Credit Photograph by by Robert B. Stanton/WireImage via Getty
Two years ago this month, Greg Long, one of the world’s best big-wave surfers, wiped out after paddling into a fifty-foot wave at a spot known as Cortes Bank, about a hundred miles off the coast of Southern California. Underwater, amid the chaos, it’s hard to know which way is up. Long was wearing a prototype inflatable safety vest, but it failed to deploy. As he attempted to climb his leash toward his floating surfboard, or what was left of it, two more waves crashed straight down on him. By the time he reached the surface, he was out of both energy and oxygen. A three-man rescue team on Jet Skis found him floating facedown.
Long survived, though just barely, thanks to a large support crew he’d assembled, including paramedics on boats and the Jet Ski team that rescued him. He had held his breath underwater until his lungs bled. Upon reviving, he coughed up blood and saltwater, and then was transported by Coast Guard helicopter to a San Diego hospital.
“There was a part of me that right after wanted to say, ‘Fuck it,’ and walk away from it all entirely,” Long told me when we spoke recently. Instead, however, he decided he wanted to build tools that could make the surfing safer. “The least I could do if I was to quit was to take the time to leave the sport with something good before I did do so,” he said. “I wasn’t going to just create these things and give them to people to try without proving that they work, so I kind of forced myself back into riding big waves. But my motivation’s definitely different than that it used to be: make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Long is part of a small group of surfers who spend their lives chasing big waves around the globe. He and dozens of other sponsored professionals make a living out of it, but many others just do it for the thrill. Although the number of casualties among big-wave surfers is small—by most counts, fewer than ten big-wave surfers have drowned in the past twenty years—it’s hard to find anyone in the community who hasn’t had a few terrifyingly brushes with death.
When big-wave surfing came into its own, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, pioneers of the sport had no real protections; the surf leash, a cord that tethers a surfer’s ankle to his or her board, wasn’t widely used until the seventies. In the nineties, Laird Hamilton helped to popularize tow-in surfing, in which a person driving a Jet Ski pulls a surfer into waves that are considered too large and fast to paddle into. The Jet Ski is then around to bail out the surfer during wipeouts. And, because tow-in surfers are bound to their boards with foot straps and are standing up as they’re towed, life jackets aren’t the same hindrance they are to paddlers.
“When we started getting on waves that were physically impossible to catch, we were wearing just our shorts,” Hamilton said. “One of our friends who had kids, his wife made him wear flotation one day. He got in a pretty good crash and popped up quick. We were, like, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’”
For a while, the top surfers were towed in and wore life jackets. But in the past decade more and more surfers have chosen to paddle in. This is seen as a return to a purer form of surfing, and, without the need for a Jet Ski, it’s also more accessible. But standard life vests are awkward and impractical if you’re lying on your board, so paddlers once again started heading into the big waves in only their shorts.
In 2010, however, Shane Dorian, a Hawaiian surfer, nearly drowned while surfing Mavericks, in Half Moon Bay, California. Afterward, he worked with his sponsor, Billabong, to develop the V1, a wetsuit containing a carbon-dioxide cartridge that inflates an interior air bladder with the pull of a rip cord, similar to an airline-passenger life vest.
“People made fun of it,” Dorian says. “People who thought they were too hard core or whatever said some silly stuff early on, like that they would never use it, that surfing’s pure and should be about just grabbing your board and going surfing.”
Around the same time, Patagonia began developing its own inflatable vest after one of its surf-team members, Kohl Christensen, also almost died at Mavericks. The company gave the vest to around two hundred big-wave surfers in exchange for feedback. With more influential surfers wearing the vests, inflatable technology caught on quickly. Dorian’s Billabong wetsuit, too, found a market among professionals. (Neither the V1 suit nor Patagonia’s vest are available commercially yet.)
“No one’s doing anything in giant surf without flotation devices unless they’re trying to act macho or something,” Hamilton said.
This mind-set has surfers looking to the military, as well as to fishing and other industries, for survival equipment to adapt to their sport. Some surfers are also busy cooking up products on their own.
Advancements in wearable technology may also bring inventions such as G.P.S. devices to track a surfer’s location, and monitors that measure a surfer’s vital signs when he or she is trapped underwater.
Just as important is the pro-surfing community’s new emphasis on rescue training and emergency preparedness. In 2011, after a friend drowned while surfing Mavericks, Christensen partnered with another pro, Danilo Couto, to host a C.P.R. course for big-wave surfers on his farm, in Hawaii.
Christensen was fresh off of taking a snowboarding-safety course in Wyoming. “I just saw so many parallels between those two sports, and the dangers,” Christensen said. “You don’t go into the backcountry without a buddy who knows how to use a beacon and a probe and is able to get you out of an avalanche or a dangerous situation. I realized that a lot of the time we go surfing with guys who may not know what to do if you get hurt.”
The C.P.R. course on Christensen’s farm has grown into the Big Wave Safety Summit, a multiday event that takes place twice a year; the most recent was two weeks ago, in Hawaii, with two hundred people attending. In addition to C.P.R., instructors now teach worst-case-scenario workshops, first-aid lessons, ocean survival, and rescue techniques on surfboards and Jet Skis. These are the skills that can come in handy when the safety equipment fails. Last year, Maya Gabeira, of Brazil, was towing into an estimated eighty-foot wave in Nazaré, Portugal, when she wiped out. Her life jacket was ripped off in the maelstrom of the impact zone, and she eventually lost consciousness. Her longtime tow partner, who had attended the safety summit, pulled off a daring Jet Ski rescue that saved her life.
“We realized that we can’t continue to push the sport further until we catch up in safety precautions,” Long said. “As foolish as it may seem, we had never given much thought to it. In the past, if we had one ski out there to look after us, doing water safety, that was a good day.”
Rescue staffs, though, come with their own challenges. Not all surfers have the means to hire their own team, and, because of the ephemeral nature of big waves and how difficult they are to accurately forecast, even those who do have the resources can still have trouble arranging a support crew.
“In the real world, it’s a very hard sport to schedule, because we never have the actual date,” Gabeira said. It can be difficult “to have all of those resources stand by and be able to activate them on a last-minute basis and have it all come together.”
Wave-tracking software has allowed for some advance planning, giving surfers more lead time to implement a plan and gather supplies and manpower—assuming that the waves show up on the right day.
If there’s a downside to this movement, it’s the fear that a piece of safety equipment can give people a dose of false courage. Combine today’s GoPro ethos with the egalitarian spirit of paddle-in surfing, and those waves that a few years ago were ridden only by tow-in surfers are now crowded with ambitious surfers chasing Internet fame and sponsorships, or just a huge rush.
“It definitely makes it a lot less enticing to go surfing when there are sixty to seventy more guys out there,” Dorian, the V1-suit developer, said. “I’m definitely to blame for that. There’s no doubt that the suit has enabled people who would’ve never been out there in the first place to feel comfortable paddling out at places like Jaws”—in Maui—“or Mavericks.”
Then, of course, there’s the big question: Do lifelines take the thrill out of so-called extreme sports? Nowadays, in big-wave surfing, it’s the opposite—they allow surfers to keep chasing that rush.
“I pushed it as hard as I could for fifteen years,” Long said. “But, eventually, there was that one wave that led to me nearly drowning, and had it not been for all the safety measures that were taken, I wouldn’t be here today.”