Greg Long's reflections from Cortes Bank

Big wave surfer Greg Long returns to the place where a wave almost killed him.

An hour or so after sunrise on Jan. 25, Greg Long paddled out into the lineup alone at the Cortes Bank and stayed out until near sunset. There were many demons to purge.

This strange, six-foot-deep seamount 100 miles west of San Diego has exerted an almost supernatural draw on Long since he first ventured out in 2003, finding a 60-foot wave that landed him his first Surfer magazine cover.

He's been on every significant mission since.

Frank Quirarte

Over the past 10-plus years, Greg Long has experienced Cortes Bank in a variety of conditions, from giant and stormy to fun and glassy. With sets pushing 15 to 18 feet on this trip, it was both challenging and therapeutic.

A 2008 expedition with best friend and Big Wave world champ Grant "Twiggy" Baker netted Long's mentor Mike Parsons a 77-foot tow-in world record. In 2009, Long led a first-ever paddle-only assault on a wave that, like Jaws, was generally assumed too big and fast to catch without a motor.

With each successive mission to the Bank, the ante has been upped. On Dec. 21, 2012, Long gazed in amazement as his friend Shawn Dollar paddled into a 61-foot wave, a still-standing world record. Minutes later, Dollar watched in horror as a set of four giant waves buried Long and rendered him unconscious. He would be revived on the back of a rescue sled and suffer no long-term physical damage, but emotionally, Greg Long would never be the same.

It was against this backdrop in late January -- not even 18 hours after he left the water at the 2014 Mavericks Invitational -- that Long paddled out solo at Cortes Bank for his first return to the site where he nearly died. What follows are recollections of what he calls the most magical session of his life.

On summoning the courage to paddle out:
There were a lot of question marks as to how big it was actually going to be. From my interpretation, the swell didn't live up the expectations I had. I thought it would be bigger at the Mavericks contest and at Cortes, but I wouldn't have put forth all that effort, or set foot on that boat, if I wasn't planning on paddling out. Now whether I was going to actually catch a wave? That's a different question, especially if it was 50 feet and I had been out there by myself.

On why he felt like this was something he had to do:
I thought a lot about it. What was the purpose of all this, going back out to Cortes? Why have I given all this so much thought?

At one point I never wanted to ride big waves again, never wanted to go back again to Cortes.

Then it goes full circle into wanting to come around and really be back out there. In a way, it almost felt like I always had a special relationship with Cortes Bank. I've always known the potential consequences of what we're doing. You can drown. But that day in December, I felt, in a way, like the ocean was almost out to get me. I felt, in a sense, betrayed by it. So going back out there was sort of making peace with the ocean -- and with what happened.

Return To Cortes Bank

There had been something missing the whole time since the accident. Obviously I've been surfing a lot since then -- since drowning. It's not like I didn't want to go back in the ocean, but I was carrying this negative experience, which is something that we so often do in our lives but don't even realize. We carry a lot of baggage from the past. I openly acknowledge that I was doing that.

Every big day since, whether at Jaws or Mavericks, I was thinking about what happened out at Cortes. I felt like going back out and surfing again was going to release that weight of this accident that I'd been dragging with me. That might come as a surprise to folks who have seen me in all these surf sessions since.

Frank Quirarte

Long brought out a range of different sized boards so he would have the right sled for the conditions. Interestingly, he spent the session riding without a leash. Suffering only one wipeout, he was separated from his board once, but it was quickly recovered by a heroic Sam George.

I've been out there with my friends and I've been trying to find my way back into it, but I really wasn't in the mix. They would have told you, "He's not the same Greg." I didn't have the confidence. I really only just felt that comeback during the first of the two back-to-back Jaws sessions Jan. 19 and 20.

I was still struggling, but just before dark, I got one really good wave. That feeling of being committed and going for it, that brought me back to remembering how to do all this again and getting over that pivotal decision you face: You're in that spot, you know in your gut how to do this, no backing out, you have to take that leap of faith.

Since then, each session has been a little better. The big Tuesday, a few days before the contest at Mavericks, there were a couple of waves where I was telling myself, "OK, this is risky, but you know how to do this, so throw yourself over and do it." That led to my confidence a few days later at the contest, where I took some risky waves and drops and mentally I felt like I was in a place where I could go back out at Cortes.

On the perfection of Cortes Bank:
The whole day, it was such a gift. You just don't get conditions like that out there. In a way, that morning felt like it was the ocean's offering of, "OK, here you go," especially because the weather models were so all over the place. Some were showing hard south wind. Others were showing northeast.

I was so preoccupied at Mavericks with the making the official call to go out to Cortes that my head was really not in the contest. That was strange. Part of me felt like the distraction was a good thing. Mavericks was keeping me from overthinking Cortes. At the same time, what was happening at Cortes and all the preparation we had to do was keeping me from overthinking Mavericks.

Everything I remembered about Cortes had a dark, heavy connotation to it -- struggling underwater, not being able to reach the surface, the painful trauma of being held down so long that my lungs were squeezing and burning. It was just the polar opposite, being the most friendly, gorgeous day of sunshine, clear water and glassy conditions with my friends cheering me on in the channel and laughing.
Greg Long

Between every heat, I was on my phone looking at updated forecasts and deciding: Are we going to go all-in and put the boats in motion? It was a hard decision, and it wasn't what I ideally would have been doing. You're there surfing Mavs; you should be thinking only about surfing Mavs.

But the way the day turned out, I felt like it was gift. People could say, "Well, it wasn't that big." That's true. I would have liked it a little bigger, but it wasn't about going back out there and paddling into a world-record wave. It was about going back out there and experiencing Cortes Bank in a different light than the one I remember so vividly, the day I nearly lost my life.

Everything I remembered about Cortes had a dark, heavy connotation to it -- struggling underwater, not being able to reach the surface, the painful trauma of being held down so long that my lungs were squeezing and burning. It was just the polar opposite, being the most friendly, gorgeous day of sunshine, clear water and glassy conditions with my friends cheering me on in the channel and laughing.

On top of it, the sea life was just going absolutely berserk. Sea lions were literally coming up, smiling at me and staring at me in wonder. Like, what the hell are you doing out here?

The other thing was, being out there alone in between sets of waves, I was in complete silence. Cortes is the only big-wave break in the world where you will experience that. It will go completely still and calm because there's no nearby land mass, no traffic, just nothing else. It's truly one of the surfing wonders of the world. You're out there just fully immersed in the ocean, surrounded by water and nothing but the purest life and riding waves. Being in an environment like that heightens your feeling to just indescribable levels. The beauty and wonder of the place, that's how I always remembered it before last year. And that's what I wanted to experience again.

On what was going through his mind:
A lot of internal dialogue. Reflecting on my life and everything that led me to being out there on that day a year ago.

I guess the other thing was just this beautiful realization of just how truly lucky I am. How lucky to have such special people around me; my dad, going to all ends to make sure I had what I needed at Mavericks. And that I have friends who, at the drop of a hat, would jump on a plane and then go overnight on a boat, choosing to be out there keeping an eye on me. I mean, look at where I am and what I'm doing right now. Everything that has happened to me, the moments that have led me here, and now I'm out here in the middle of the ocean doing this.

When I was sitting out there, I just had this feeling of perfect contentment. Everything just made perfect sense. Just being back out there and riding a wave, it was overcoming something. Letting something go. And then having the Coast Guard [which airlifted Long off Cortes in the dark] fly out and being able to talk to them from my surfboard on the radio? That was surreal. It feels like a dream.

Looking back, looking ahead:
The last 15 years, my life was always about pushing myself and always wanting to be in the right place riding the biggest waves. That was kind of my end-all be-all, what I was meant to do. It was always wrapped up in the end goal and objective.

Now, though, my motivation isn't the same. I don't want people to think I don't love riding big waves as much. I love it as much as I used to. But now, it's not about riding that one single wave or getting the biggest wave of my life or the best wave of the day. It's great to accomplish those goals, but that achievement doesn't lead to anything in the end. Really, it should be all about the experience. In that sense, I'm loving big-wave riding -- the travel, the adventure, the hard work and everything that goes into doing it -- more than ever.

Related Content