Big waves and a near miss
Attention to detail, if done right, will make an outcome predictable with minimal impact. For Greg Long, the best-laid plans -- plans he had put into place to protect others -- ended up saving his life.
When surf forecasters projected what would be the second significant storm of the 2012 big-wave season, surfers mobilized. But the swell direction was too northerly for many of the premier big-wave spots, focusing instead on latitude 32.478, longitude 119.215: the Cortes Banks.
It's no small feat organizing a select group of surfers, jet ski rescue crews, medics, photographers and whoever else may be looking for a little adventure. Somehow it all came together. But unlike previous treks to the mysterious wave that lurks 100 miles off the coast of California, this wasn't going to be a tow-surfing mission, rather a full-blown paddle assault. During the last Cortes mission back in 2008, Long and Grant "Twiggy" Baker went out with all the intentions of paddling in, but it wasn't the right swell direction and they were under-gunned. Although there's still a place for tow-surfing, most or all of the major known big-wave spots have been paddled into under the same gnarly conditions that were previously reserved for the tow rope.
Long, hands-down the most prepared surfer when it comes to tackling these conditions, had compiled a highly experienced group of watermen, including Hawaii's Shane Dorian and Ian Walsh, and his usual running partner Baker. The crew also included two medics, a host of still and video photographers, forecaster Mark Sponsler and a full contingent of experienced rescue boat operators. Long had meticulously planned every detail of this trip right down to the last cable tie. No fin-key left unturned. This would have unforeseen implications.
After loading six support skis and enough food and supplies to feed a small army the 107-foot motor yacht called Mr. Terrible left the Newport Harbor at midnight to make the long journey out to the bank. Most of the crew had found a place to sleep, but not many eyes were shut during the 10-hour ride out.
The boat reached the bank mid-morning, just ahead of the first pulse. Surfers and crew were all suiting up while photographers and support crew were getting their gear in place. Long assembled the team in the main cabin and gave a safety and logistics briefing. After that it was on.
The front end of the swell was loaded with a lot of energy but had a tighter interval. It was coming from such a northerly direction nobody knew what it would actually do. There was a lot of energy on it, but it still needed the long interval sets to clean it up. Long got first wave honors by spinning and going on what would be the first of many 20-foot waves throughout the day. He made the drop, but because of the raw energy he hit a huge step, cartwheeled halfway down the face of a bomb and took a beat down. This set the cautious tone for the rest of the session.
Dorian picked off a few on the inside bowl as Twiggy and Long waited out on the main peak. The rip running across the lineup was intense and sitting out there trying to hold position proved impossible. Long had allocated two rescue boats to hold them in position. Ian Walsh's younger brother, DK, and San Clemente's John Walla, both no strangers to big waves, would shuttle them out to the peak and hold them in place until a wave came. Jason Murray and myself rounded out the Billabong Rescue contingent.
"We were worried that we were sending the wrong message by not being as safe as we could be," said Twiggy that morning. "With this trip and the support of Billabong we were finally able to execute the mission we've been talking about for years."
By this time a couple of other boats had converged on the bank and the lineup was building fast. At one point there were at least 15 surfers in the water, including Garrett McNamara, Danilo Couto, Rusty Long, Sean Dollar, Pete Mel, Dave Wassal, Jamie Mitchell and Mark Healey. The swell continued to build and everybody was getting insane rides. Although the main bowl was delivering the biggest waves, the channel was breaking 20 feet top to bottom.
Eventually the sun dropped behind the clouds and thoughts of a Saturday morning session were circulating among the crew. Then over the radio there was a report of a massive set stacking up outside. Mark Healy turned and spun around on the first of what would be a solid 25-foot set.
Long took the next one, drawing a deep line closest to the peak. As he made his entry McNamara was unaware that Long was paddling in deeper and dropped in on him. Long was looking to make his bottom turn, but McNamara had straightened out and blocked his line. Both of them got mowed down. The next wave was a monster. Twiggy dropped in and started down the face. The wave was moving so fast that from the channel it looked like he was fading the bowl in order to pull in.
"I was basically hovering down the wave to hold my line as it was pulling me back up the face," Twiggy said. "I couldn't believe how fast the wave was moving underneath me."
At one point he thought he saw Long come up and catch a breath. Long's board was tombstoning and rescue boats were standing by waiting for him to come up. Long managed to pop up before taking a two-wave hold down, but the ski missed him on the pickup and he took the next one on the head too. Dorian caught the next wave of what seemed like an endless set. The amount of waves coming through made rescuing Long challenging at best.
Long's board had hit him in the ribs and knocked the wind out of him. This made it impossible for him to catch a breath when he finally made it to the surface. His inflatable bladder built into his wetsuit failed to deploy, forcing him to the bottom. From his own account he had to climb his leash twice.
Greg had now got pushed into the inside where the waves converge. It's an unruly, unforgiving vortex of energy. He was locked in a downward spin cycle and couldn't make it up to the surface. We shadowed his line where we thought he might come up. DK was closest and was ready to make the grab. When Long finally did come up he was face down and unresponsive. The situation turned critical.
Instincts and training kicked in. DK raced in, ditched his ski, grabbed Long from behind. Struggling to hold his head out of the water the two got clipped by another wave. DK had a bear hug on Long and wasn't about to let go.
Walsh's rescue ski got clipped and washed through. Walla and I raced in to get Long and DK on the sled.
"I was tapping and blowing on Greg's face yelling, 'F---, Greg, wake up!'" said an emotional Walsh.
Long was going in and out of consciousness the entire time back to the boat. Walsh had turned his head on his side, clearing his airway, having to physically open his mouth because the hood of his wetsuit was holding it shut. All this on the back of a rescue sled doing 40 mph back to the awaiting medics.
Long was stabilized on the boat. Due to concerns about secondary drowning, in which a near-drowning victim appears stable but enough water has entered the lungs to cause death later, he was eventually airlifted by a Coast Guard helo and transported to a UCSD emergency room in San Diego.
In 25-foot surf things can go from bad to worse in a matter of seconds. If it han't been for Long's desire to better the sport by improving safety not only for himself but the entire big-wave fraternity, things could have been much worse. The value of detailed planning and preparation can never be overemphasized in the arena of big-wave surfing. It's ironic that the plan he put into place to save somebody else ended up saving him.