Surfer Greg Long opens up about his near drowning at Cortes Bank

Greg Long, the most accomplished big-wave surfer of the past decade, is finally home and talking about the near-death wipeout he experienced Friday afternoon at Cortes Bank, a renowned break that sits 100 miles off the Southern California coastline. The legendary nautical hazard is capable of producing 80-foot waves, and since the late ’80s, it’s become the Mount Everest of big-wave surfing, as it’s widely believed that when the first 100-foot wave is ridden it will be there.

Greg Long (right) and Hawaiian Garret McNamara have been fixtures in the big-wave surfing arena for years. Long has won every prestigious big-wave title there is, while McNamarra currently holds the record for the biggest wave ever surfed. After taking off together on this beast Friday, Long was forced to straighten out, and was quickly swallowed by the massive wall of water at Cortes Bank. Photo: Greg Huglin

On Friday Long joined a contingent of big-wave surfers who journeyed out to the break in anticipation of a massive swell. The 28-year-old surfer from San Clemente, California, has been a standout there since 2004, when he earned the cover of Surfer Magazine (right) by towing into a wave estimated to be in the 60-foot range.

On Friday, however, all those in attendance were trying to catch waves via paddle-power alone, i.e., without motorized assist. After years of breaking barriers with the help of personal watercraft, big-wave surfers are bent on redefining what can be accomplished by human hands alone.

Long, unfortunately, nearly took that effort to the extreme when he wiped out behind another surfer on a massive wave. After taking his initial underwater punishment, Long was about to break the surface and get a breath of air when the next wave hit him, knocking him back down into the abyss.

Being held underwater as multiple waves pass overhead is every surfer’s worst nightmare, and Long’s experience was as close to the edge as they come.

The view of Cortes Bank, 100 miles off the coast of San Clemente, California, as witnessed from an airplane above during Friday’s swell. Those tiny specks in the surf are humans, including one surfer dropping into that wave riding his 10-foot-long board. Photo: Rob Keith/Surfer Magazine.

In a statement released Sunday night, Long described what happened next:

“All of my breath was knocked out of me. I nearly lost consciousness at this point and was again driven deep and was subjected to a furious beating. I attempted to swim to the surface as the energy of the wave began to release me, but only made a few strokes before the next wave passed overhead, pushing me back down. As this beating started to subside, I began climbing my leash, hoping to break the surface before passing out. I made it to the tail of my board while it was still submerged in the turbulent and aerated water, at which point I blacked out from CO2 saturation and lack of oxygen.

Three rescue skis operated by D.K. Walsh, Jon Walla, and Frank Quiarte were tracking me following the initial wipeout. After a fourth and smaller white water had passed, I was quickly located, floating face down alongside my surfboard by D.K. Walsh. D.K. abandoned his ski, jumping in the water in order to raise my head above the surface.

Jon Walla arrived on his ski, and together they pulled me onto the rescue sled. I began regaining consciousness during the ride back to the support boat we were operating from. Several other rescuers assisted getting me on board, at which point I began vomiting the small amount of water I had aspirated and a large amount of blood, which I later learned was from a combination of the blunt force trauma of impact and the rupturing of capillaries due to extreme breath holding.”

Rescue crews went quickly into action after Long’s spill (top). Lifeguards on jetskis pulled him from the surf, where they found him face-down. Then he was rushed to deck of the boat (above) where paramedics tended to him. Photo: Rob Keith,

Long was stabilized on board by the lifeguards and paramedics accompanying them on the mission, before being airlifted to UCSD hospital for a 24-hour observation.

The experience may have humbled Long, yet by how much remains to be seen. This much he did acknowledge:

Having trained for extreme breath holding, at no point did I allow myself to panic or lose confidence that I was going to survive this incident. I do, however, fully acknowledge that I did exceed my limits of endurance, and that there will always be elements of risk and danger that are beyond my control while surfing waves of any size. Because of those elements of risk, I have always insisted on working with individuals that share my focus on training and preparation. Humbly, I express my deepest gratitude to the team of rescuers and fellow surfers whose training and precise response contributed to saving my life.

Missions to Cortes Bank are rare due to costs required for each strike. Meeting safety concerns, navigating unpredictable weather patterns, and having just the right swell are all elements that have to come together on short notice. That Friday’s event didn’t turn tragic is a testament to the professional training of all those involved.