Watershed moment

"The whole ride was perfect," says surfer Garrett McNamara. "I'm kind of at a loss for words." Andrew Archer

THE WAVE HAS NO IDEA it's famous: a 90-foot wall of water that, one day in November, rose out of an underwater canyon at Praia do Norte, near the tiny fishing village of Nazare, Portugal. So easily that rogue might have come and gone, this transient giant, just another one of the countless waves that roll onto our shores, one after another. Instead, a 44-year-old big wave pro named Garrett McNamara somehow survived surfing it -- catching it just in time, the only wave he would surf that day -- and that Portuguese monster became the biggest wave ever surfed. It became a very particular one of the countless. More than four million people have clicked onto the footage on YouTube; they've sat at their desks, on their couches and in their beds and marveled, watching McNamara do this seemingly impossible, beautiful thing.

"I didn't realize how big it was at first," McNamara says, speaking from his home in Hawaii mostly in the present tense, as though he's never left the face of that wave. "I hardly ever look back, but this time I look back, two or three times as the wave starts to grow. It's like this endless mountain. Every second is so crucial just then."

Every second is so crucial because waves do two very different things -- they build and they crash -- presenting two distinct possibilities for the people who ride them. "You can go very quickly from heaven and find yourself in hell" is how McNamara puts it. Before he surfed Praia do Norte, he sat on the cliff overlooking the waves and felt their power in his chest. It made him wonder. He e-mailed his friend Kelly Slater, arguably the greatest surfer in the history of the world, about the break and its range of possibility. Slater had once sat on the same cliff and felt the same things in his chest. One mistake will be your last, he wrote. McNamara has seen friends come out of waves like that with their legs dangling by just a flap of skin, with their shoulders pulled out of joint. Rogues can rip your head clean off.

But McNamara has seen waves perform miracles too. For years, he has taken autistic children into the ocean at camps across the country. Autism and its causes remain mostly a mystery, but affected children can seem as though they've been locked in a box -- as though the world is too much, too awful, for them to take in, and so they shut themselves down rather than risk going under for good. Until for some of them, at least, they feel their first wave. McNamara has heard the first words a child has spoken. He has seen the first smile. The waves somehow unlock certain kids, and the kids, in turn, take McNamara to places that even rogues can't deliver him.

"It's the hardest and easiest and best and worst thing I do in my life," he says. "But it's like proof that there's no such thing as a maximum, as long as the wave doesn't pass you by."

And so McNamara climbed down from the cliff, and he went into the water at Praia do Norte. A spotter on the shore radioed that a massive set was building, and McNamara strapped himself to his six-foot board and was hurriedly towed by a friend on a Jet Ski and dropped onto the shoulder of what would become his record-breaking wave. The moment he let go of the rope, there were only two possible paths: heaven or hell.

"I'm concentrating so hard," he remembers. "As I get to the bottom, I look up, and I turn up into it when it starts to break. It lands right on my shoulders from above. It was like the hand of God just smacked me so hard on my shoulders. Then an explosion comes from all directions. I just brace myself; I see myself making it out. I made up my mind that it wasn't going to push me off the board. And it just squirts me out. Everything was perfect. The whole ride was perfect. I, um ..."

Just then McNamara trails off, and he's quiet for a moment. "I'm kind of at a loss for words," he says.

Sometimes the waves make language obsolete. Sometimes they give it back as a gift. They do different things to different people, and it's hard to know what, exactly, they'll do to you until you decide to go into the water. But they're out there. Right now they're out there waiting, each one a door to impossibility, so many millions of locks, so many millions of keys.

Chris Jones is a columnist for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.