In Harm’s Way

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

Shawn Dollar, Cortes Bank. Photo: Keith

Greg Long rolls with a tight crew of surfers, preferring to work with people that he knows he can trust. As the Cortes swell approached, he limited his surfing team to only four—himself, Grant Baker, Shane Dorian, and Ian Walsh. His safety team, meanwhile, was six people deep.

“I was adamant that the number of skis wasn’t going to be less than the number of surfers,” he says. “I had countless people asking, ‘Hey, can I jump on your boat,’ and I had to say no. My team was always going to be four surfers, six skis.”

If that sounds cautious, consider that when Mr. Terrible, the Newport Beach-based yacht that the crew chartered, arrived at Cortes at 10 a.m. on the morning of the 22nd, the group held a one-hour safety meeting.

“We went over everyone’s jobs, where they would be positioned, ran through the best-case scenarios, the worst-case scenarios, everything in between,” Long says. “It was the most detailed and elaborate safety team and system I’ve ever set up.”

Such preparation stands in marked contrast to what was previously Long’s most remarkable Cortes experience. In December 2008, he, Baker, Parsons, and Brad Gerlach drove jet skis through a squall to surf a small window of rideable waves at the Bank, a slack period between two storms that would debilitate California cities when they eventually made landfall. That day, Parsons was towed into what was said to be a 75-foot wave. Long, according to everybody there, rode a wave that was even bigger but wasn’t captured on film. Today, it’s not the waves that Long thinks about, but the recklessness.

“If you look back to that day, I mean, hell, it was just you and your guy, and if something went wrong, if he didn’t get you, good luck.”

Those days are a thing of the past, or at least that’s what Long and the surfers driving the big-wave movement hope. Spend even a minute talking to Long, Dorian, and their ilk, and the focus will shift to “safety” and “preparation,” a shifting focus that is at least partially a reaction to a string of incidents in recent years, including Dorian’s own near-drowning at Maverick’s in 2010. Dorian endured a two-wave hold-down that day, and was convinced it would be his last.

“I remember being at the bottom of the ocean and thinking, I am super selfish, this is stupid, this is totally not worth the risk,” Dorian says. So how did he transition from that state to riding some of the most jaw-dropping waves in history over the last two years? “Human beings are naturally selfish,” he says, laughing. “We have selective memory.”

Instead of swearing off big waves entirely, Dorian decided that he would offset the danger of his big-wave passion with preparation. “Before, I would just wing it on trips,” he says. “I was always the guy who didn’t have the right leash. My experience was a total wake-up call. I’m a family man first and foremost, so to be able to justify continuing to do this stuff, I decided that I was going to have to do what I could to make this safer.”

What he did was work with Billabong to develop an inflatable vest called the V1 that a surfer can deploy when they are in a dire, bottom-of-the-ocean situation like he was at Maverick’s and Long was at Cortes. Pull a cord and the suit inflates, ushering you to the ocean’s surface.

Long was wearing a V1 on December 22. After the safety meeting, the group motored on skis from Mr. Terrible to the reef and watched the waves for a half-hour. Feeling comfortable, Long saw a set on the horizon and slid off the ski around 1 p.m., paddling his 10’6” Chris Christenson quad into the lineup. He picked his wave and put his head down. “I don’t know if it was the biggest wave of my life, but it was definitely the biggest wave I ever tried to paddle out there. It was windy and bumpy, but I felt like I was in a good spot.”

Mid-drop, Long hit some chop and, as he says, “yard-saled, skipping down the face and taking a horrendous beating.” Immediately, his safety protocol kicked into action. He pulled the cord on his V1, it inflated, and he quickly floated to the surface, where his safety team picked him up. Years prior, such a situation might have been life-threatening, but the plan worked, and Long was only slightly worse for the wear.

“Had there been a safety net like this the afternoon that Sion [Milosky, who died surfing Maverick’s in 2011] passed away, there’s no question in my mind that he would still be with us,” Long says. “Same with Mark Foo.”

Perhaps even more than the flotation suits, it’s the safety teams that are the lynchpin in that safety net. Dorian, Long, and Walsh began hiring dedicated lookouts on jet skis two years ago at Jaws. Because Walsh is from Maui, “logistically, it isn’t that much of a nightmare,” Dorian says, to find capable people and equipment. “We pay them with our own money, and we make sure we’re all accounted for, because one water safety guy can watch maybe two surfers.”

The problem, Dorian says, is that not everybody is concerned with safety. “Sometimes you’re baffled. Guys just paddle out without any plan. Really, they’re just jumping off the cliff. There’s no such thing as going out to Jaws and trying to play it safe. If you go out at Jaws and you don’t bring your own water safety, there is no water safety.”

At Cortes on the 22nd, at least one group of surfers boated out to the break without backup.

“There was a crew of guys with no skis at all,” says Long. “They actually went over to the guys doing water safety and said, ‘Don’t worry about rescuing us.’ You love the passion and the desire to ride big waves and accept the risks and consequences, but there was part of me when I heard that said, ‘God. Okay…’”

Dorian says that this type of behavior transcends personal choice, putting everybody in the lineup at increased risk, and placing safety teams in a moral bind: They’ve been hired to watch a specific person, so what do they do if a more heedless surfer finds himself in a life-threatening situation? Morally, they’d want to make the rescue, but that rescue would leave their surfer without a safety net.

“It sucks for the guys on the skis,” Dorian says. “They have to make that choice in the moment.”