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

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.”

  • 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