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

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.

  • 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