In Harm’s Way

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

Greg Long, Jaws. Photo: Heff

If Greg Long had died, he would have joined a list of deceased big-wave icons that includes Mark Foo, Eddie Aikau, and Jay Moriarty. On that list, only Foo died surfing big waves, and it’s well established that, as dangerous as it the pursuit is, statistically at least, big-wave surfing is not particularly deadly. Big waves certainly do kill people—Todd Chesser, Donnie Solomon and Sion Milosky all died in big surf—but it’s remarkable to modern-day big-wavers that it doesn’t happen more often.

“If you look at the waves that we’ve been riding and how horrific some of these wipeouts are, you can’t believe more people don’t get seriously injured or killed,” Long says. “Ask any big wave surfer how many close calls they’ve had, and it seems like it’s only a matter of time.”

This begs a question about the future of big-wave riding. The recent paddle-surfing renaissance has been largely applauded, perhaps rightly so, for returning big-wave surfing to its purist core. But lost in such back-patting is the violent truth that paddling into waves is exponentially more dangerous than towing into them.

“Tow surfing Jaws on an 80-foot day is so much safer than paddling it on a 40-foot day,” Dorian says.

Greg Long doesn’t know the last time he was towed into a wave. (“To be honest, I can’t remember.”) But his recent experience at Cortes has forced him to think about the state of big-wave surfing.

“I’m sure that everyone who was there that day is going to reflect on the consequences of what we’re doing, and if it’s something that we want to continue,” says Greg. “Maybe we want to continue, but not push it as hard as we once were. Myself, I’m at that point where, hell, I had an 11’6” made with the intent of going out to Cortes and paddling into a 60-foot-plus wave. Now I’m just going, ‘Fuck, that might be a wall-hanger for the rest of my life.’”

These comments came only two weeks after Long’s near-drowning, and he made them from a reflective perch in a rain-battered San Diego café. At that time, he looked shaken in the way a strong man looks shaken, and he was uncertain about when, or if, he would return to big-wave surfing.

After losing consciousness at Cortes Bank on the 22nd, Long’s body surfaced and was found by DK Walsh, who pulled him lifeless onto the sled of a jet ski. When he regained consciousness, Long began violently vomiting for the two-minute ride back to Mr. Terrible. There, he was examined for trauma, was administered oxygen, and the Coast Guard was called for an emergency evacuation.

“I was on the swim step, and that’s when I fully regained consciousness and began this horrendous amount of vomiting of primarily blood. Every breath I would take, it was just gurgling of blood. When the Coast Guard showed up five hours later, the guy came down onboard, packaged me up, and lifted me up and out of there. Physically, I was in a real challenging place, having a really hard time breathing. Emotionally, I was in a challenging place as well.”

Shane Dorian knows the feeling. When he made it to the boat in the channel at Maverick’s after his near-drowning in 2010 he was convinced that big-wave surfing was a selfish, senseless act, a belief Greg Long shared in the twilight hours of December 22.

“You better believe that when I was strapped in that goddamned basket in the middle of the ocean, 50 feet in the air underneath this helicopter, looking up at the moon, I said, ‘Fuck this, I’m never riding big waves again in my life—this is so selfish, I can’t believe this is what it’s come to.’”

A month to the day after his wipeout, The Maverick’s Invitational surf contest was held. Long not only surfed it, he placed third.