A helicopter arrives at Cortes Bank in order to transport Greg Long to a San Diego hospital. Photo: Ryan Moss
Exactly one year after his accident at Cortes Bank, Greg Long gives a raw and honest account of the wipeout that nearly killed him, and the subsequent lessons learned about life, love and having fun.
It is from the greatest challenges and the hardest times in our lives that we learn and grow the most. One year ago I nearly lost my life pursuing my passion for riding big waves. Some say I am the most prepared big-wave surfer in the world, but the one thing I never prepared myself for was the day that I would question my ability and love for the one thing I felt I was put on this planet to do, ride big waves.
Immediately following my accident I chose to forego sharing the intimate details of what happened because of the emotional trauma of reliving them so soon. Time has passed and I can now share those details, not because I want to wow anyone with the story of my survival, but because I feel there are lessons. Lessons l learned after taking that fateful drop and during my yearlong journey trying to find my place back in the world of big-wave surfing. I am speaking about a place of love, confidence and most importantly fun. Finding it has been the greatest challenge of my life.
On December 21, 2012, I arrived on a 110-foot vessel to Cortes Bank, an underwater seamount 100 miles off the coast of Southern California. With me were three other surfers: Shane Dorian, Grant “Twiggy” Baker and Ian Walsh. We were backed up by a rescue team of six Jet Ski operators, one per surfer, and two more backup Skis for documentation and supplemental rescue.
Late in the afternoon, I dropped in too deep on the second of a five-wave set. I made it to the bottom of the wave, at which point the whitewater overtook me and pushed me deep. Knowing the potential gravity of the situation, I attempted to deploy my inflatable suit to help me reach the surface faster. It failed, and I was relegated to enduring the hold-down as I have for so many years, with the assistance of two well-trained lungs and a confident and relaxed mind.
The hold-down of the first wave was so long and brutal that I contemplated staying down, knowing there was a good chance I wouldn’t get to the surface for a breath before the next wave in the set rolled over. I decided to swim for the surface anyway. This was a pivotal decision that took what would have likely been a “standard” two-wave hold-down to one that nearly ended my life. As I struggled for the top, I was mere feet away from the surface when I received the full impact of the next wave. Any remaining breath was forced from my lungs and my body was shaken into a state of shock. I immediately found myself back in the abyss, but now with zero oxygen in my lungs. My body convulsed radically, desperately begging me to inhale, but I was still deep, and made the very conscious decision that no matter what, I wouldn’t. “I am fine; I am going to make it to the surface,” were the only thoughts I chose to know. I allowed my body to relax and my desire to breathe momentarily diminished, allowing me to stay conscious long enough to hear the next wave of the set roll over my head.
The power of positive thinking is very real, but so is the fact that there are physical limitations and universal laws that we must live by. I desperately needed to get to the surface and breathe. The turbulence of the third wave was impossible to swim against so I climbed my leash, hand over fist. Inch by inch I fought my way up, eventually reaching the tail section of my board, which was submerged 10 feet below the surface. Cramping, numbness and full-body convulsions returned. Any oxygen reserves remaining in my brain were exhausted and I couldn’t get a solid grasp onto my board, so I let it go, taking one last desperate stroke for the surface. It was at this point that I lost consciousness.
After the fourth wave passed over me my body was pushed well inside the lineup and I floated face down, still attached to my board. Had my leash broken, it is unlikely I would have been found.
After successive futile attempts by the rescuers to reach my tomb-stoning board following each of the previous waves, D.K. Walsh heroically rushed in after the fourth, abandoned his Jet Ski and dove on me, wrestling my lifeless body through a final passing whitewater. Jon Walla and Frank Quirarte were there seconds later to help pull my unconscious body from the water onto the rescue sled and race me back to our support boat. As I was being pulled onboard the back of our vessel, I began to regain consciousness. Heavily in shock, regurgitating and coughing up foamy blood, the team administered oxygen and evaluated me for spinal and secondary injuries. The Coast Guard was immediately notified and a rescue helicopter was summoned in order to transport me to a hospital for further evaluation and treatment.
While I lay on the boat awaiting the Coast Guard’s arrival, I reflected on my life. As we all know, “life” consists of a hell of a lot of things. But when you come so close to losing it all, the things that truly matter in this world come into sharp focus. I thought about who I was, and by that, I am not talking about Greg Long the professional big-wave surfer. Contest victories, XXL Awards, materialistic possessions and job titles were the furthest things from my mind.
Instead, I thought about who I was as a person. Was I kind and respectful to others? Did my life have purpose? Did I make a difference for the better in this world? Did I take things for granted? Could I have given and shared more? Did I appreciate this crazy ride as much as possible? And, had I died that day, would my friends, family and people I hold so dear in my life actually know how much they meant to me? Five hours later, above massive seas, I was basket-lifted in darkness from the bow of our boat and transported the 100 miles back to San Diego. After a myriad of tests, cat-scans, X-rays and an overnight stay in the hospital to be monitored for secondary drowning, I was released to go home.
I am frequently asked why I didn’t need to be given CPR, and how I made such a fast recovery. The answer is twofold. First, I did not give up and take that breath my body was so desperately craving underwater. Not inhaling allowed my laryngospasm reflex to kick in. This is a natural mammalian survival reflex that happens during drowning or blacking out in water, in which the throat and face muscles constrict, shutting off the airway in an effort to keep water from entering the lungs. In the process, the last oxygen left within your body is drawn to your brain to preserve it for as long as possible. When the final oxygen is used up, the muscles will release and your body will naturally try and breathe. If you are still underwater at that point, your lungs will flood. Second, my safety team retrieved me from the water before this happened, which is the reason an emergency resuscitation wasn’t necessary, resulting in my relatively quick physical recovery.
I paddled back into the lineup at Maverick’s for my first big-wave session only days after my accident. That session, and nearly every one thereafter, has been riddled with thoughts of life, death, fear and doubt. Still floating in the wake of it all, I was asked by this same magazine, “What made you want to get back in the big-wave saddle so soon after nearly losing your life?” My answer was short and profound, something along the lines of never depriving myself the opportunity to follow my dreams, and that riding big waves had always been my dream. But the truth is, at the time, I didn’t know why I was paddling back out. Riding big waves used to fill my dreams in the most blissful way. Now they came in the form of nightmares. Had my mind been clearer at the time of that interview, I would have known that it was, in fact, my ego that made me rush back out so soon after. At the time, I thought, my life is one of a big-wave surfer and there is no way it can be any different. What about the expectations people have of me? Will people think I am weak if I quit? I felt like the kid who eats shit on his bike in front of all his friends. What does he do? He gets up, dusts himself off and keeps on riding. Meanwhile, he is scared, bruised and bleeding, yet he refuses to admit he’s hurting for fear of being judged.
It was difficult, remembering how easily I used to stroke into big waves, and the gratification and challenge it would bring. Yet, here I was, feeling a world away from being able to do so. It wasn’t long after my first session back that feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability set in. I’d lost my confidence and sense of self. Soon those sentiments flooded into many other aspects of my life and behind closed doors I began to struggle with a tumultuous array of emotions. I felt like my “world” — 16 years of unwavering love and dedication to big-wave surfing — had crumbled, and I was trapped under the rubble.
In the following months I continued to push forward, immersing myself in as many big-wave sessions as I could, expecting something to eventually give and allow me to put the pieces back together. Maverick’s, Jaws, Puerto, Chile. Every session was a mental struggle. It wasn’t until I was on yet another big swell chase in South America, fighting to find “my place” back in the lineup, that I hit a wall. I was frustrated, emotionally exhausted, and worst of all, the fun had been lost entirely.
For the first time in my life, I consciously took a step away from big-wave surfing and embarked on a personal trip, leaving the board bags, cameras and swell charts behind. I went to a secluded place in the Peruvian Andes, where I was able to slow down and find a much higher and clearer perspective of what my life had become. It was there that I found the answers to my confusion, and they were simple. I had become attached and was giving energy to things that did not matter — the very same ones that I knew to be irrelevant while lying half-dead on the deck of the boat, waiting for the Coast Guard.
I realized that since the accident I had become caught up in trying to rediscover my life as Greg Long, “big-wave surfer.” I justified this pursuit through my belief that we should always follow our dreams. But in reality, everything in this world is constantly changing and we, as people, are constantly evolving and changing along with it, whether we accept and embrace it or not. What we may have felt or dreamed yesterday may not be true for us today, and we have to be OK with that. The more we try to hang on to the past, the more we will struggle to find our true selves and happiness in the present moment.
I came to realize that the challenges I felt after my accident were nothing more than fabrications of my own mind. Throughout life we are taught how to think, feel and react to different events, emotions, etc. I thought of my accident as a traumatic event, and in turn was feeling that way because, well, isn’t that what near-death experiences are supposed to be? But the fact is, we alone shape our realities through our thoughts. In the exact same way I relinquished myself from the agonizing pain and desire to breathe while 1000 leagues under the sea that day at Cortes, I relinquished the negative thoughts and emotions that were causing struggle in my life. By making a choice to view them not with negativity, but rather as a learning opportunity, I was set free from their emotional burden.
In this game of life, as we pursue our dreams, we all wipe out at some point and we must be OK with that. We can choose to wade around in the pain or sadness, or accept that everything that happens to us is for a reason, providing lessons, giving us more knowledge, insight, experience and helping us to continue forward on our paths of personal growth.
On my journey of self-discovery and reflection, I learned to not be preoccupied with the judgment or expectations of others. Instead, I should listen to what I felt to be true in my own heart. The further away I strayed from speaking and living the truth, or hiding my feelings and emotions, the more I struggled.
So, you may ask, where am I now with all of this? Am I going to “go back” and keep doing it?
I have always ridden big waves because of the personal challenge, and I am never going to stop challenging myself in this life. Again, it is from the true challenges that we learn and grow the most. If I have come to learn one thing from this experience, it is that it really does not matter what we choose to do professionally or recreationally. We all come from different walks of life with countless life experiences shaping who we are and the path we choose. What matters is that we all strive to go forward having fun, walking our unique paths and helping others along the way. What matters is that we pursue our own personal happiness and dreams with passion and dedication. What matters is that we enjoy this crazy life, successful rides and heavy wipeouts alike, and continue to learn and grow from the lessons they teach. I know that one day, when I find myself looking back at the end of it all, these values and virtues will have been my most treasured guides. —Greg Long