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

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.”

  • 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