The estimated height, in feet, of a wave Shawn Dollar rode at Cortes Bank, a paddle-in record.
THIS PAST WINTER, 14 of the world’s best big-wave surfers bobbed above Cortes Bank, an infamous seamount 100 miles west of San Diego, where a northerly swell promised massive waves. In the lineup were Californian Greg Long, 29, a leader in the movement to revive big-wave paddle-in surfing, in which surfers propel themselves onto monster swells instead of being towed in by motorized crafts, and Hawaiian Garrett McNamara, 45, known for chasing down the planet’s largest waves—including a tow-in ride in January that received worldwide attention when headlines claimed it was 100 feet tall—by any means necessary. When a mammoth five-story set approached, Long and McNamara both started paddling for the same wave. Normally, only Long would have been in position to catch it, but McNamara was on a new surfboard called a WaveJet, which uses battery-powered jets to give paddle-in surfers a boost. McNamara shot straight down the face and, unwittingly, directly into Long’s escape path. The surfers were buried when the wave crashed down, and both had to pull the rip cords on their inflatable vests. McNamara’s deployed; Long’s malfunctioned, and he endured a horrific, crushing three-wave hold-down that left him unconscious.
Long has no memory of his rescue, only the sound of distant voices—frantic pleas to wake up from a member of his safety team, who had pulled him from the water on a jet ski. The trauma burst millions of capillaries in Long’s lungs, and when he came to after nearly a minute, he spewed a geyser of blood and salt-water. Five hours later, the Coast Guard airlifted him to a San Diego hospital.
Both Long and McNamara were prepared for a disaster like this. Though each chartered his own boat, they collaborated on emergency planning, pooling supplies: oxygen, a defibrillator, backboards, and trauma kits. “The main concern from the beginning was safety,” says McNamara.
But in the wake of Long’s near drowning, many blame McNamara. “Garrett’s my friend,” says Mark Healey, who was on a boat chartered by Rusty Long, Greg’s brother. “But this was a very avoidable mistake, and he does this all the time. He just has this kind of reckless abandon.”
More importantly, the incident added a new wrinkle to an ongoing debate between tow-in advocates and paddle-in purists. Unlike the jet skis that big-wave surfers have used since the early nineties, WaveJets offer only a minor amount of oomph—about 20 pounds of thrust compared with a jet ski’s thousand or more. But that’s just enough to help a paddle-in surfer catch a wave he might otherwise have to pass up. The WaveJet technology essentially introduces a new kind of surfer into the lineup, but the established rules of engagement have yet to be revised.
“Garrett’s not doing what we’re doing out there,” says big-wave surfer Shawn Dollar, 31, about the motorized WaveJet. “It’s more like tow surfing.”
Long is more equitable. “I’ve got nothing against WaveJets,” he says. “There is a time and place for them, but Cortes is not it. They’re not as maneuverable as normal big-wave boards.”
McNamara, who has apologized to Long, disagrees, asserting that the ride is similar to a big-wave surfboard and that the jets give him the ability to self-rescue by motoring clear of a wave’s impact zone. “I took out my WaveJet that day,” he says, “so I wouldn’t have to depend on a jet ski.”
Maybe so, but as Long points out, when you’re riding giants, risk is unavoidable. “That hold-down was everything I’ve trained for,” he says. “In a way I failed, because I failed to get back to the surface. But I very much succeeded, too, because at a place like Cortes, you can find yourself in a situation you can’t deal with on your own. That’s why you need a support system. So I did what I needed to do. I’m still here.”
From more on Long, check out this 2011 profile.