Published on January 5th, 2022 | by Sara Weiss0
Big Wave Surfing and Motherhood
I grew up swimming in the ocean at Bethany Beach, Delaware, riding the waves with my sister. We’d swim until our lips were wrinkled and salty, get pummeled and wash up onto the scratchy shore, then repeat until our bathing suits were weighed down with sand. As I’ve gotten older, I no longer want to feel that sensation of getting knocked down or pushed under. And after having kids, I’ve come to fear the ocean more. On a “rough” day (okay, maybe two foot waves), while other parents are watching their kids doing backflips off boogie boards, I’m in the water with my six-year-old daughter, heart pounding, holding on tightly to her swimmy to keep her close to me.
So what’s with my obsession with the HBO Max documentary 100 Foot Wave? The six-part series, directed by Chris Smith, follows big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara on his quest to surf the largest wave ever. It’s a show about people taking terrifying risks, which, as a mother, is something I try not to do.
I know I have the privilege to choose a mostly safe life—for example, choosing to keep my kids home for remote school last year to try to prevent them from getting sick and to stop the spread. I also know that many families cannot say this, and the pandemic has really intensified the inequities and the necessary and extreme risks people must take every day to support themselves and their families. But 100 Foot Wave is not about necessary risks—it’s about chasing the thrill. Maybe that’s what’s so compelling about the mini-series. It’s an escape. It’s exhilarating to watch people throw themselves freely into their passion, as dangerous as it is, without allowing fear to cripple them.
In 2010, Garrett and his girlfriend, manager, and now wife, Nicole Macias, go to Praia do Northe (North Beach) in Nazaré, Portugal and discover that it’s unlike any other big-wave surfing spot. They later enlist a crew of locals, big-wave surfers, and photographers to join them. There’s no predictability to Nazaré’s enormous waves. Under the ocean lies a canyon. The swell will get pressed into the canyon and spit back out with greater speed and force as the waves emerge. They crash in all directions, toward the rocks, toward shore, with no consistent pattern, making it difficult for surfers to know where they are headed and what’s coming next.
With what I see as both courage and hubris, Garrett decides to take on waves that killed so many ancestors of the locals, fishermen who went out and never returned, their ships hammered by the massive waves, some of the wreckage still lying on the ocean floor. It provides a stark contrast, these fisherman braving the ocean out of necessity to provide for their families versus the surfers who put themselves in harm’s way for the rush. (And yes, also to make a living.)
There’s a real and true danger in surfing big waves. We see several accidents throughout the series, including my favorite character, British big-wave surfer Andrew “Cotty” Cotton, breaking his back after being pummeled by waves as big as buildings. Garrett breaks his shoulder, gets a concussion, and breaks his foot.
As I watch, I wonder why on earth anyone would ever put themselves in this position. It’s unfathomable to me. If I was the mother of any of them, I’d say, don’t do it. There’s a reason for your fear. You’re afraid because you’re putting yourself in a position where you could die.
In 2011, Garrett catches a monster, the biggest wave ever surfed until then, a 78-foot tall thick, dark wall of water. He’s a speck at the bottom of the photograph, the wave filling the entire frame. There’s a small white wake trailing his surfboard. White foam is just beginning to form up at the top as the wave is on the brink of curling over him.
Garrett is an inspiration, changing big-wave surfing forever, and is also arrogant and impatient—all of which makes him very interesting to watch.
Still, I find myself thinking about his wife, Nicole, who spotted that record-breaking wave for Garrett from her lookout spot on a cliff. She tells him about the huge incoming swell from her walkie-talkie, cringes and shudders and then watches him ride it, rooting him on.
Later, while he’s chasing the swell, still on the lookout for that elusive 100-foot wave, she’s looking after their two kids, Barrel and Theia. (Garrett also has two kids from a previous marriage.) She says she fully trusts Garrett in the ocean, that she has more anxiety about him taking the kids to the grocery store, joking that he’ll lose the credit card or come back with one less kid. “He’s supposed to be in the water. He is not a land mammal.” If it were me, I’d fear my husband could die surfing, that our children could grow up without their father.
Nicole is extremely supportive, more so than I’d be, but the one thing we have in common is that neither of us wants to be out there in that ocean. After one disastrous wipeout at Nazaré, she vows never to go back in those waters. “I just really like to breathe,” she says to the camera. “I love breathing so much.”
Like Nicole, I just really like to breathe. And as a mother, I just can’t imagine feeling justified in putting myself in harm’s way, unnecessarily. (To be clear, I’ve only surfed once, badly, so it’s not like the World Surf League is actively recruiting me.)
I have become much more risk-averse as a mother in part because I feel that my life is not entirely my own. My children are my life now, and any choice I make feels like a choice I’m making for them.
I try to protect them to the best of my ability. I’ve been that mother, following the school bus in my car on my older daughter’s first day of kindergarten to make sure she made it into the building. At the playground, I’ve climbed the web rope after my younger daughter when she was a toddler to spot her, calling up to her, “Okay, I think that’s high enough.” They have taught me, though, when they’re capable of taking that next step, climbing to the top of the web, or going out on their own, and sometimes, it’s before I’m ready.
Risk is an inherent part of motherhood and we can’t protect our kids from every danger. I’m fortunate enough that our lives feel generally safe, but it’s still a risk to send my kids out into the world, even just to school. There’s risk when they’re away from us, and even when they’re under our wing. Last night, my daughter fell down the stairs and an egg-sized bump swelled on the back of her head. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve yelled, “Careful on the stairs!” There’s only so much I can do to protect them.
Sometimes, as a mother, I feel like I am treading water, like I’m bracing myself for the next wave. Unlike Garrett, I don’t want it to be a big one. I just want everyone to be safe and happy, and I don’t like the feeling of not knowing what’s coming for us. That feeling washed over me the very second I became a mother, the moment the nurse laid a new baby on my chest. When my husband and I drove her home for the first time, the two of us quiet and cautious, our baby asleep in her car seat and as small as a doll, it was such a strange feeling— no one else responsible for this new life but us. We’re in it, I thought. And we’ll always be in it, for the rest of our lives.
What appeals to me about 100 Foot Wave is not just the danger. It’s the cinematography, surfers riding enormous swells along a rocky coastline with a look of calm confidence on their faces. It’s the music, the repetitive, layered piano score of Philip Glass. And most of all, it’s the passion. These surfers have worked hard to achieve a goal and a dream—and this is something I can relate to. They are focused, determined to achieve what they set out to do. They’re in the flow, losing themselves in their creative pursuit, and as a writer, that’s a feeling I look for, too. I want to feel the confidence and calm that comes from stretching myself in ways I didn’t know I could as a mother—but also, on my own. I want for my kids to experience this when they push through fears of failure to strive toward something that brings them joy.
This past summer, I surprised myself to learn that I felt at peace, sitting by the edge of the ocean, watching my older daughter, my nine-year-old, jumping in the waves. I used to have to be in there with her, holding on tight to her swimmy and bracing myself for the next wave, just as I do with her sister. But she’s grown taller and has more confidence in the water. Sometimes, she decided the wave was too big for her, and swam fast to get out before it broke. Sometimes, she went toward the wave and dove under it with grace. I could breathe, believe it or not. She’s taught me to trust her. She knows which waves are the right ones for her, and I understand now that she should have the power to make those decisions for herself.
There are many more waves out there for me to catch, but I’m also already riding one. Maybe motherhood is my 100-foot wave. There’s so much that’s out of my control, and yet, sometimes, the best thing I can do is go with it, to trust that we’ll make it through, and be okay.