Garrett McNulty is a gentle man. He’s tall, barrel-chested, and blushes frequently. He hesitates before he speaks, and it’s evident he words things to make sure he doesn’t offend his listener. He spends time and energy on friendships, enunciating his appreciation of others, and goes out of his way to make his guests feel welcome. When I arrive at his house empty-handed, he immediately makes me a Bloody Mary: a drink he takes ten minutes to mix while chatting, ensuring that the right ingredients make it in there, often checking to make sure I’m alright with each step. As soon as he heard about this project, weeks earlier, he went out of his way to book an interview.
Garrett was born in Waialua, Hawaii, where his parents currently live in a beautiful, if illogical, Japanese house. “My mom is from California, pretty much born and raised. My dad is a Navy brat, he was born in Palau. A lot of his childhood was in Hawaii, and West Virginia, basically where there’s naval ports, but a lot of it was in Hawaii, so that’s where he ended up. He ran away from home when he was sixteen, in West Virginia, and hitchhiked across the country, worked somewhere, and flew to Hawaii. Went to high school and worked, ended up with his own farm, papayas and watermelon, he did that for twenty years.
“The house was a… it’s hard to describe. A Japanese architect made a very fancy looking place that really wasn’t that liveable. It was supposed to be pretty to look at. It’s hard to clean and all this other stuff. There’s a lot of space going to waste, but there’s also a lot of… there are beams across the roof, but the roof is not sitting directly on them, so it’ll collect dust on the top of that. Very appealing to look at, very difficult to clean.”
Garrett has two brothers: one half-brother, who is nine years older than him, and one younger brother. The mother of his half-brother, Shane, died in a car crash along with her second son, before Garrett was born. Shane survived the accident, and was nursed back to health by the woman who would eventually become Garrett’s mother. She was a dietician in the hospital. I ask him how that courtship happened. He laughs.
“Dad hasn’t told me the hospital stuff, she told me about that. All he says was, cause she used to sell watermelons on the side of the road sometimes, he said ‘Yeah I gave your mother a watermelon for free, so she stuck her tongue down my throat.’ That’s all I heard about their courtship. Later on he told her ‘If you get pregnant, we’ll get married.’ And she did and they did. I don’t know how much of that is true, that’s just his words.
“My father used to scare my friends when we were young. His personality just scared them. Now, all my friends worship him. That’s a strong word, but they’ll randomly tell stories about my father. He’s Irish, so he’s opinionated, he’ll tell it to you straight, he doesn’t necessarily pick up on innuendo, but very straight, very honest. Whether it’s right or wrong, he just says what he thinks.
“He’s mellowed out a lot. I don’t know whether it’s just getting older, or if he has mellowed. I’m going to quote my mom here, that he has ‘slate coloured eyes that look like the eyes of a murderer’. That’s just my mom making fun of him, but there’s a hint of truth to it, you know?”
His father ingrained a love of surfing into him at a young age. “He’s a surfer. I mean it’s what he does.”
“And so he taught you that?”
“How long have you been surfing for?”
“As long as I can remember. I remember he kind of did specific lessons when I was five or six. My dad would get my brother and I up early to go surfing. I realize now that, he would take us surfing, it was because he was really taking time out of his life. One morning we gave him all this grief about how sharks feed in the morning, we don’t want to go early. He got so upset, the next morning he got us up before the sun came up, and he stood on the beach and made us swim out beyond the reef, and come back in. We’re terrified. So he made us do that, and the next day we ran out to some point, and we all swam over, I don’t know how deep it was but you couldn’t see the bottom, it was open ocean, maybe a mile swim. He made us start to do this, because he was like ‘You can’t be afraid to surf!’ So it was gruff, you know, for little kids that was horrifying. I appreciate it now.”
I ask him if there are any memories of his parents that stand out to him. He first addresses his mother, but his story quickly becomes about his entire family.
“If anyone in the family is fighting, she always makes that fight end. She’s kind of like the glue. Always consistent. She has a routine. My dad’s the more crazy one. The biggest one, my dad came home from work, and at the dinner table he said ‘I quit my job, we’re sailing around the world.’ Years later, I wrote a book about it, I was asking him about it, and he said he didn’t actually quit his job, he just told us he did, just in case everything fell apart he could say ‘No no no, I still have my work. Family’s still ok, I just lied.’
“My mom kind of freaked out, you know, because she was a cosmetologist at the time, she put make-up on people. And as the kind of person my mom is, I had no idea about this, but she went to a fortune-teller, right after this happened, and apparently, without telling the fortune-teller anything, I’m taking her word on this, she asked the fortune-teller what her fortune would be, and the fortune-teller did her thing and said ‘Oh you’re going to see places that most people won’t get the chance to see.’ Sounds a lot like some random crap fortune-teller would say. But my mom took that as like ‘Oh, I guess I’m sailing around the world.’ I also found out that they got in an argument, and my dad told her ‘You can do what you want, but I’m taking the kids.’ Kind of a bad thing to say, you know? He says stuff like that, and he doesn’t necessarily mean it.
“So long story short, she did the fortune-telling thing, they did this, they spent six months painting the house and all that other crap, then we got on our sailboat and we spent four years just going west. I was ten when we left, fourteen when we got back. His dream was to sail around the world, go to surf spots and surf. And to look at charts and find reefs that maybe nobody’s ever surfed before. A huge thing was the my mom had no connection to that kind of lifestyle, and she did it, and that’s a huge respect. My dad, that’s the kind of guy he is – he took all his retirement and did that. I accused him of having a midlife crisis, and instead of getting a mistress he took us all on a boat,” he laughs.
“So where did you go?”
“We have a trimaran, it’s really not a cruising boat. But that’s the boat we had, so we just did it. We left Hawaii, and we went to Kiribati, it’s a chain of atolls, we went to Christmas Islands specifically. Then we went down the Samoa chain, and the Tonga chain, and New Zealand. Basically straight south, for the longest time straight south. Then we spent six months… so, depending on what hemisphere you’re in, the summer time in that hemisphere, there’re hurricanes around the equator. We were in the Southern Hemisphere, so the winter time for us was their summer time, so we had to get either far south or get north. Every year you spend six months – there’s more ocean in the southern hemisphere, that’s where you travel – you spend six months below hurricane line. Six months in New Zealand, six months in Australia, six months in South Africa. Spots you go, you know? But yeah, just kept going west, for surf spots.”
“And did you stay along the coast?”
“Well, New Zealand we stayed in the bay and actually went to school there. We did home schooling. We did Calvert school.”
“Did either of your parents work? Or did they just surf?”
“Surf, that was the mission. My mom, it turns out, she’s great at picking up languages, so she basically taught herself French and Spanish, and Indonesian, while we were cruising. Literally, though, we just sailed into a bay, anchor, my dad would go to shore and do his thing, and go ‘Ah there’s no surf on this island.’ I mean, you can kind of tell what islands will have surfing, and then cruise on to the next one.”
“So you did six months New Zealand, six months Australia – ”
“Yes, but Australia is huge. You know where Brisbane is? There’s Fraser Island, just south of the Great Barrier Reef, we popped in there, we went south to Surfer’s Paradise, spent like six weeks there. Then we spent three months sailing up the inside of the Great Barrier Reef, anchoring every night, off islands or off the mainland. Exploring, you know, until we got to the very top of Australia, across the Gulf of Carpentaria, then off to Indonesia. New Zealand was the first place that we sat and lived in the boat. It was the only place. We were four months in South Africa, but that’s a huge coast. There are sailors who go from harbour to harbour because there’s a yacht club. We tried not to do that, sometimes you have to clear into a country at certain ports. We’d clear in and usually the same day head down the coast and anchor. It’s cheaper, and you have locals who come up to you then. Like ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And that’s more fun.
“That was ’95-’99. So when I say four years, it was just under, it was three years and eight months or something.”
“How was the transition back?”
“That was weird. That was really weird. We got back, into the harbour we started from. One of my dad’s friends came and picked us up. We got in the car and he was driving like twenty-five miles an hour, and it was freaky fast, I was like ‘WOOAH!’” he laughs. “I was so excited. It was the biggest high, and it lasted about six months. I sailed around the world. I mean my family did. Specifically my parents did, I mean I was a kid I had no choice, but still it’s an amazing high. We pulled into my neighbourhood, and it looked so small. Just this little street, with houses. Suddenly my world went from the size of the planet to this bay on an island.
“It was weird, and after about six months I was back in school, and I got a little depressed. I don’t know, in a lot of countries, I was an adult. Suddenly, I’m in high school, and I need to tell the teacher ‘Hey, I don’t like what you’re teaching me right now, I’m going to go use the bathroom.’ And they’re like ‘No, do it on your break. I can’t trust you to go to the bathroom, you might not come back.’ What? You know? Like ‘You’re a new student here, so you don’t understand.’ You don’t trust your students? It was so weird, suddenly I was being treated like a little kid. And I’m showing up with lime-green neon shorts, so they were teasing me, but I was the largest kid in my high school at fourteen. I didn’t get much crap, but I got a lot of people saying ‘I would never wear what you’re wearing to school.’ I didn’t understand. You adapt, everybody adapts. Anyway, that was the big… it made our family pretty tight-knit. My younger brother’s my best friend, cause that’s all we had.”
I ask him if his parents were planning on doing something like that again.
“They’re trying to go every summer, or every other summer.”
It’s a dynamic life they lead, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At his urging, I gladly accept another round of drinks, and he sheepishly turns the conversation to me. I switch the microphone off for the rest of our talk.