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

Mavericks. Photo: Craig

Greg Long’s hope is that he can use his experience to evangelize for surfers to be not only physically and mentally, but logistically prepared to ride giant waves, but whether or not this dedication to preparation and safety extends beyond Long, Dorian, and their tight-knit crew remains to be seen.

For those of us in our armchairs, it’s hard not to look at the photos of Greg Long’s wipeout and think that they carry some inherent meaning.

Because what if Greg Long had died? When Mark Foo drowned, nobody saw him for at least an hour. Greg Long was out of sight for only 60 seconds. So what if Greg Long, the most accomplished, most fit, most mentally prepared big-wave surfer on the planet died, despite being under careful surveillance from six trained rescuers on jet skis? What if, in this new era when paddling into monster waves is accepted practice, and flotation devices make people feel as though they’re safer, things actually get uglier? What if the recent effort to “push the limits” is reaching an inevitable, mortal conclusion?

Greg Long believes that what-ifs are a waste of time, and he’s straightforward in his response: If Greg Long had died, he’d be dead. That’s it.

“If I had died, I would like to think that everybody would have learned the lesson in a more dramatic fashion. We’ve all lost good friends riding big waves. If you don’t accept that fact, and you think that you’re living in a world of immortality, you’re kidding yourself. But I don’t see it as being this death-defying thing where every single time I’m out there, I’m walking the line of maybe coming back, maybe not. I don’t paddle out there with the idea of, ‘Gosh, I might die today.’ You can’t live your life in fear of dying. You have to do what is going to fulfill you. Big wave surfing’s it for me.”

He’s right, of course. If he had died, there would be no inherent meaning beyond the tragedy. Garrett McNamara would not have blood on his hands. Greg Long and the other surfers who paddled Cortes Bank on the 22nd would not have been naïve, nor would they have been grave warriors who were “willing to pay the ultimate price.”

They’d just be who they are: A group of people doing what they love, aware of the consequences, always knowing that one day the water might not let them go.

  • 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