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."

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."


DK Walsh, Jon Walla, and Frank Quiarte, getting Greg Long above water. Photo: Glaser

After Long's first wipeout, he was motored back to Mr. Terrible, where he repacked his V1 and re-entered the lineup.

"I thought to myself, 'Alright, I got that out of the way.' By that time, guys were starting to trickle in," he says, of other boats arriving. "The most I ever counted in the lineup at one time was 15."

The session at Cortes was hyped online, even given its own nickname ("The Apocalypse Swell"), but the truth is that the afternoon was something of a bust: a windy, cloudy, and inconsistent.

"It was so lully," says Dorian. "There were only four good waves that day. Maybe only six guys got waves the entire afternoon."
Most of those who caught waves didn't get a clean ride.

"The waves were going so fast that most everybody wasn't making them," says Long. "Even if you thought that you were in a good spot, four out of five waves ridden ended up with guys getting mowed down."

By 4 p.m., Long had decided that his next wave would be his last. "If there were two good waves in a set, that was it. And I saw this set that looked like a proper four-wave set--four big waves."

The first wave hit the reef and Mark Healey, sitting slightly inside, picked it off. Long mentally committed to the second. He paddled toward the channel, knowing that he was deep, but believing he would be able to traverse the wave's face. Once in position, he spun, and dug in, only slightly seeing something out of the corner of his right eye. "It was one of those things where you're so focused on what you're doing that you don't think about it," he says.

What happened next has been hashed over on websites, in online forums, and in public statements. Garrett McNamara, famous and infamous for his always-eccentric, sometimes-outrageous approach to wave-riding, took off directly in front of Long. McNamara was sitting further out in the lineup, and may have been able to get into the wave more easily because he was on something called a "WaveJet," a surfboard-like device with a jet-propulsion motor that allows a surfer to zoom around a lineup, and into waves.

Few people who were present want to comment publicly about the incident, which would seem to be a choice to not publicly chastise McNamara. But one person who was there said that the mishap was inevitable: "Greg should have known that Garrett was going to cut him off and go straight."

Everybody who was there says that this is a case where the photos tell the whole story, and nobody seems surprised by what those photos show: Long is in position when McNamara slides in front of him. By the time he reaches the wave's trough, Long can be seen crouching into his trademark big-wave bottom turn, a turn he can't make because McNamara, who appears to be somewhat out of control, never turns. With nowhere to go, Long runs out of room, and gets jackhammered at the deepest part of the wave.

Much of the immediate response to the incident focused on McNamara's seeming recklessness. For his part, Long has taken the high road, issuing public statements to say that there's no love lost between he and McNamara. He may not harbor any ill will, but Long is adamant about one thing: If McNamara hadn't been there, he would have made it farther along the wave's face.

"Garrett, I'm sure, will admit that," Long says. "If he wasn't there, I could've surfed to a different place on the wave. I'll acknowledge that, as will pretty much everybody else. Would it have made a difference at all? Who knows?"

This is hard-won perspective, because what happened to Long in the ensuing 60 seconds was dire.

"It was like my first wave--I tumbled a little bit and then you just have this feeling of getting sucked in a vortex to the center of the earth. If there's ever a time to pull the V1, this is it. So I pulled it, but nothing happened. I pulled it a second time, and it didn't go. That's when I thought, 'Back to the good old days. This is nothing new, let's just deal with it.'"

Long "dealt with it" for a long time. Three more waves washed over him before he surfaced. He guesses, conservatively, that he was held under for at least one full minute.

"I was down there for a long time. I had the thought that I'm sure all big-wave surfers have had: At what point do you just not swim for the surface? You're exerting a lot of energy and, hypothetically, putting yourself in a more dangerous position. That's what happened to me. I swam and almost got my head out of the water, and the next wave detonated right on top of me. I never got a breath. Even worse, it hit me so hard that it knocked the wind out of me. It felt like it literally landed on my side, and it felt like I'd almost been knocked unconscious. I remember being really dizzy. Aside from this instant desire to breathe because I'd just gotten punched in the stomach, I was so shaken from the violence of it. And then it pushed me right back down to where I was 20 seconds prior, and I had the panic that anybody knows who's had the wind knocked out of them of just needing to breathe. I started having full-body convulsions, but I knew I was a wave off from being able to breathe, and I wasn't going to let my mind go to that place."

Whether or not his mind went to that place, Long's body was there. Having failed to surface twice, he tried to relax. When he sensed things subsiding, he swam again.

"Then Shane's wave comes over the top of me. At that point, my body is in convulsions, and I've already gone through it mentally two times. Now it's even more excruciating. Once Shane's wave passed overhead, I knew that I didn't have much time left, so I started climbing my leash. But it's not like you're climbing 18 vertical feet, you're getting rolled around and scrambling. I got to the tail section of my board and was holding on, but it didn't bring me up. So I let go. I remember this real tingling languid sensation, and that's when I lost consciousness."


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.


Mavericks. Photo: Craig

Greg Long's hope is that he can use his experience to evangelize for surfers to be not only physically and mentally, but logistically prepared to ride giant waves, but whether or not this dedication to preparation and safety extends beyond Long, Dorian, and their tight-knit crew remains to be seen.

For those of us in our armchairs, it's hard not to look at the photos of Greg Long's wipeout and think that they carry some inherent meaning.

Because what if Greg Long had died? When Mark Foo drowned, nobody saw him for at least an hour. Greg Long was out of sight for only 60 seconds. So what if Greg Long, the most accomplished, most fit, most mentally prepared big-wave surfer on the planet died, despite being under careful surveillance from six trained rescuers on jet skis? What if, in this new era when paddling into monster waves is accepted practice, and flotation devices make people feel as though they're safer, things actually get uglier? What if the recent effort to "push the limits" is reaching an inevitable, mortal conclusion?

Greg Long believes that what-ifs are a waste of time, and he's straightforward in his response: If Greg Long had died, he'd be dead. That's it.

"If I had died, I would like to think that everybody would have learned the lesson in a more dramatic fashion. We've all lost good friends riding big waves. If you don't accept that fact, and you think that you're living in a world of immortality, you're kidding yourself. But I don't see it as being this death-defying thing where every single time I'm out there, I'm walking the line of maybe coming back, maybe not. I don't paddle out there with the idea of, 'Gosh, I might die today.' You can't live your life in fear of dying. You have to do what is going to fulfill you. Big wave surfing's it for me."

He's right, of course. If he had died, there would be no inherent meaning beyond the tragedy. Garrett McNamara would not have blood on his hands. Greg Long and the other surfers who paddled Cortes Bank on the 22nd would not have been naïve, nor would they have been grave warriors who were "willing to pay the ultimate price."

They'd just be who they are: A group of people doing what they love, aware of the consequences, always knowing that one day the water might not let them go.