The best sports story you’ll encounter this weekend is not at the Olympics
“100 Foot Wave,” which began Sunday on HBO and will continue for another five weekly episodes, is (mostly) the vividly told, highly engaging and idiosyncratic story of Garrett McNamara, surfer, and his quest to ride the biggest waves possible. It’s also the story of a place, the people who live there, the people who came there, and the surf that breaks there. If you are in the market for a docuseries that has nothing to do with crime or cults — well, there is a cult, briefly — and may leave you feeling better than worse about the human animal, this could be your wave.
Assembled by director Chris Smith (“Operation Varsity Blues”) from years’ worth of material from a great variety of sources and unified by a watery Philip Glass score, it is a poetic and philosophical adventure story that is about a lot of things besides surfing, which are also things that surfing is about: humans in nature; recklessness and responsibility; fear and fearlessness; science and spirituality; friendship and competition; dependence and independence; fun and obsession; planning and what can’t be planned for; possession and sharing; civics, time, age and always, potentially death. It is largely set around a dramatic rocky headland beneath an abandoned lighthouse on the coast of Portugal, in the town of Nazaré, upon the world’s wildest surf, in an element where people are not made to be — are literally made not to be.
“You feel like you’re on the edge of the world,” says Andrew “Cotty” Cotton, a surfer (and plumber, when we meet him) from Devon in Britain, who figures prominently in the tale. “It’s raw.”
Though McNamara had made a name for himself as a big wave tow-in surfer — a system whereby the surfer is pulled by a jet ski out to where the surf is insanely big, and pulled out as well — and though parts of this story have been told in the mainstream press, including an episode of “60 Minutes,” he does not seem the likeliest surfer to get a six-hour documentary built around him. But perhaps that’s just why he’s worth the time.
The World Surf League’s Bill Sharp describes him as “somewhat acceptable by the surf industry but largely ... a maverick out doing his own thing.” Whatever crowd he’s in, he sticks out. He can be alarmingly intense, disarmingly childlike. Relaxation takes effort. He’s at once highly focused and highly distractible; he’ll study a situation and then throw caution to the wind. “I’ve got a really amazing ability to forget and disregard information that comes in my brain,” McNamara says. “I’ve got a lot of hard drives back there full of stuff that I never access and don’t even remember I know.”
It wasn’t until his then-girlfriend (now wife, and manager) Nicole Macias discovered a years-old email chain with Dino Casimiro — a Nazaré resident who had found McNamara online and wrote, “Can you come see if my wave is big and good?” — that he finally went to Nazaré; yet it was his sense of mission that convinced a skeptical surfing world to take it seriously. They told him that “it was a fat, mushy mushburger, that it wasn’t really a wave,” McNamara recalls. “That hurt a lot.”
Like most quest sagas — for a grail, for a whale — “100 Foot Wave” is less about the object of the quest than the person questing. There is a touch of the oft-told tale of the aging warrior strapping on his armor, or inflatable survival suit, for one last battle (though “last” is a word that has no meaning here). McNamara was already 43 when he first came to Nazaré, in 2010; at 44, he rode the largest wave ever surfed, measured at 78 feet, a record that stood until Rodrigo Koxa , also at Nazaré, by 2 feet six years later. (Last fall, Portuguese surfer António Laureano, who grew up watching McNamara, may or may not have surfed a 101-foot wave; nothing seems to be official yet.)
Although McNamara is at the center of things, “100 Foot Wave” is really an ensemble piece; what distinguishes big wave surfing, especially as they figure it out at Nazaré, is teamwork. Surfers, citizens, officials — this was also a civic endeavor, meant to bring business to the town during the wave-friendly, tourist-light winter months — navigate the learning curve together. Prime among the supporting cast are Nicole and her brother C.J. Macias, a surfer and beach volleyball player Garrett invites into the project early on; they’re articulate, big-screen charismatic and offer perspective on what does look like madness. (“I am super responsible,” says Nicole. “The most irresponsible thing I’ve ever done in my entire life is be with Garrett.”) There are Cotton and his Irish tow partner Al Mennie, to whom McNamara reached out early on, as if out of nowhere, as he struggled to build a crew.
You are not invited to treat any of them as grotesque or any more amusing than they mean to be (so often a feature of major-platform docuseries). It’s not as if the surf world is free from controversy or stupidity, but the people we meet here speak generously, or at least with discretion, where friction might actually exist. Competition enters the story late, and, unlike many sports documentaries, is never really the point. “We could question the need for trophies in surfing,” says Justine Dupont, who holds fifth place for largest wave surfed. “The real trophy is getting that wave.” For Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira (fourth-largest wave surfed), Nazaré was “the first place I felt not judged by me being a woman in the water.”
Because cameras are a cornerstone of the sport — photos and films are how waves are measured, how surfers build careers and brands, and what has created and cemented the community since before “The Endless Summer” — there is footage of everything. When someone tells the story of an epic ride or wipeout, it has been captured on camera, from the shore, from the water, from the board (forward and reverse angles), and from the air — and much of it is high quality. The surfing itself is elegant and mesmerizing; no special effect is as special. “To go down a giant wave is dancing with God,” says Koxa, and watching it, you feel he might be on to something.
And because its bits and pieces were shot over many years, the element of time is introduced, underscoring the question of whether Garrett, who becomes a father twice over after arriving in Nazaré, will find his wave while he’s still able and willing to surf it, or whether he will step off the surfer’s eternal cycle of injury, recovery (mental and physical) and injury. (“It’s like being in a car accident for a solid minute,” says younger generation surfer Kai Lenny of the pounding an ocean can deliver.) In the course of “100 Foot Wave,” McNamara will be repeatedly, and badly, beaten up, and repeatedly get back in the water.
“I do not know when big wave surfers finally say they’ve had enough,” says Nicole, stoically, with a little edge. “Haven’t seen it yet.”
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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