In late December a squadron of big-wave riders converged on Cortes Bank, an unexposed reef 100 miles off the coast of Southern California capable of producing some of the largest waves in the world. Those participating in this mission had a new goal in mind: to tackle the rumbling blue mountains via paddle power alone, without tow-in assist.
Garret McNamara (left) and Greg Long (right) had no idea how much punishment they were about to endure while dropping into this beast at Cortes Bank in December. Long, who blacked out underwater, was airlifted to the hospital after being revived. Photo: Surfer magazine/Glaser
Such a feat seemed nearly impossible back when surfers first started descending the watery summits of Cortes. But recent paddle-in breakthroughs at Jaws, a legendary big-wave spot on Maui, have changed the paradigm of big-wave thinking. Up until a couple years ago, Jaws was also thought impossible to paddle into. Today, more and more big-wave riders are hanging up their tiny 6-foot tow-in boards and returning to their roots, riding sleek 10-foot boards that are made for catching the unthinkable.
Of course, the risks of paddling in to these beasts are significantly higher, as the degree of difficulty goes through the roof. And during that December mission (See the full Surfer magazine photo gallery) danger reared its ugly head when two of the world’s best big-wave surfers, Greg Long and Garrett McNamara, took off on a massive wave together and were both obliterated.
Rescuers act quickly to get Greg Long out of harm’s way. “I have always insisted on working with individuals that share my focus on training and preparation,” says Long. “Humbly, I express my deepest gratitude to the team of rescuers and fellow surfers whose training and precise response contributed to saving my life.” Photo: Surfer magazine/Glaser
McNamara, who was in front, didn’t see Long taking off behind him. The extra floatation devices he was wearing helped him surface quickly, though each of the waves that thundered through the impact zone afterward tossed him around like a rag doll.
Long, meanwhile, was enduring the worst punishment of his life. He never surfaced after the initial wipeout, and two more waves passed over his head before rescuers (riding personal watercraft with rescue sleds) spotted him floating face down in the water. Long had blacked out, but was revived on his way back to the boat, where paramedics on hand tended to him before calling for a rescue helicopter.
As word of the incident spread through the surfing community, McNamara took a heavy dose of heat in the court of public opinion for perceived breaches of the big-wave code. While he wasn’t towed in, he was riding a WaveJet board, which has a propulsion system. To purists, that was violation number one. But the fact that he took off in front of Long was even worse. Cutting somebody off is the ultimate violation in surfing.
That said, one of the huge risks of paddling into big waves is knowing that drop-ins are common. Once riders are committed to going, it’s often more dangerous for them to pull back. And while that’s something all big-wave riders acknowledge, it didn’t get a lot of attention in this incident.
That Long is arguably the most accomplished, yet humble, big-wave surfers in the world also didn’t help McNamara’s cause. Long is wildly popular because of his quiet domination of all the most prestigious big-wave titles. McNamara, meanwhile, is himself a very accomplished big-wave star, and his PR team will be the first to tell you about his feats, including his current world record.
Though McNamara’s demeanor has mellowed in recent years, he’s been one of the more brash personalities in big-wave surfing for more than a decade. And with the public’s insatiable appetite to cast blame for any incident, he fell squarely into the cross hairs, even despite the statement he issued explaining what happened from his angle.
Long, much to his credit, told fans and followers last week to forget it and move on. In a follow-up to McNamara’s comments, he made it clear that Garrett was not to blame:
I have no hard feelings towards Garrett nor do I blame him for what happened to me that day at Cortes. I have seen the video of our wave, and acknowledge that neither or us was going to successfully make it. …It was my choice to be out there that day, and in doing so, I assumed full responsibility for anything that could have happened. There are countless lessons to be learned from that experience for myself, Garrett, and the entire surfing community. I am confident these lessons will be taken to heart, and used to better ourselves as we all continue on our paths of personal and professional growth.
In other words, we’re all good here people. Nothing to see here. Move on. Right?