’” The only help I had was my love Nicole who is a school teacher and helped with everything. The North Canyon Project does not have a PR machine either. Only three people out of everyone working on the project made any money—three videographers, who earned a thousand dollars for two months of work. I did not make any money from the project.”

McNamara said that he had no idea how big the wave was when he was riding it. When he saw it, he only knew it was big. Nicole, however, suggested he send the footage to a former XXL judge (who said it could be as big as 85-90 feet) along with an oceanographer and a handful of surfers, including Kelly Slater and Greg Noll. All of them told Garrett it was a big wave—one of the biggest ever documented—so it was then sent on to Bill Sharp for consideration by XXL judges for both “Biggest Wave” and “Ride of the Year.”

“There is also a Kinetics Sports Movement Institute where they have the latest technology,” Garrett said. “They frame-grabbed three different times through the wave at different points and got anywhere from 28-31 meters [91-102 feet].”

McNamara said that he did not tell the North Canyon team to describe his wave as a 90-foot-high world record—giving some credence to Luis Pinto’s assertion. “I did not agree to put 90 feet,” he said. “They put around 90 feet, which I didn’t agree to either. It’s not my project, so in the end, they did what they wanted. Then for some reason, the mainstream media ran with it, and the surf media did what they usually do: If it was one of the surf companies’ team riders who dictate to the magazines, he would be a hero. I think the reason the mainstream media grabbed a hold of the story is because this year has been full of negativity—even sports has had a rough year.”

“Garrett’s wave—it really was an accomplishment,” said Greg Noll during a phone call. “And you know, he doesn’t always get the kind of credit he deserves for the shit he does. It’s hard to get recognized if you’re dancing to your own tune, as opposed to when you have six guys attacking a spot. I like and respect the hell out of the guy. He’s so sincere. He’s just off doing his own thing, and he stumbles into some incredible stuff.”

“I appreciate Garrett’s animalistic, raw energy,” added Ken “Skindog” Collins, a two-time XXL winner. “He’s a beast—caveman style. But GMac rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Some have said to me that he owes the world an apology—that the wave’s not that big. Well, I’m not going down the path of thinking I’m going to discredit Garrett’s wave, look like a hater, and belittle big-wave surfing. What he did trumped everyone’s hype button tenfold. He’s going to bring more attention to big-wave surfing.”

It was on these points that other big-wave surfers like Greg Long, Mark Healey, and Grant “Twiggy” Baker generally agreed. But there was disagreement on whether that attention is all positive. Part of the reason, of course, is that Garrett’s wave has yet to face the actual scrutiny of the Billabong XXL judging panel, which over the past decade, has become the de facto authority in judging big waves and is, for better or worse, the body that reports “official” world records to Guinness. “I’m afraid that it might just back up our ‘Spicoli’ image to the main stream once a real [XXL] measurement comes out,” said Mark Healey. “It’s about as good for the sport as prematurely crowning an 11-time World Champion.”

The XXL Awards are the brainchild of former Surfing Editor Bill Sharp, whose basic idea was that the longstanding tradition of under-calling big waves was doing surfers a disservice. Why should a wave that’s clearly 50 feet high be called a 25-footer? Measure the year’s biggest waves, and reward the surfer accordingly. The awards now include more subjective categories like Monster Tube, Best Overall Performance, and Ride of the Year, and thousands of entries in these categories are vetted annually by a 300-member “academy,” of surfers, journalists, and photographers. But the judgment that still matters most, and the one subject to the most scrutiny, is the judgment for the year’s biggest wave, which is decided by an 8- to 10-person panel of big-wave surfers, meteorologists, and journalists that has included Sean Collins, Jeff Divine, Steve Hawk, Sam George, Chris Mauro, Evan Slater, and the late Larry “Flame” Moore and Philip “Flippy” Hoffman. Records have been set at Jaws, Mavericks, and the Cortes Bank, and sent on to Guinness—which accepts the XXL ruling as law. In 2008, XXL panelists unanimously decided that a four-year-old, 70-foot record held by Pete Cabrinha at Jaws was eclipsed by Mike Parsons on a 77-footer at Cortes Bank—a ride Hoffman once described to me as “the biggest goddamned thing I ever saw.”

I was a judge on last year’s XXL panel when we declared Benjamin Sanchis the Big Wave winner for a ride at France’s Belharra (a tow-in that was not in consideration for a world record) and ruled on Shane Dorian’s Monster Paddle wave at Jaws, which we saw as a potential world record. Everyone in the room was aware that the decision would change the lives of Sanchis and especially Dorian, and every effort was made to measure accurately and reach a consensus. To do anything less for someone willing to put himself into such a deadly position would be the height of disrespect. Everyone scrutinized and measured the waves from every photographic angle available. Using a known height of Dorian crouched in position, we unanimously calculated the wave to be 57 feet high—a mere two feet higher than Shawn Dollar’s Maverick’s paddle-in record from the year before.

Still, such close measurements mean that the process is fraught with peril. Where’s the trough? How tall is the surfer to the inch? What about different camera angles? What constitutes a successful (and thus XXL-eligible) ride? Can 3D technology save the day? What if you brought in a sniper to help figure out distances and perspectives? As important as big-wave surfing is becoming, how do you avoid any perception of bias? These are questions Skindog, and a small group of big-wave surfers he has been in talks with, have been wrestling over.

“The judgment of whether to include a wave [in the XXL Awards], and world records especially, should be coming from a panel of big-wave riders,” he says. “I’m not bashing Bill [Sharp], or Billabong. What they’ve done for big-wave surfing is incredible and I’ve benefitted from it. But when Billabong hands out a world record to one of their team riders, it does Billabong and that surfer a disservice, because it opens up the judgment to questioning. When Garrett gets a giant tube at Teahupoo but doesn’t get a nomination. When Sion doesn’t get nominated for an incomplete ride, but Shane does. Even if there is no bias, it’s gonna be perceived like Paramount handing out Oscars to its own actors.”

To Skindog, the solution is an association of big-wave surfers that would not only have a hand in judging world records and the XXL Awards, but also weigh in on the invitees to big-wave contests, including the event at Mavericks and the Eddie. “Bring on a solid group of big wave surfers, legends,” he says. “Guys from Australia, NorCal, and Hawaii, who are deeply involved in all this. It gets rid of thoughts of corruption or agendas and it eliminates the possibility of a world record being handed out by a PR team.”

Which is exactly what happened in Garrett’s case. The wave could be 90 feet. It might still be a world record. But only time—and the XXL panel—will tell. But in the meantime, we might do well to hear some parting words passed along by Greg Noll: “You ride big waves for the love, and the joy, and the adrenaline rush—and that’s what Garrett—hell, what all these guys have in common. How they express themselves may come out a little differently, but they’re all part of the same family.”