In Harm’s Way

With new technology and safety advances, big-wave surfing should be safer than ever, so why isn't it?

Mark Healey, Jaws. Photo: Heff

When Mark Foo died at Maverick’s on the afternoon of December 23, 1994, nobody even noticed that he was missing from the lineup. He had taken what would later be described as an “unremarkable wipeout on an unremarkable wave,” and, as a result, nobody looked for him. By the time Evan Slater and Mike Parsons pulled his limp, waterlogged body from the water onto the deck of a nearby boat, Mark Foo, the man who once stated that “If you want to ride the ultimate wave, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price,” had been lifeless for nearly 60 full minutes, and nobody had noticed a thing.

On December 22, 2012, a day shy of the 18th anniversary of Foo’s death, Greg Long nearly drowned at Cortes Bank. Long is an icon of big-wave surfing in modern times as much as Foo was in his, so perhaps it’s a macabre measure of how far big-wave surfing has come that when Long nearly drowned at Cortes he was being monitored by a dedicated “safety team” that he and his crew of surfers had hired to watch over them. Six people, each with a specific role in a detailed protocol, each driving a jet ski, tracked Long from the second he was swallowed by the ocean until he was airlifted off the nighttime deck of a yacht bobbing 100 miles off the coast of San Diego.

It was this self-crafted degree of care that saved Greg Long’s life. At 4 p.m. on the 22nd, he paddled into the second wave of a five-wave set at Cortes, got cut off by another surfer, became engulfed in the whitewater, was pushed to improbable depths in the middle of the ocean, and then was violently rag-dolled underwater for at least a minute as three more waves broke on top of him, each one gut-punching the air from his lungs, and nearly concussing him. At the end of this torment, he was pulled, unresponsive, onto the back of a jet ski, motored back to a boat in the channel, and airlifted to a San Diego hospital. A day later, he would be released with a clean bill of health, without needing to do so much as fill a prescription.

“I left the hospital and the next day was out there on Christmas Eve with the rest of the world, doing the Christmas shopping I hadn’t done. And I thought, ‘Holy shit, I guess life carries on.’”

It’s not necessarily that the best big-wave surfer of his time nearly drowned, but how he nearly drowned that points us toward a clearer snapshot of the state of big-wave surfing today: Once the province of moderately deranged, adrenaline- or drug-addled risk-takers, modern big-wave surfing finds itself at the nexus between its bravado-soaked past and a future where larger waves will be ridden in ways never imagined, with an increased number of precautionary measures in tow. It’s at this platitudinal crossroads between “pushing the limits” and “preparing for the worst” that things get interesting. Because while big-wave surfers continue to explore ways to ride waves “beyond what we thought was possible,” as Long says, the game seems to be changing from a go-for-broke test of will and strength to something far more technical, more precise, more premeditated. And yet, even as big-wave surfers implement these safety measures, they worry that it’s becoming more deadly.

“It’s simply a numbers game,” says Shane Dorian, who was with Greg Long that day at Cortes. “The more safety that’s in place, the more people will be interested. And the more people that are out there, the more people will die.”

Indeed, the fact that Greg Long—who has always approached big-wave surfing with a thoughtfulness proportionate to his skill—was the one whose lungs were filling with blood at the bottom of the ocean that day at Cortes is unsettling to everybody who takes the sport seriously.

“What happened to Greg has me thinking that we need to be safer,” says Dorian. “But I’ve been thinking about how we make ourselves safer for a long time.”