Surfer Garrett McNamara's journey from freak of nature to spiritual awakening

American big wave surfer Garrett McNamara might hold a Guinness World Record for surfing the largest wave at Nazaré, Portugal in 2013, but at 51, the extreme waterman says he isn't done with the ocean just yet.

He's surfed on glacier waves in Alaska and survived monstrous ones at Jaws [Peahi, Maui], yet McNamara is a social advocate for change, keen on educating about environmental pollution, why plastic is killing our oceans and guiding troubled kids to find peace and passion in the water.

He's just become a dad for the fifth time – and has a four-month-old daughter with his second wife Nicole and lives in Hawaii. They also have a son Barrel, aged four. Together they run a pre-school monastery and want to help disadvantaged kids too.

Sea dog

From a hippy childhood in Sonoma County, California [thanks to his mother who joined a Christian commune in the '70s], he along with his brother Liam travelled with nothing more than the belongings on their backs from the USA to Canada, sleeping under freeway bridges and eating from dump trucks to survive. His rough childhood saw him move to Central America and then Hawaii by the age of 11 where he discovered a passion for surfing.

His story is well documented – he wrote a book Hound of the Sea [2016] detailing his horror to heroism and despair to determination. Described as the Evil Knievel of our time, McNamara might be possessed to do extreme things, but there's an awareness he's tuned into as a middle-aged adult.

Hawaii life

"The day I met my wife changed my life," says Garrett McNamara who switches to FaceTime to show me around his home, the bed he shares on the ground with his wife and newborn and the monastery pre-school they're building on in the background. There's even a turtle on the beach and kids in the ocean behind him. If you're keen, there's an Air B&B option for those who want an ocean view at his property.

"I have always had a love for Mother Earth but ... I am now more about the bigger picture, doing something for the children and leaving this planet a whole lot better than how we found it," he says.

Feeling the rush

"I always felt safe and super confident in the water," he adds. "But from 2007 onwards I wouldn't get the rush anymore…I was desensitised to the environment. I could ride any wave, but the endorphins wouldn't release," he explains.

"It was after I went to Alaska that I channelled that fearless mindset and focused on going for anything at any time." 

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McNamara is proof that risk taking is not only reserved for the young

"I wanted to do something that could take me to the next extreme," he says of his new challenges. "But two and a half years ago I broke my arm in Maverick and in a lot of pain – even six months after it. I was told I had PTSD and then wondered whether I could ride big waves again. I got to the point I wasn't sure if I wanted it, and not sure if I would like it. I went back and had a great time, but the pain is lurking in the back of my mind," he says.

Light in the dark

His quick trip to Australia will see him visit Bells Beach for the first time, and next year plans to take his family to see the Great Barrier Reef. He counts Deepak Chopra's The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success as a guiding light in dark times.

"If I can inspire someone to find their passion then I have done my job," says McNamara who is also working with Waves for Change surf therapy in Africa. "As we get older we lose sight of our passions because we get caught in the day to day grind. I am no exception to that either," he says. "I do my best to accept my situation and realise we chose to enjoy everything or chose not to – it's up to you."

See Garrett McNamara in conversation at MercedesMe Melbourne on Tuesday September 18, from 6-8.30pm. Tickets $10.