Ask your average surfer when the golden age of surf discovery was and the answer will likely vary. Some will say it was the pre-magazine era of the ’50s, the Endless Summer innocence of the ’60s, or the draft-dodging, earth-loving era of the ’70s. But it’s doubtful anyone would say today, at the dawn of the 21st Century, that the golden light shining has not faded. Unless, of course, you ask guys like Greg and Rusty Long, Grant “Twiggy” Baker, Mike Parsons and photographer (and former photo editor of SURFER) Jason Murray. Over the past few years this enterprising crew, along with a handful of other like-minded explorers across the globe, has ramped up their search for perfection to unprecedented levels, and the results continue to amaze. But in order to stay ahead of the packs that follow, these crews do serious hiding while seeking, and shroud their finds under deep cover. Hidden in disguise, Parsons, Murray, Baker and Greg Long came by our offices to share some tales, but no details, of their latest discovery of a perfect right-hand reef. They let us in on how the frontier game is being played.
What’s the real price of finding these new breaks?
Well, aside from the money, you have to sacrifice waves to find new spots. The most painful part of searching is you can’t look for waves when it’s flat. You have to look when it’s pumping, with good conditions too. Since there’re only four or five good swells in a good year, going to look for a wave that may or may not be there is a really tough decision, especially since more often than not, the place isn’t what you think it is. Four times out of five we get shut down, and the letdown is outrageous—total despair. You’ve not only come away empty handed but you’ve missed a great swell.
Even when you do score the comedown can be pretty heavy. The first week you have this blissful feeling. Like you’ve found it and all that, and then you start to come back and you’re like, “I have to wait a whole other year to do it again. And who’s going to find out about it between then and now? What’s going to happen?” There’re a million things that go through your mind. “Am I going to get it as good as I did that day? How many years will go by before I do?” I mean, look at Maverick’s for example. It hasn’t been good for four years. This winter it was finally good.
As you continually explore, do you find the possibilities shrinking or expanding?
Greg Long: Well in the last few years all our travels have been about finding new waves, and going wherever. What’s a surfable wave now is different from what it was just four years ago. So I think it’s changing day to day. We surfed this one 6-foot wave recently that, from land, it looked impossible. But once we were out there and we each rode half a dozen waves we were like, “Yeah, this can be done…just don’t fall.”
Parsons: We always think we’re tapped out on world-class waves and then you find another one, and that’s just it, it makes you wonder whether you should scratch one more off the list to be found, or add another. I don’t think anyone has ever surfed this latest place.
Long: It’s safe to say no one even knew it exists. I’m sure people have thought there have to be waves out there…
Parsons: Right, just like with Cortez, I’m sure surfers were flying over it on those two or three days a year that it broke, but imagine that one day when it was clean, and they were finally like, “Oh my god, there’s a perfect right in the middle of the ocean.”
What’s incredible is the amount of world-class waves found in the past decade alone. How many are there left out there?
Long: There’s 20 world-class waves undiscovered out there, guaranteed, but it’s just a matter of being there at the right time on the right swell, and that takes time. We did a trip to the South Atlantic once, and flying over this one stretch it was headland after headland after headland. You could just see whitewater everywhere. There were probably a hundred world-class slabbing reefs, but you couldn’t get to any of them. If you had a boat or ski, you could do it no worries, but then it comes down to sitting there for three months waiting for it to happen. Waiting for the six days you’re going to get.
The farther out you guys go, the more training required to just make things happen correctly, so what skills have you guys acquired as part of all this?
Parsons: I just got my pilot’s license specifically for this reason. I think most of us have been dealing with boats for years, and of course we have skis and four-wheel-drive vehicles. Obviously, we get to where we’re going by whatever means we have. We’ve got all the gear to sit in the middle of nowhere and strike on all these places that we’ve found. I’d say, most important though, it’s all about the modern watercraft. With what we have you can go around the corner where there’re no roads after you’ve maybe checked it by air or whatever. After you’ve done all the recon you can go and verify if it is what you thought it was. If you have perfect weather, a GPS, radio, extra gas and the whole deal, your range on the skis are about 100 miles. I can almost make it home from Cortez. It’d be crazy, I’ve never done it, not without a boat alongside, but you could do it.
Jason Murray: That’s a real big gamble. I wouldn’t recommend it. [Laughs] But I’d say your range is about 80 or 90 miles in good weather.
So what’s driving you guys? Are these days worth it all?
Parsons: Desire, I guess. We want to surf alone, or with some friends. These days it’s pretty easy to go where the slam-dunk is. With the forecasting nowadays everyone knows what’s happening wind- and weather-wise from the top of Oregon to the tip of Mainland Mexico, and we even know the crews that will be out at certain spots. So we’re just trying to divert our attention somewhere else, so we go out of our way to find spots where we know people aren’t going to show up.
How many other surfers are out there doing the same thing to this level?
Long: It’s like anywhere. You go to Indo and there’s guys who can go there for two months at a time and live on yachts and charters and then there’s guys who work for six months out of their year so they can go and do it on their own. There’s tons of ways to skin a cat.
Murray: But to get way out there you have to have a really good crew. You need a support team. It takes a minimum of two people just to move a ski around. When you start taking about logistics, skis and sleds and food, and everything else you need to make a mission, you can’t do it alone. I don’t think any of us could have discovered the last wave by ourselves.
Long: Even if you did, you wouldn’t be able to access it and go ride it by yourself. Plus, there’s the whole moral support aspect of it too. It helps you deal.
Parsons: We haven’t seen a single soul around at most of the places we’ve discovered in the past two years, not at the ones we’ve successfully kept under wraps.
What are the risks like the farther “out there” you get?
Parsons: Aside from the boating risks, and driving risks, I’d say the shark factor plays a huge role. A lot of these places are deep-water spots and the fear factor is heavy. It plays with your mind.
Grant “Twiggy” Baker was with you guys on this last mission. He’s a South African explorer of note, and his hunting grounds are in the Transkei, a large stretch of Africa that doesn’t even have a coast highway. Talk about shark factor. What does he say about that?
Long: Exactly, and it’s just him and his partner and they are on their own. They bring a shark shield, y’know, one of those eight-foot cords that you attach to your sled, it gives off a magnetic pulse that scares them away. At first they were strapping the thing to the handles, but you get the shit shocked out of you every once in a while. It gives off a serious pulse.
Parsons: But the jury is still out on whether those things work or not. Rumor has it some guy got eaten with one on in Australia, but word is maybe the battery was out. But if you watch the promotional video for that thing it’s insane. This guy puts the thing on and jumps out of the cage and swims right in front of a great white and the thing turns around and swims away.
So let’s talk about the level of secrecy you guys employ. Usually, as soon as a swell pops up on the radar screen you guys go underground, correct? Your families and best friends can’t even find you?
Murray: It’s pretty bad. It’s not just keeping them in the dark, it’s flat-out lying to them.
Parsons: Exactly, then two weeks later you laugh, going, “Sorry.”
Long: And they’re like, “Screw you.”
And what responsibility do the magazines have to play along?
Parsons: That’s a great question, because obviously it depends. At a place like Cortez, there is no local crew, so it’s not ruining for anybody by naming where it is. That was a newsworthy event that should have been shared with the world. But places that are more accessible, that haven’t been exposed, where small crews might be poking around, those should be protected if they can be. It’s nice to know they’re out there, but don’t tell us where.
Murray: If there are locals we all have a moral responsibility to treat the material a certain way. I think you should be able to take photos of anywhere in the world. I don’t believe in the idea that, “Oh, you shouldn’t shoot here.” It’s what you do with those images and how they’re used, and how much information is shared. It’s one thing to publish a photo and say, “This is out there.” It’s another to give the details. Closer to home, though, most spots are pretty public, and the question is when does a spot become so public it’s no longer offensive to the crew that lives there to name the spot? That’s something every magazine struggles with.
Parsons: All we’re trying to prove is even today, with all the information out there at everyone’s fingertips, it’s possible to stay ahead of the pack and find and discover places to yourself with just your friends. The bottom line is we’re not going to be able to stop all these surf camps or cameras from popping up, but we can stay ahead of it and keep the dream alive, and even keep secrets. I’ve had the best days of my surfing life in the past four years and I can’t wait for the next five or 10.
Murray: Exactly, as much as people want to complain about crowds at home, we’re still in a great era of finding waves. My kids, who knows? They might have to pay to go to an exotic spot, and have enough money to surf with only seven people out, but right now we can still find them and surf them alone. We’re not really born too late.
Long: With the technology we have now, it might actually be the perfect time.