In the funny way the universe has of turning tragedies into lessons, that career-ending injury might have made G-Mac the successful surfer he is today. “I realized that I couldn’t handle everything,” he says. “You can get taken out on a two-foot wave, doesn’t matter, you have to have respect for the ocean. That’s why I’ve never challenged another wave since, and I’ve never ‘conquered’ any wave, ever. I’ve only complemented them and ridden them to the best of my ability.”
After months of physical therapy, Garrett recovered and promptly returned to charging big waves. Oddly enough, Garrett credits the humbling experience for setting him on his path searching for the biggest waves on the planet. Holding onto several Japanese sponsors, he no longer needed to compete on the tour and focused solely on big-wave surfing. But his passion was barely paying the bills, so he decided to open a surf shop in Hale‘iwa in 2000, a period that Garrett marks as a personal low point, a time fraught with boredom and uncertainty. Instead of sinking into depression and letting go of his ambition, Garrett put pen to paper and wrote down two goals that would reinvigorate his career and, at 35, change his life: win both the Tow-In World Cup at Jaws, Maui and the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay.
He got the chance to fulfill one of those goals on January 7, 2002. The only hitch: contests were to run on the same day, coinciding with a giant, thirty-five-foot swell (which translates to seventy-foot faces), and Garrett had to decide—Waimea or Jaws? Because he was the seventh alternate position for the Eddie and his entry was not certain, Garrett went to Jaws, a wise decision considering he won the event with Brazilian tow partner Rodrigo Resende. The two split a $70,000 purse, the largest in surf history at the time. (Garrett has yet to check an Eddie win off his bucket list; since the inaugural contest in 1984, it’s run only eight times. It’s not every winter that a forty-plus-foot swell hits the North Shore, which is the minimum wave height requirement for holding the Eddie. Still, Garrett’s surfed the invitation-only event two of those eight times.)
As Garrett continued to push the limits of big-wave surfing both in and beyond competition, something changed: He became habituated to the rush. To achieve it he had to keep upping the ante. So in 2007 he embarked on a landmark surf trip to south-central Alaska to surf a different type of wave in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable. Garrett and long-time tow partner Keali‘i Mamala set up camp on frozen ground near a calving glacier, jet-ski and tow board ready. Most ocean waves are wind-spawned; no one had ever surfed a tsunami wave generated by a calving glacier. The pair floated fifty feet from the ice wall, waiting for a chunk to fall. Garrett was freezing, but the wait paid off. “The first ride I got was a chesthigh wave that didn’t really break. I did three turns and then sank. I was separated from the jet-ski, and all I could think about was another piece of the glacier calving. And just …” Garrett’s eyes widen as he demonstrates his anxious breathing while waiting for the ski to pick him up. “It was the heaviest rush I ever got, by far, nothing has come close. We were knocking on heaven’s door the whole time.” Crossing that threshold, though, burned out a few more hormone receptors for G-Mac. “Maybe glacier surfing was a bad idea,” he muses, “because now I can’t get the rush.”
After a week of watching the glacier calve, Garrett and Keali‘i finally surfed a tsunami wave measuring about thirty feet on the face, a feat unlikely to be repeated.