Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Garett McNamara: Meet the daredevil who surfs glacier waves

June 26, 2013 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
This is the moment a 75-meter chunk of ice falls off a towering glacier in Alaska. The tiny speck waiting in the water to surf the ensuing wave? That's Garrett McNamara. This is the moment a 75-meter chunk of ice falls off a towering glacier in Alaska. The tiny speck waiting in the water to surf the ensuing wave? That's Garrett McNamara.
HIDE CAPTION
Cold Comfort
Barrel of laughs
World record
Wave hunter
Surfer's support
Water works
Father figure
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Glacier wave surfing: Is this the world's wildest extreme sport?
  • U.S. surfer Garrett McNamara the first person to ride a glacial swell
  • Daredevil also rode biggest ocean wave, 24-meter monster off Portugal
  • Says he is chasing "the rush." But admits thrill is gone after glacier stunt

Editor's note: Art of Movement is CNN's monthly show exploring the latest innovations in art, culture, science and technology.

(CNN) -- Imagine this: Floating in freezing water for 20 hours a day, over seven excruciating days, beneath a 90-meter iceberg which may or may not collapse on you, crushing you to death.

Why would anybody to do this? To surf a wave, of course.

The man crazy -- or brave -- enough to dream up such a challenge, is Garrett McNamara. The same man who surfed the world's biggest wave -- a 24-meter monster -- off the coast of Portugal in 2011.

It would be too easy to describe the 45-year-old American as an "adrenalin junkie." Instead, McNamara's addiction to "the rush," as he so frequently describes it, is so all-consuming it's practically the life-giving blood pumping through his veins.

Chasing the next big wave
The science of surfing
Kelly Slater's surfing addiction

It's also the reason the father-of-three risks his life in one of the most dangerous, and jaw-droppingly breathtaking, extreme sports on the planet -- glacier surfing.

Glacial gladiator

In 2007, McNamara became the first person to surf a glacier wave -- a wave created when a 75-meter chunk of ice broke off from a massive glacier in Alaska.

As the block of ice plummeted into the Copper River, it created a two-meter-high wave which McNamara surfed -- the first and probably only person ever to ride such a swell.

"It was the closest I've ever come to death," said the man who has surfed nine-story waves on the most rugged coastlines in the world.

"I was up to my neck in water, looking up at this 90-meter tall glacier, waiting for the ice to break off and hoping that it'll fall straight into the water -- because if it falls flat you'll be squashed under it."

Read: Kelly Slater -- Surfing is my religion

McNamara spent a week camped out at the glacier, spending up to 20 hours a day in the freezing water, waiting for the ice to break off and give him the most exhilarating ride of his life.

"I wanted to go home after the first day," McNamara admitted.

"But it's fun to be the first to do something. It's a totally new experience -- no one can tell you what it feels like, what to expect."

Tiny terror

Even as a child growing up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, McNamara was always testing the boundaries of danger.

"My brothers said I was always the craziest, always pushing buttons," he said. "When I was five-years-old I was jumping off two-story buildings."

When McNamara was 11 years old his family moved to Hawaii, where he replaced his hobby of skateboarding with surfing -- "From the very first day, I fell in love with it," he said.

By 17, he was competing in the prestigious Hawaiian Triple Crown and for the next decades traveled the globe as part of the professional surfing circuit.

"I really just want to get beautiful barrels," he said. "You're in your own world. It's a place where time stands still, where all you can hear is your heart beat."

Big wave hunter

Then in the 1990s came one of the most revolutionary developments since the sport began -- tow-surfing.

For the first time, surfers could be towed out to the biggest waves in the world with a jet ski -- and McNamara was quick to jump on board.

"Danger is real. But fear is something we create," he said. "We create fear when we think about the future and what could happen -- I'm in the moment."

Each year, international surfers compete on Qiantang River, riding the "Silver Dragon" wave, which flows through the city of Hangzhou. Each year, international surfers compete on Qiantang River, riding the "Silver Dragon" wave, which flows through the city of Hangzhou.
Surfing the Silver Dragon
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
Urban Surfing Urban Surfing
More than 20 years after winning his first World Championship, "King of Surfing" Kelly Slater is still going strong. More than 20 years after winning his first World Championship, "King of Surfing" Kelly Slater is still going strong.
"King" Kelly Slater
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
The greatest surfer: Kelly Slater The greatest surfer: Kelly Slater

Read: Urban surfing -- daredevils ride inner-city rivers

Watching McNamara in action, a tiny speck skidding down the towering face of a nine-story wave, is enough to make your stomach drop. But he remains almost nonchalant.

"If you look at the statistics, it's a lot more dangerous to ride down a highway than a big wave," he said.

"If you don't make the wave, the jet ski will come get you. In 2000 we started using life jackets, so as long as you can hold your breath under water for long enough, you're OK."

Record breaker

It's perhaps that practical attitude which has seen McNamara smash surfing records.

In 2011 he rode the biggest wave in the world -- a 24-meter monster in Nazare, Portugal. Earlier this year he returned to the same spot to ride another huge wave, that may have been up to 30 meters high.

"I'm looking for the rush," McNamara said. "But lately I've had a really hard time finding it.

"When I surfed the glacial wave it was mind-bending, it was the heaviest rush. But since that day I've found it difficult to get that rush in the ocean. It made me realize how comfortable I feel on big waves."

McNamara's describes his obsession with that elusive rush as "like a monkey on my back." Though he chuckles as he adds: "I think the monkey's starting to lose his grip."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Jason Hullinger, a computer security architect in Los Angeles, went to Joshua Tree National Park in December to catch the Geminid meteor shower.
For thousands of years, man has looked to the stars in search of answers. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we alone?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1602 GMT (0002 HKT)
Immortal Jellyfish lifecycle
Does the secret to eternal life exist already and live in the sea?
June 29, 2014 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
NASA's new flying saucer-shaped spacecraft has made its maiden flight.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide took this breathtaking selfie during Expedition 32 on September 5, 2012.
He may be best known for his part in the historic Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, but did you know Buzz Aldrin snapped the "first space selfie?"
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
CNN's Philippe Cousteau visits Laguna Grande in Puerto Rico to explore the wonder of bioluminescence.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1039 GMT (1839 HKT)
If you were the second person to set foot on the moon, what would you be worried about? For Buzz Aldrin -- it was a locked door. Find out why.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0906 GMT (1706 HKT)
Man has been making images of the moon for millennia. Explore our gallery of some of the most eye-catching creations.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Photographer Michael Muller is a man without fear. He swims among sharks without the protection of a cage which might seem crazy but it's actually for a good reason.
shakespeare moon illustration
The moon has always had a powerful grip on our imagination. Here's how the likes of Shakespeare and Twain have taken inspiration from this midnight muse.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 1352 GMT (2152 HKT)
Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin with the first lunar rover.
Google shoots for stars with competition asking innovators to send a robot back to the moon by December 31, 2015. Will any one be able to do it?
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Robonaut is the next generation dexterous robot
It may seem like it's all fun and games at the space station. But there's a serious side to the astronauts' sojourns among the stars too.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0938 GMT (1738 HKT)
For half a century, "Alvin" has quietly traveled through the seven seas, uncovering the ocean's mysteries.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
CNN's Becky Anderson looks at how practicing underwater is the perfect way to prepare for spacewalks.
August 2, 2014 -- Updated 1239 GMT (2039 HKT)
A NASA image of one of the Voyager space probes. Voyager 1 and its identical sister craft Voyager 2 were launched in 1977 to study the outer Solar System and eventually interstellar space.
Voyager 1 continues to reveal the mysteries of the solar system to a captivated Earthbound audience 37 years after launch.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1943 GMT (0343 HKT)
solar flare july 2014
From Earth, the sun appears as a constant circle of light, but when viewed in space a brilliant display of motion is revealed.
ADVERTISEMENT