Swell Guy

It takes a particular kind of crazy to ride a 75-foot mountain of water—unless you’re Greg Long, a calm, well-adjusted dude who geeks out on his laptop and approaches surfing like he’s playing chess. Meet the oddly normal champion of big waves.

Matt Long

Long rides a top-secret wave off the California coast north of San Francisco in 2010.     Photo: Todd Glaser/A-Frame

Greg Long

Long off the Northern California coast in 2010

Greg Long

Long in San Clemente, California

The wave passed, but the next one had already detonated and was now moving closer. Long hadn’t quite gotten to the surface before it buried him again.

GREG LONG SAT IN FRONT of his dinged-up MacBook on New Year’s Day 2008, toggling back and forth among a half-dozen wave- and weather-related websites. A kidney-shaped low-pressure system was spinning furiously midway between the Aleutian Islands and Washington State. Another storm was lodged in the upper reaches of the Gulf of Alaska. At first glance, it looked like a perfect twin-engine setup for big-wave surfing, generating massive ocean swells that would roll out across the Pacific and form into the kinds of sky-scraping waves that appear every few years. Long, who lives in San Clemente, about halfway between L.A. and San Diego, is constantly on watch for these events. As he looked more closely at the weather models, though, he saw that the two storms, instead of moving east across the ­Pacific Northwest, would likely turn south and rake the entire West Coast, which meant the waves, although huge, would be chopped up and ruined by storm winds.

By January 3, two days before the swell was due to hit the West Coast, big-wave surfers everywhere were trying to figure out how to play it. There might be a few hours of smooth conditions at Maverick’s, the infamous cold-water break south of San Francisco. If the storms veered east over Central California, Todos Santos, off northern Baja, might stay clean. Cortes Bank? No way. Every­body agreed there.

Apart from being the weirdest, most disorienting big-wave break in the world—it’s located 100 miles west of San Diego, in the open ocean—Cortes is the most weather affected. Long, an obsessive planner and master of surf-quest logistics, loved the place because any venture there had to be organized like a Marine assault, with boats, jet skis, provisions, a sat phone, and a lot of personnel coordination. He’d ridden some of the biggest waves of his life at Cortes in 2003, and the break had been at the top of his list ever since.

On the morning of January 4, Long was still wading through the data stream, watching the mid-Pacific buoy numbers rocket up as the swell moved south, checking on the nearshore surface winds, and keeping an eye on the two storms’ lines of approach. He made dozens of phone calls, mostly to Mike Parsons, Brad Gerlach, and Grant Baker, three of the top big-wave riders in the world, and to Surfline.com forecast guru Sean Collins in Huntington Beach. Notes were compared. Plans were sketched, discarded, redrawn.

Among elite surfers, Long is untouchable in these situations—sifting data, ­organizing and adjusting on the fly. Surf writer Brad Melekian remembers getting an afternoon phone call from Long a few years ago when the two were supposed to meet at a yet-to-be-determined break the next day. “First thing I hear,” Melekian says, “Greg’s on Highway 1, driving to Maverick’s. He pulls over, takes out his laptop, checks the buoys. Calls and tells me he’s just booked a boat for Cortes. Then calls back 15 minutes later: ‘We’re going to Shark Park’ [near Santa Barbara]. Fifteen minutes later: ‘Mavs.’ An hour later: ‘Okay, Todos.’ And then finally it’s back to Mavs. That’s what he does. He’s just processing and analyzing nonstop.”

Midafternoon on the 4th, Long and Parsons noticed something in the weather models: a narrow band of calm wind lodged between the two approaching storms. The waves might clean up for a few hours. The two surfers agreed: Cortes was in play.

More phone calls. Collins was reluctant to support a Cortes trip, arguing that ­chances were still good that the wind wouldn’t smooth out enough to permit any surfing. They’d have a long, bumpy ride out there, Collins said, and a long, bumpy ride back.

Long and Parsons wanted to go anyway. More calls. Some cajoling. Gerlach was in. Baker was in. Long booked a 29-foot World Cat offshore fishing boat piloted by surf photographer Rob Brown. A videographer was recruited as well.

Everybody met at 5 a.m. the following morning at Dana Point Harbor, about ten minutes north of San Clemente. The ride started out with rain sheeting down, a howling south wind, and the ocean rolling convulsively. Then the wind started to back down. A shaft of sunlight dropped from the clouds. And from there it was as if Long had scripted the day. Brown steered the boat into the Cortes channel around noon. The waves were still a bit raw from the departing storm but smooth enough, and bigger than anything ever ridden—80 feet or something ridiculous like that. It was hard to tell from the boat. The window of good weather lasted five hours. The surfers paired off and took turns catapulting one another onto the waves behind jet skis. Gerlach got memorably swallowed and chewed up by a set. Parsons caught the glory wave, a sun-drenched leviathan “so big it looked fake,” he later said.

Just before dusk, Long and Baker motored a jet ski farther up the reef looking for something like what Parsons had caught. And there it was. Baker turned the ski and throttled up, keeping pace with the wave. Long, 30 feet behind, picked his entry point, dropped the rope, crouched, and set off on this swelling dark blue fantasia. His plan was to shoot himself arrow-like across the wall, in the ­direction of Brown’s boat, a mile or so distant.

The wave gathered itself and tilted up to vertical, then began fringing along the top. Stuck like a fly on a wall midway between the crest and the trough, Long suddenly realized that he wasn’t covering enough ground. So much water was being displaced as the wave rolled across the reef that Long’s forward motion was nearly zeroed out. The curl dropped down not far behind him but exploded up rather than out. Long vanished into the whitewater, but his stance was low and solid, and his board somehow found ­another, higher gear. Three seconds later, he blew clear of the whitewater. Twenty seconds after that, he glided off the wave, began to tremble uncontrollably, then had the dry heaves. “Too much adrenaline,” he said later. “And maybe a bit of exhaustion.”

Brown was too far away to get a shot of Long’s ride. But he had captured and framed Parsons’s bomb perfectly: it was later measured at 75 feet, which stands, officially, as the biggest wave ever surfed.

Long’s undocumented wave? All the guys agree: it was five or ten feet bigger.

ON A SUNNY, WINDLESS afternoon in February, Long and I load a couple of boards into his enormous Ford E-350 Super Duty van and drive south out of San Clemente to a beautiful break called Lower Trestles. The surf looks perfect—snappy lefts bending into a little bay, glittering rights peeling south—but the biggest wave is barely waist high. Long smiles and shrugs. “Looks fun,” he says.

Four other guys are out, and I join them in paddling furiously for anything that moves. We stand, turn, and fall off. It doesn’t seem possible, but we manage to get in one ­another’s way. Long, meanwhile, handles this little mess-around session exactly the way he’d handle a day of cloud-splitting 50-footers. He sits patiently a few yards outside of the pack, barely moving. Over the course of an hour, he paddles for just four waves and catches them all. None of his turns are spectacular, but he hits his marks perfectly and completes each ride. Not once does he come close to falling off. He doesn’t even wear a leash.

“I don’t need many waves,” Long tells me as we’re walking up the beach afterward. “Just a couple to get started, to get into a rhythm, then hopefully every wave from then on is better than the one before.”

Long stashes our boards in the back of the van while I dry off. He’s 28, medium tall, lean, brown-haired. Not quite Gary Cooper handsome, but close. Dark jeans and a black T-shirt. He moves with a perfect economy of motion—a smoothness, even while loading boards into a van. It’s hard to imagine him ever tripping over a crack in the sidewalk or dropping a plateful of food.

Surfers as a lot are impetuous and unstable. Big-wave surfers especially. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of the greatest moments in big-wave history were produced by guys dangling like puppets from their own superheated emotions. But over the past two decades, the sport has become much more complicated—more international, more equipment dependent, more technologically sophisticated. The changes play to Long’s strengths. He’s strategic. He keeps his head and plays a percentage game. By doing so, he’s able to extract every last adrenaline-tinged drop from any given big-wave situation. He can book an international flight, pack a five-board quiver, and get to the United check-in counter at LAX faster than you make your morning commute.

Long’s discipline has also helped him become the runaway champion of big-wave competitions. Separate from the glammed-up pro-surfing World Tour, big-wave contests for the most part offer small cash prizes. They are often cancelled because the surf isn’t large enough; some years only a couple events take place, which means the several dozen full-time pros like Mark Healey, ­Jamie Sterling, and Ramon Navarro have few chances to display their talents. Long has dominated this odd little circuit, winning the 2008 Maverick’s contest (after ­being runner-up in 2005) and the 2009 Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau—the sport’s most prestigious event, held on the North Shore of Oahu—as well as contests in South Africa and Peru. Money-wise, it’s been a middle-class career choice. Long earns around $100,000 a year in sponsorship, most of it from Billabong, but spends more than half of that on travel expenses.

Long isn’t gutsier than other big-wave surfers or more physically gifted. He just plays the game better. Not many hours pass in a given day when he isn’t doing something with an eye toward being ready to ride huge waves. “My confidence, every bit of it,” he says, “comes from knowing that I’ve done everything possible to be prepared.”
 
UNTIL THE MID-1980s, big-wave surfing was a niche within a niche sport. The whole show consisted of a couple of dozen shirtless guys posting up on the North Shore in weather-beaten clapboard vacation rentals from November to February. A lot of waiting was involved. You sat around bullshitting, drinking coffee, playing cards. One evening you down a few Primos and fall asleep listening to playful little waves chuckling across the sand, then at 3 a.m. you’re pissing off the porch, staring into the night while a massive new swell bombs over the outer reefs.

Things changed slowly, then very quickly. New breaks were put on the map, first on the West Coast, then in Australia, Tahiti, France, Ireland, Chile. Reliable surf forecasting finally came of age in the eighties, and big-wave contests were created. In the early nineties, jet-ski-powered tow-in surfing suddenly made it possible to catch waves far larger than anything that could be paddled into.

Since the beginning, most of the top big-wave surfers have been at least slightly unhinged. North Shore pioneer Greg Noll established the archetype as a Babe Ruth- shaped 230-pounder who was a scary bare-knuckle brawler when the mood came upon him. Texas-born Ken Bradshaw prowled Sunset Beach in the late seventies, taking snarling bites of foam and fiberglass from the boards of guys who dropped in on him. Then there was Roger Erickson, a Vietnam vet with a lumberjack beard who rumbled with bikers, surfed his way out of a bad case of PTSD, then vanished from the scene completely.    

Laird Hamilton modernized the formula while dominating tow-in surfing in the nineties and the 2000s. He weighed the same as Noll but was ripped beyond belief: the Terminator in trunks. In 2008, Hamilton earned a reported $2.5 million in sponsorship ­endorsements—more than the rest of his big-wave contemporaries combined, despite the fact that he refused to enter contests. He was smooth and witty during guest appearances on Late Night and The Colbert Report but also volatile. His adopted father, Bill Hamilton, a surfing great from the sixties and seventies, once described Hamilton as “mean and arrogant, to the point where you want to slap him upside the head. Except you don’t, because he’d beat the shit out you.”

Many of today’s big-wave headliners fit the crazy-bastard mold. Mark Healey of Hawaii recently dove off a boat, grabbed a 20-foot great white by the dorsal fin, and “shark surfed” the beast for nearly a minute. Flea Virostko of Santa Cruz made his debut at Maverick’s in 1991 while tripping on acid.

Greg Long was named after Greg Noll and idolized Laird Hamilton as a kid. But every­thing else about Long’s nature and upbringing ensured that he would be a very different kind of big-wave surfer. He was born and raised in San Clemente, a blufftop suburban beach town at the south end of Orange County. His mother taught at the local elementary school. His father, an old-school California-bred surfer, was the head lifeguard at the local state beach. Along with elder siblings Heather and Rusty, Greg learned to fish, dive, bodysurf, and eventually surf. There was no teenage rebellion and very little rivalry between Greg and Rusty, who is two years older. “We made them go to the beach together when they were little to look out for each other,” Long’s mother recalls. “If they were in a fight, or if somebody got grounded, they were both stuck at home. So they kind of had to get along.” Long lived with his parents until just a ­couple of years ago. His father and brother remain his closest confidants.

Both Long boys were hot prospects as high school surfers, and as a senior in 2001 Greg became the American amateur champion. But by then he says he’d “pretty much decided that I wasn’t going to make a big run on the World Tour. What I wanted to do instead was ride big waves and get out there and discover new breaks.”

Rusty felt the same way. The brothers did their big-wave apprenticeship at a break called Killers, off Todos Santos Island, that offers plenty of 15-plus-foot winter waves. Soon they bought a jet ski and began motor­ing into waves at Todos and Maverick’s. Sponsored by beachwear giant Ocean Pacific, they dirtbagged their way up and down the coast of Baja and mainland Mexico and flew to Indonesia, South Africa, Australia, and Ireland, staying on the road for months at a time. Greg did most of the planning, made the lists, took care of the travel arrangements. Rusty was the mellow semi-slacker who could paddle out bleary-eyed from an afternoon nap, get slaughtered on his first wave, then ten minutes later get the ride of the day.

The money dried up in 2006 when Ocean Pacific cut its entire surf team. The brothers clung to their surf-bum lifestyle for a couple years, with Rusty writing stories for industry magazines.  Greg thought about college but instead redoubled his efforts as a big-wave rider.

“There are things I’m missing out on because of surfing,” he says now. “It worries me sometimes. But at this point, anything that takes me away from riding waves, from getting ready to ride waves—I pretty much have to let it go.”

THE DAY AFTER we surf Trestles, Long and I have another forgettable session at a local break called T-Street, then fall back to his minuscule one-room backyard cottage for lunch. It’s tidy and fairly spartan. There’s a thrift-store couch, a twin bed, a bookshelf, a kitchen area with a mini-fridge and no sink. On one wall there’s a huge poster of Greg Noll signed, To Greg Long, future big-wave killer. Long makes us each an avocado-and-baby-greens salad and pops open a couple of Fat Tire ales, and we sit down outside at a patio table.

We talk about the recent rebirth of paddle-in big-wave surfing, or “bare-handing it,” as Long says with a little smile. “I’m not anti-tow, not even close,” he explains. “A machine will get you into waves that you’d never be able to catch on your own.” But paddling, he feels, is a “purer” experience. “Everything you are as a surfer, everything you’ve picked up since the first day you stepped on a board, physically and mentally—it’s all going into the ride. It’s funny. I’ve had tow-in days where I get 20 huge waves, one after the other, just letting the ski do all the work, and after a while everything blends together. But if I paddle and nail just one good one, that wave stays with me forever.”

Paddle surfing is more dangerous than tow-in, mostly because your partner isn’t standing by on a jet ski ready to zoom in for the rescue. Long has stepped up his fitness program accordingly, adding lots of ­apnea training, which combines exercise with breath holding. He swims underwater laps at a local public pool. He runs countless 50-yard wind sprints in the hills behind his house without breathing, gasping for air ­between intervals. “And I ride that thing a lot,” he says, nodding to an exercise bike in the yard surrounded by thick foam mats. He’ll hold his breath and pedal flat-out for up to 90 seconds, then do it again, and again, and again. He wears a helmet in case he blacks out and falls off.

Long is familiar with every centimeter of his boards and can do basic maintenance on his jet skis. At his favorite big-wave breaks, he knows the topography, the currents, and how a ten-degree difference in swell angle will affect the takeoff and the inside bowl section. He knows the local surfers. What the hierarchy is. Who sits where in the lineup, who’s going to charge the set waves, who’s going to hair out. He gets along well with everybody. For all his intensity, he might be the least greedy, most patient pro surfer ever.

“Greg can sit there for hours at a time, just waiting,” says Evan Slater, a three-time finalist in the Maverick’s contest and a former Surfing magazine editor. “He’s way further out then the rest of us, kind of in his own zone, while everybody else is hassling, catching waves, paddling back out, talking. Sometimes you forget he’s even out there. But when Greg’s wave finally does come, everybody clears out. It’s his wave all the way.”

Long’s personal life is just as efficient and goal-driven. No drugs. Very little drinking or partying. (He’s sponsored by Peligroso tequila, but my guess is he doesn’t get through more than half a bottle a year.) No romantic drama. No family drama. This makes Long less exciting to talk to than his borderline-deranged predecessors but also uniquely suited to the mind games one must win to succeed at big-wave surfing. Surviving a monster wipeout is actually a kind of parlor trick: Hold your breath and remain calm; let buoyancy do its thing. You’ll come up eventually. In the entire 60-something-year history of big-wave riding, just a handful of A-listers have died in action. And yet millions of surfers, including many of the most talented professionals, would no sooner take off on a 50-foot wave than walk into a burning building. They have the physical ability but lack the nerve.

The closest Long has come to panicking in big surf was at Maverick’s in 2008. While being dragged along the ocean bottom after a wipeout, Long was pushed so quickly into a deeper, blacker substratum of water that his right eardrum burst. Pain filled his head like a brick. His equilibrium was shot, meaning he was unable to feel his way to the surface. Still tethered to his board, which was suspended above him, he began climbing up his leash hand over hand. The wave passed, but the next one had already detonated and was now moving closer. Long hadn’t quite gotten to the surface before it buried him again.

“The leash gets ripped from my hands, and I’m right back down there, spinning, spinning, can’t see a thing, just completely lost,” he tells me. “And at that point it was like, I’m fucked.” Long again grabbed his leash as flashpoints of light began going off across his field of vision. Ten or 15 seconds later he broke the surface. He got a few gasping mouthfuls of air, but his vision continued to pinwheel and it was hard to keep his head above water. The jet-skiing surfer who darted in to grab Long found him swimming feebly in a circle.

IN DECEMBER 2009, with a massive swell baring down on the North Shore, organizers of the Eddie Aikau contest sent out alerts that the event was on. The Eddie, as it’s called, is held at Waimea Bay and has been the venue for many of the best showdowns in big-wave history. Long was a favorite, given his previous contest performances and despite his ambivalence toward competition surfing.

“I don’t really like contests,” he says. “All the rules. Having to catch this many waves in this many minutes. Plus, I’m just not that competitive. Some guys thrive on beating other guys; I’ve never been like that.” But contests force Long out of his comfort zone, which he appreciates. “I do things that I wouldn’t do otherwise. I take way more chances.”

Long was in the first heat of the day. He limbered up, waxed his board, charged down the beach—and promptly turned in what he later called “the worst performance of my life.” After the first round, he was sitting in 24th place out of 28 surfers. Comfortably atop the leader board was none other than Kelly Slater, the most successful pro surfer in history and winner of the 2002 Eddie. Meanwhile, the surf was rising and the huge crowd had been worked into a kind of sunbaked big-wave ­ecstasy. Incredible things kept happening: five-wave sets, elevator-shaft drops, wipeouts that looked like snuff-film vignettes.

Each surfer was allowed four waves in each of the two rounds, waves were scored on a 100-point scale, and a surfer’s final score was made up of his four best rides. Long did some calculating. All four of his round-one waves were basically throwaways, which meant everything he rode in the second round had to count. Slater finished his second round with a whopping 313 final score. Long paddled out in the last heat of the day needing four consecutive good-to-excellent scores—a near impossibility at Waimea.

After opening with a 77-point ride, Long hustled back out to the lineup, hit his mark, and glided into a “clean, elemental, huge one,” which he rode to perfection. Literally: 100 points. Wave number three was a steep, thick, water-sucking brute of a closeout—one of those contest-only waves that Long would let pass on another day. The wave, in fact, was not makeable from Long’s starting position. But the judging criteria for the Eddie are based largely on a rider simply going for it on the biggest waves. Make the drop; that’s all. You’ll get destroyed, and it’s not going to be a perfect score, but you’ve nailed the hard part and the judges will be kind. That’s exactly what happened. Long got a 71.

One wave to go. Fifteen minutes left on the clock. Long still needed a 60-plus score, and he waited patiently until he had the lineup nearly to himself. Another set. Long picked off a medium-big one, dropped in, finessed the turn, drew a high-midface line with the curl warbling overhead, and got the score: 75 points, for 323 total. Won it going away.

The Eddie win was a signature Long effort: bold as required, but mostly smart, patient, and tactical. In the days and weeks afterward, like never before in his career, Long had his moment in the spotlight. Newspapers and magazines requested interviews. Surfer put Long on the cover, calling him the new “king of big-wave surfing.”

But the victory also had a weird kind of ­receding quality. The New York Times, in its coverage, spent three adulatory paragraphs on Slater before mentioning, almost as an aside, that Long had won the contest. Even stranger, ­almost nobody, save the judges, actually saw Long’s 100-point ride. The cameras missed it. The announcers missed it. Bruce Irons of Kauai, a hard-rocking pro who won the 2004 Eddie with a black eye (the result of a fight the day before), had picked up the wave just prior to Long’s and was still riding as it fizzled into deep water. While Long crafted his game winner, the yells and cheers, as well as the cameras, were all focused on Irons as he milked his spent wave to the beach.

BIG-WAVE RIDERS tend to have longer shelf lives than other pros, and Long himself ­answers without pause when I ask him about his future: “I don’t think I’m anywhere near the peak of my career.”

On the other hand, there’s a point near the end of our conversation in his backyard, four empty beers on the table between us, when I got the sense that maybe he won’t pursue his next decade with the same monomaniacal focus of the past few years. I’d asked him a boilerplate question about the high point of his life. It wasn’t the biggest wave, he answered. Or winning the ­Eddie. “I could say that the high point is right here, right now. Just me sitting here. I’m healthy, the people I’m close to are healthy, I get to ride waves for a living. I get to travel. I want to win the contests, sure, and go back to Cortes and Jaws and all that. But that’s really just part of something bigger, which is to be present: to be aware and amazed at all the little everyday miracles around me.”

Listen to that, I thought. The next version of Greg Long, surfacing. Still a major big-wave player, but tempered. Settled, even.

That was my take, anyway.

Then, in April, I texted Long looking to fill in a few short blanks. He was in line at the airport, en route to Madagascar’s east coast on a big-wave scouting mission along what is probably the thickest, hottest, poorest, most shark-infested jungle coastline in the world.

No return date.

Crazy bastard.

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