THE SELL: Liberia’s reputation (child soldiers, civil war) means Robertsport is uncrowded—yet stacked with 2.5 miles of some of the continent’s best left-point and beach breaks. Kwepunha Retreat, a surf lodge and school founded by two Americans, was the first to tap the waves when it opened 50 yards from the Atlantic Ocean last summer. From $75 per night all-inclusive.
THE RISK: The fighting is over, but corruption and bribery are rampant.
SKETCH FACTOR: Low. “Things have settled down,” says Richard Fahey, founder of the Liberian Energy Network. But robbery and pickpocketing persist. “There are people who will try to take advantage of you. It’s just that kind of place.”
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.”
THE ADVENTURE: With consistent swells up to 10 feet, Ditch Plains Beach, just two miles from Montauk’s shop-lined main drag, is one of the top surf breaks in the east. Rent a longboard from Air and Speed Board Shop, rise at dawn, and hit the break before the wind picks up and the crowds arrive (board rentals, $40).
THE MEAL: Ditch Witch is a beachside food truck where surfers, locals, and urban refugees congregate for pastries, grilled sandwiches (try the turkey pesto), and breakfast burritos. The basic menu, scrawled on an old surfboard, belies the quality of the food. Even a cappuccino tastes better with a view of the surf. No phone or website (beautiful); east of town, Ditch Plains Road at Otis Road.
A low-lying,four-building property atop the lush, 1,250-foot Bejuco Ridge on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast, Kurá Design Villas is barely visible from the beach and surrounding hills. The property has almost zero ecological impact; solar panels and rain-collection systems keep the owners, Alejandra Umaña and Martin Wells, from relying on civilization for much of anything. Even the hammocks have minimalist steel stands. But the best part about Kurà is the access. While most of the country’s two million annual tourists focus on areas like Guanacaste, the southern coast around Uvita—and its three surfing beaches within a 15-minute drive—saw a fraction of that last year. Beginners: start at two-mile-long Uvita beach and its gentle, four-foot waves. Experts: head north to Dominical, a three-mile-long beach with strong left and right breaks. Everyone else: walk out to Whale’s Tail, a Pacific sandbar along the wintering area of humpback whales, or snorkel alongside dolphins and sea turtles in nearby Caño Island Biological Reserve. Then head back to that hammock.
ACCESS: Fly Sansa or Nature Air from San José to Quepos; the lodge arranges pickups. Villas from $540.
CLIMATE: February: 79 degrees (high), 66 degrees (low), Less than an inch of rain.
If you haven't noticed, professional surfing is in a rut. Primary sponsors Billabong and Quiksilver have undergone massive financial restructuring to prevent bankruptcy, and the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) has struggled to keep backers for its events. Scariest of all, the sport’s only consistent draw, 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, turns 41 in February and is winding down his storied career. All of which means that surfing is in need of some serious verve. Enter 20-year-old John John Florence, a North Shore wunderkind who’s been billed as the next Slater since he was in kindergarten—and whose time has finally arrived.
SKILLS: With his technical, skateboarding-influenced moves and years of training at Oahu’s famous Pipeline, Florence is equally adept on two-foot and 30-foot waves. “He has a crazy skill set,” says surf historian Matt Warshaw. “He can throw giant, complicated airs and go deep inside the biggest, meanest caves.”
PEDIGREE: Florence first surfed Pipeline at age six, scored a sponsorship at eight, and, at 13, became the youngest surfer to compete in the prestigious Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. In 2011, at 19, he became the youngest surfer ever to win that event.
ASCENSION: Last May, in the opening minutes of the Billabong Rio Pro—the third event in the ASP World Tour—Florence took off on a shoulder-high wave, pumped down the line twice, and casually launched a smooth 540 air, a skateboarding trick that only a handful of pro surfers can land. The move sealed his first World Tour victory and put him in the ASP title hunt, until he lost in a tough second round in the penultimate event, in Santa Cruz, California.
NEXT UP: Expect him to make another run at the top spot in 2013, beginning with March’s Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, in Australia. “Hopefully, I’m on my way there,” he said in a 2011 interview, referring to his world-title aspirations. “But I’m having fun and I surf for a living, and that’s a dream in itself.”