On a sunny afternoon this February, I stepped into a sleepy café in Half Moon Bay, California, to meet Greg Long. The San Clemente native had surfed his way into the finals of the Titans of Mavericks event the day before, and a few minutes after I arrived, he walked through the door with a limp—the result of a leg strain after being gobbled up by an ocean's worth of whitewater on his last wave of the contest. He gave me a gentle smile, offered a firm handshake, and we sat down to talk. I wanted to hear about what this El Niño has been like for California's most respected and dedicated big-wave rider. I wanted to know how he'd coped with an extremely close brush with death at Cortes Bank in 2012. And, I wondered, where does it all end? What happens when you've ridden the biggest wave you'll ever ride?

It's been swell after swell after swell since December. I'm guessing you'd say this El Niño winter has lived up to the hype.

Yes, absolutely. This has been the most historic big-wave season that I can remember, and I've been diligently monitoring and chasing swells since 2001. The last significant El Niño was in '98, but I was still in high school at the time and the best I could do then was drive around the San Clemente area and surf the biggest waves we had there. I remember seeing all the photos and reading stories about monumental big-wave sessions happening everywhere else. Since then, I've always wondered whether we'd ever get another winter like that and what it would be like to have the time and resources to travel and surf the biggest swells at all the prime locations. Now I'm near the peak of my career, I've got access to state-of-the-art forecasting technology and safety equipment, and I'm surrounded by the most incredible group of big-wave surfers. With every single swell this season, we have been able to push our sport to a higher level. To be a part of that is something truly special and I'll remember this year for the rest of my life.

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There's no rest for the big-wave elite, and Long found himself chasing plenty of XXL swells from Maui to Mavericks (pictured here) and beyond, often over consecutive days. Photo: Stacy

What has made this season so special? The size? The consistency? Both?

It's everything. The biggest challenge of big-wave surfing is that we don't get to do it that often. In an average year, we really only get between five to 10 good swells. The consistency this season has allowed us to push ourselves and experiment with equipment. If you take just two weeks off, you can lose the edge and confidence you've built up after a good session. So to be able to surf consecutive days and swells, that's when you really see progression, and that's what has been happening this year. Couple that with the size of the swells and pristine conditions we've seen for most of them and it's unquestionably been a historic year.

It must be so physically taxing to surf big waves multiple days in a row. Is that even fun?

It's a lot of fun, but you do become depleted of energy as the sessions pass. And when you're not surfing at your peak level, that's when you make mistakes, and one big wipeout can sideline you for a very long time. In a perfect world, you would have a day or two to recover between sessions, but unfortunately that's not the way it happens. This year I've been a lot more methodical about when and where I'm focusing my energy. If it's big, but sketchy, I'm not going to put it all on the line when I paddle out. And sometimes I'll even opt out from surfing entirely. If something doesn't feel right or I don't see an opportunity to get the wave I'm looking for, I'm happy to wait for the next swell. The way this season has been going, there will probably be another opportunity soon enough.

“Most big-wave surfers are taking the approach of true pro athletes and putting more time and energy into training than ever before. It's imperative that you do, because no matter how good you are, you're eventually going to face the consequences of a bad wipeout.”

Is surfing big waves more mentally or physically challenging?

The two really go hand in hand. As far as the physical side is concerned, most big-wave surfers are taking the approach of true pro athletes and putting more time and energy into training than ever before. It's imperative that you do, because no matter how good you are, you're eventually going to face the consequences of a bad wipeout. After a full day of big waves and a few bad falls, the next day you're going to be feeling it. The emotional and mental side can be equally taxing. When you're out there, you're mentally firing on all cylinders—watching the horizon, your lineups, the people surrounding you, and thinking about what you need to do in order to catch a wave. It's hard to maintain that level of concentration for hours at a time. Eventually it breaks you down, and you feel that physically as well.

What's the payoff for dealing with all that strain? Validation? Fun?

Riding big waves is a gauge for me to find out what I'm capable of. To put a lifetime of training and preparation into attempting what feels like an impossible task, and then actually doing it, is one of the most gratifying and empowering feelings in the world. After an amazing wave, or session, I feel truly alive. It's when I realize my fullest capabilities as a human. But it's also just really fun. The simple joy of riding waves and sharing those experiences with my best friends, and the respect and camaraderie in the lineup, it all adds to the experience and the motivation.

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Over the course of a swell-filled winter, Greg Long and his brother Rusty might rack up thousands of miles rolling up and down Highway 101 in Greg's tricked-out diesel van. Photo: Ellis

Did your motivation change after your near-death experience at Cortes Bank?

A lot has changed in my life since that day at Cortes. I had never dismissed the potential consequences of what I was doing, but my experience at Cortes forced me to reflect on what I was doing and where I was going with my life. For the longest time, I was 100 percent focused on big waves and allowed very little room for anything else. Since then, I've found balance, which has made me happier and allows me to have even more fun on big days. The last three years have been an amazing period of personal growth for me.

Had you died that day at Cortes, would the dedication to pushing your limits have been worth it?

After that experience, I felt like I'd let a lot of people down and that I'd let myself down. I felt like I'd failed. It was as though I'd worked my whole life toward something and then fell flat on my face. I felt a horrendous guilt for putting my friends and family through that. So in the simplest terms, my answer is no. No wave is ever worth losing your life over. But really it's not that simple, because it's not about a single wave or session. It's about a life's pursuit following a passion, and the passion of big-wave riding has potentially extreme consequences. I never dismissed the idea that something like that could happen. It was always in the back of my mind, but I chose to focus on all the positives.

That goes against the romantic notion that big-wave surfers view death as an acceptable price to pay for pursuing huge surf.

Everyone has their own unique perception of life and death, what we are meant to be doing here, and what's OK and what's not. Looking back on Cortes, I was doing exactly what I loved and was where I wanted to be, and I don't think there's any better way to leave this life than doing what you truly love. But with that said, being able to sit back and rationally reflect on it now, there's a part of me that would have been bummed if that was how it all ended. I was out there in the middle of the ocean on a day that was less than perfect, gung-ho, looking to paddle into the biggest wave of my life. It wasn't an ideal day to push it at the level I was trying to. Today, I'd probably look at those waves and give it a miss.

Does it matter to you whether or not you end up catching the biggest wave ever surfed?

No. I've never cared to compare my surfing to anyone else's. Competitions are fun, and the awards and accolades are great, but when I'm out there, I'm never thinking, "I have to ride a bigger wave than somebody else." Everyone's been given a different set of talents, and we've all had different upbringings and opportunities. If you spend your life comparing yourself to other people and use their accomplishments as your barometer of success, then you're setting yourself up for a very miserable life. By all means, use those things as forms of inspiration or motivation and to help show you what is possible. But the journey should be a personal pursuit. My gauge for success is based on finding my own personal biggest and best and enjoying myself. The ocean is so unpredictable that no matter how much you prepare there's still a big element of luck involved in finding that wave you're looking for. When I put in the effort to accomplish whatever goal I've set for myself, I know I've succeeded.

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Long, holding audiences near and far captive with his mind-blowing rides this El Niño season. Photo: Pompermayer

If you aren't one to compare yourself to other surfers, what's your opinion of big-wave contests?

They give me an open canvas to surf exactly the way I want. I have a hard time surfing in crowds. During a big-wave session in a crowded lineup, I end up surfing according to the crowd. I shuffle around and position myself based on where there's space, and that's not the way I like riding waves. I like being able to move freely and not having to worry that if I paddle 10 feet in one direction for a wave, somebody's going to be right behind me to take off 2 feet deeper. That's why I love contests. The downside is the time constraints. Catching two waves in a short period of time is contradictory to the way I like to surf. I'm so stubborn that I usually won't compromise my approach just to win a heat. But I've ridden some of the best waves of my life in competition because of the freedom contests allow, and because they're held on optimum days at prime venues.

Big-wave contests are also a great way to share our sport with a more global audience, and to hopefully create a viable career path for the next generation of big-wave surfers. Almost everybody who's out there in huge waves has a day job. I'm part of a very small group who are fortunate enough to get paid to surf big waves. I'd love to see more people in the future have the opportunity to do what they love and make a career of it, and I believe the attention these contests are going to bring to our sport has the potential to do that.

“Everyone has their own unique perception of life and death, what we are meant to be doing here, and what's OK and what's not. Looking back on Cortes, I was doing exactly what I loved and was where I wanted to be, and I don't think there's any better way to leave this life than doing what you truly love.”

Wouldn't that attention increase the kinds of crowds you're trying to avoid?

There are a lot of people who say that increased exposure will cause more people to paddle out on big days thinking they're going to be a big-wave surf star. But the ocean will always sort out those who really want it from those who don't. Some people paddle out with stars in their eyes, but they're like a deer in headlights when a 30-foot set rolls through and they realize, "Wow, I really don't want to be here. I'm not ready for this." One bad beating can make you rethink what you're doing out there. I saw a lot of newcomers this year at all the different big-wave breaks, and my hat's off to them for exploring their surfing ability and challenging themselves. But coming into the back end of the season, the lineups are a lot less crowded than during the first couple swells. Those who keep coming back every single swell aren't doing it for money or fame. They are there because they love it, and they've taken the time to physically and mentally train and learn how to manage the risks they take.

Do big-wave surfers tend to look down on surfers who are comfortable only in smaller surf?

I can't speak for everybody, but in my opinion they absolutely shouldn't. I don't see the point in judging anybody based on their physical ability or talents; that's one of the most petty things in the world to do. Like I said earlier, everybody in this world comes from a different walk of life. If anything, I think the majority of big-wave surfers would actually help somebody out who needs the encouragement or the tools to paddle out on a bigger day rather than look down upon them. I mean, at some point in our lives we have all probably had somebody do the same for us.

So the big-wave community is pretty accepting of newcomers?

If you show up and you're competent and respectful, there isn't a big-wave break in the world where you won't be received with open arms and welcomed into an amazing group of people. It's truly a special community.

I'm not suggesting that anyone should try this, but do you think a longtime, competent small-wave surfer has the technical ability to surf a wave like Mavericks?

As long as they have the surfing skill needed and are physically ready. But more than that, it comes down to their personal desire to surf those waves, and their patience for taking the time to learn how to read a certain break. You could do it. You just have to really want to.

How difficult will it be for you when you have to stop surfing big waves?

That'll be the beginning of an amazing new chapter in my life. Had you asked me that question three years ago, I would have said that I'll never stop. I had so much drive and intensity, that was all I could envision myself doing. But I know now that one day I'll get to a point where I'll be ready to let it go. Whether I can't keep up physically or my priorities shift and I choose to put my energy towards something else, life will be full of new challenges.

After such a monumental season, has big-wave surfing finally reached the limit of what's possible?

I don't think so. The thing about big-wave surfing is that you're only limited by your imagination, personal desires, and Mother Nature. It's kind of scary, because there's really no end to exploring what's possible, and the bigger you go, the greater the risks you ultimately assume. Imagine if we got the same oil-glass conditions at Jaws like when Aaron Gold got his wave [a 60-foot-plus mountain that some are calling the largest wave ever paddled into], but then add another 10 feet on top of that. You don't think that a guy like Aaron, or Shane Dorian, or a number of others, isn't going to turn around and try and go on a bigger one now that they see what's really possible? Or a guy like Garrett McNamara isn't going to try to paddle into a 60-foot wave at Nazaré when the conditions allow? The common thread that runs through all passionate big-wave surfers is the desire to always push and challenge themselves. If there is a bigger day that allows the opportunity, there will be surfers there willing to explore what's possible.

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Photo: Murray