In Harm’s Way

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

| posted on May 03, 2013

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.”

  • Steve Wimer

    A surfer can go faster riding across a wave than he can taking the drop. Surfers should pursue long waves instead of big drop peaks. A long wall with hollow sections is the ultimate ride, not the big drop.

  • http://none rick biggert

    People do strange things for a thrill. Obviously adrenalin rules. Even though they verbally acknowledge the danger, they are thinking “it will never happen to me”. I hope it doesn’t. Bottom line, Is your life really worth the thrill? Everyone has to answer that one for themselves.

  • Fernando

    I am a weekend surfer, working in an office form monday to friday , and decided to surf (again) at Pico Alto, Peru”smost massive wave. After 2 months of intensive training ( swimming, biking and yoga), I decided to buy a floating jacket and flew to Peru.

    It made the whole difference.At the biggest day, the biggest so far this year, i was caught inside by a six wave set and I am sure that if I was not wearing the floating jacket i would NEVER have come to surface between one wave and another. There was nobody close to me, no one was watching, no jet skis and I lost my board in the first wave. It was all so fast.

    I would have been stucked in the impact zone, wave after wave, right in the bubble, in a six waves set with 18 second between each wave to try to reach surface and breath.

    It could have ben an horror situation, but it became a very easy to handle situation since I was thrown away form the impact zone and comfortably landed in the middle of the bay, among a roaring surf but under control and phisically well. The floating jacket made me swim very easily and I was pushed by the waves and the current, so in half an hour I was back to beach in time to get a borrowed board and paddle back outside to get my board floating in the channel drifitng to the outside.

    The size of the surf? In the 15 / 18 feet range, Pico Alto style.

    I hope sharing my experience might help other surfers to think about safety before handling big surf. (whatever you call big)

    ps: i wore a Quiksilver floating jacket

  • Russ McClellan

    As an “old school” ex surfer, now disable and have tons of time to look back; I find myself thinking of those days out in the line up or lack there of when waves were battering the Ventura pier at 20+ feet vs. those days of perfect dawn patrol with two or three friends at oil piers when it was a fun 3-4 feet with closeout barrels no matter which way you went. I have had the good fortune to grow up in an area where the waves were great, respect was earned and turf wars existed BIG TIME!!
    Even the local bigger guys made us “pollywogs” earn the right to surf the prime waves and it was well understood and we did. We left our doors unlocked, windows down, and always protected each other. The bonds of old. Some of my friends went pro. Some were already pro’s but the fatheadedness didn’t exist. We were all buds having a good time. If you dropped in on someone, you kicked out; or with permission rode for the fun of it together. Times have changed. It will NEVER be like that again. Sad but true. But I’ll take a small fun day over a body pounding struggle for life day if I could do it again.
    That said, surfing will always be dangerous. Even on the smallest waves you can get seriously hurt or worse. I like the idea our friend Fernando offered with the Float Jacket. It could make that difference of getting to the beach and walking away or…. Well lets not go there. To all ride as you will. Just enjoy it while you can. From a Ventura / Santa Barbara “pollywog”. 🙂

  • Robert

    I have yet to read your article which I felt prompted to respond to by your initial question. There are a couple of basic point to consider relative to that inquiry. First ,water is not our element. We need it to sustain our lives, but as an environment it is as alien to us as walking on the moon, well, maybe not quite that bad, but pretty alien indeed.
    The second is fluid dynamics, the weight of water ,and the force generated by water as it moves. Big waves that break fast generate enormous forces,something which I certainly don’t have to explain to Surfers. That would be tantamount to singing to a choir.
    Naturally-and as you are no doubt aware- there are many other factors, but the two noted above are probably going to remain outside the realm of our ingenuity- ALTHOUGH -portable emergency breathers, buoyancy devices that can be worn will help as will developments in rescue vehicles and such.

    BTW, Russ McClellan makes an incredibly good point in his comment below.

    Now I will read the article, lol.

  • todd

    with more precautions, means tryin bigger waves. bigger better things has always have always had deathly consequences. shitty thing we have to deal with for evolution

  • http://yahoo DAVID

    suers have water on the brain