“I have a really driven personality that, if I really want to achieve something I’m going to put my head down and I’m going to do whatever I have to do to achieve it. So all those other thoughts like what am I going to do after – I definitely thought about them. But I didn’t dwell upon them and set off in that state of panic – ‘Oh my God what if I fail’ – but rather when am I going to succeed.” – Greg Long
Greg Long, one of the most accomplished big wave surfers of all time, never had a plan B. Like dropping into a heaving 50-foot wave, he committed to the life he wanted. And like the first big wave riders from decades ago, he charted his own path. When Greg started there was no known career for big wave surfing. If he wanted recognition and money, he would’ve had to choose the path laid out by the NSSA contests he won as a kid. The path of the WQS and WCT shortboard contests. That just didn’t fit with who he was. “Something about it didn’t resonate with my heart. I like to soak up my surroundings, not just have 20 minutes to surf. I like to be selective with my waves and enjoy every bit of it and those contests weren’t allowing me to do that.”
Loving the solidarity, adventure, the feel of riding big waves and pushing oneself past fear, Greg, along with his brother Rusty, started chasing the biggest swells around the globe. After an initial sponsorship fell apart, Greg was living in his van and maxing out his credit card. He knew most people thought this was a risk. “You have this much money saved up. What could you or what should you be doing with it? People are worried about their financial security and, geez, you’re dropping this much money on a last minute plane flight to surf this swell in this corner of the world?” But Greg had faith that it would work out. “I always knew in my heart that no matter what you do, if you’re passionate about it, you know the business or niche industry, you can set a path from point A to point B in order to accomplish these goals.”
But Greg had faith that it would work out. “I always knew in my heart that no matter what you do, if you’re passionate about it and you know the business or niche industry, you can set a path from point A to point B in order to accomplish these goals.”
Greg definitely had passion, dedicating his whole life to this pursuit. “To be physically and mentally in the top shape—that’s 365 days a year. There’s never a day that goes by that I’m not actively doing something, whether it’s surfing or yoga, swimming in the pool or a lot of other cross-training. And then there’s time spent preparing your equipment.” He has continued his big wave pursuits through two near-death wipe outs. He is known throughout the industry as methodical and deeply thoughtful in his approach. When he speaks, he speaks with an eloquence far removed from Spicoli stereotypes and more like someone that has reached the highest levels of education.
Since then Greg has been the 2015 WSL Big Wave World Tour Champion, has won 2014 Billabong XXL Ride of the Year and 2013 Billabong XXL Surfline Performance of the Year. He was an actor and advisor in “Chasing Mavericks.” He was National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year in 2015. He has been featured in ESPN’s “Big Wave Hellman” and has many more accolades and awards.
It seems his plan from the beginning to make a living chasing the biggest, heaviest swells worked out just fine—actually, amazingly—just as he knew it would all along. Here are some highlights from my conversation with Long, about what made him the man and the surfer we know today.
When and how did you start surfing?
Greg: I first started surfing when I was about 10 years old and I had a really fortunate upbringing. My dad was a lifeguard and my mom was a school teacher and they lived right here in the San Clemente state park. This was their dream, living by the ocean. This was the closest thing my dad had at the time, other than being a professional surfer, was to live a life based on being by the water. He could surf whenever he wanted. So from a young age we were always in the ocean, swimming, diving, bodysurfing. The ocean was a second home to us.
I started out riding a longboard and naturally progressed into a shortboard around 12 years old. Growing up in San Clemente you’re in the hub of the surfing world. All the magazines, all the big corporate offices, industry giants are right here. So surfing always seemed like a viable career. People were out there successfully doing it. Even though, at that time, they may or may not have been making a living out of it. It was a lifestyle. That still holds true today. There are a lot of people that are “professional surfers,” but it’s not a money-making job for most people.
Being from San Clemente, not known for heavy surf, how did you get into riding big waves?
GL: Both my brother and I had this comfort level that exceeded a lot of kids our age. So we had this affection for bigger and bigger waves. As big as it would get in San Clemente, which is not that big, we would always be out there all day, looking for even bigger. That naturally led us down to surfing Todos Santos. A good friend at the time from our town, John Walla, was one of the local regulars and then I kept hearing the older guys’ stories. In the magazines, I was seeing Mike Parsons and the McNulty brothers and these pictures of this amazing wave that was only a couple hours from home. So eventually I got John Walla to take me there and immediately I was hooked. I was 15 years old when I first went there and that was the transition period from doing the amateur surf contests to my passion of riding big waves. My enthusiasm for the contests steamrolled downhill and the excitement of riding big waves was all I could think about. All of my free time was spent thinking how am I going to afford to buy one of those expensive big wave boards and do the training that everybody else does?
Did those close to you back your decision? Did you get any early support from sponsors?
GL: My parents were 100 percent supportive, no matter what sport we did. They said “If you really want to pursue this surfing thing then we’ll be behind you.” After we graduated high school, my brother and I carried on pursuing big wave surfing and I did a few semesters of college.
When I was 18 years old I signed my first professional contract with Ocean Pacific. At the time, an amazing individual, Tim Baker, was CEO of the company. He was extremely influential in helping me create the avenue to get to where I am. I remember I sat down and had this talk with him about professional surfing and my personal interests. I just said I don’t want to be in these contests that everybody thinks you need to do. I love traveling. I love spending days, weeks, and months on the road and really soaking up where I am. I want to create stories around places and locations – all based around this adventure travel idea. I want to go places with newer, heavier, big waves. People were captivated by the few stories we had already done.
My brother and I teamed up and basically started globe-trotting, honing our skills in these waves. We were living our dream. We weren’t making a ton of money, but I wouldn’t trade any of the experiences for anything in the world. Over the years there started to be a lot more media attention and excitement around big waves. It started to become a more recognized niche.
Why didn’t you have a sponsor for several years?
GL: Right around the time things really started to take off, OP was sold to a bigger company. I think now it is owned by Walmart. So everyone got a letter in the mail saying they were no longer supporting surfing. Our little gravy train that we were riding, supporting our travels, came to a stop. For two and a half years I was without a sponsor. My brother went a little longer than that, almost four years. It was a trying period where we saved up a little bit of money to continue doing what we loved. We still had this passion and this drive to do this, but no one was looking to get behind us and sponsor us. I didn’t stop traveling any differently than before, which was from one swell to the next, and I made a point of being on every single big day that I possibly could. Consequently, those were a few of my most successful years if you want to calibrate them by accolades or competition wins. I won a handful of XXL awards, Mavericks contests, and a few others in the mix. Basically, I got to a point where I was out of money. I started racking up huge expenses on my credit cards.
It was one of those things— “Well, it’s been fun, but the party is just about over.” There were a lot of emotional ups and downs. I know this is what you want to be doing, but here you are galavanting around without a care in the world.
I knew eventually a sponsor would come around. I just didn’t know when. I didn’t know it would take as long as it did. Still, I was living how I wanted to and where I wanted to. It wasn’t an extravagant lifestyle by any means. It was very frugal, but I got to travel and see so many places and surf so many waves. Over those couple years I got to meet a lot of my best friends around the world—a lot of like-minded individuals.
So when did you sign with Billabong?
GL: After those two and a half years I signed with Billabong and that was an absolute dream come true. It is still to this day an amazing working relationship with them.
I can’t stress enough that so many people get caught up in a lifestyle that they are totally consumed by. And if it is not making you happy then why are you doing it? Your happiness, health, and well-being are the most important qualities a person can have. That’s your ultimate goal in life. Or it should be. And when you put those at the top of your list you will realize that you really don’t need a lot. During those times, I knew that if nothing came about and I couldn’t carry on doing this, I would go back to school or start lifeguarding again or doing any number of things just as long as I could be by the ocean. It was one of those things that brings a feeling of peace and tranquility inside. As long as I’m by the water and could get in and surf on a regular basis, that’s all that matters.
What would you do if you were not a big wave surfer?
GL: I still have a lot of interest in going back to school and getting my degree. My mother is a teacher, my sister was a teacher, my Aunt, Grandmas. To inspire at a time when kids are at a point where they are soaking a lot of information. Who knows what I would have done — teacher, lifeguard, surf camp instructor on the other side of the world? That’s the amazing thing. People are masters of their own destiny whether they know it or not. Every decision that you make right now affects those opportunities and experiences that you have in the future. If you realize that, you can bring into your sight what you want to accomplish. You can structure these events of how you’re going to get there, what is it that you really want to get out of life, and what you are willing to give up to get there.
How much preparation goes into one day of riding big waves?
GL: Months. Years. There’s been so much that I’ve learned over the years that has brought me to where I’m at right now. It goes back to the idea of managing the risks that you are taking. If you’re on bad equipment or something isn’t working right or if you forgot something. It’s an ongoing maintenance procedure and learning process regarding the boards you are riding. Every day I am surfing I try to learn something new or see something new and every big session I learn something about my boards or the waves or how this swell is affected by the tide or the wind, all piecing that together into the bigger picture. It is exactly that 12 months a year. That’s the neat thing about surfing and especially big wave surfing: you never know what’s going to happen. You could have the biggest swell of your life 12 days from now, or three months from now, or even 10 years from now. You always have to be 100 percent physically and mentally ready.
I spoke with Jeff Clark and when asking him about scary moments he mentioned an experience he had with you at Mavericks where you broke an eardrum. Does that register for you as one of your scariest moments surfing?
GL: Yes. People always ask what was the scariest moment or have you ever thought you were going to drown, and that was one time I was really close to doing just that. It was a really big day at Mavericks, really long interval swell, so it had a lot of energy to it and waves were coming in really ugly and doubling up and not too many waves were approachable. I waited over an hour for my first wave and it was the wave that I got.
I got to the bottom and, usually, if you make it to the bottom and make your bottom turn, you’re away from the real danger zone. The wave ended up catching up to me and kind of mowed me over. I remember that straight away the thing kind of dragged me and pushed me straight to the bottom. I ended up bouncing off the bottom and it was so much more violent than any other wipeout I had. I remember thinking in that whole kind of state that I couldn’t get to my nose to equalize the pressure and it was building up because I was deep at the time. It was really low tide and I was kind of bouncing around the shallow part of the reef and it goes off a real deep ledge. I remember distinctly feeling as I’m bouncing, and then literally free falling and being pushed another maybe 10, 15, 20 feet. At that time my right ear drum blew out.
I immediately got really light headed and nearly passed out. I remember being down there for a long time and it wasn’t letting me up. I got in a little state of worry because I couldn’t tell which way the surface was because I lost my equilibrium. I remember opening my eyes and I couldn’t focus on anything. So I started climbing my leash to get back to the surface and, as I got halfway up, I heard the second wave coming. The second wave pushed me right back down. That’s when things got really scary. We train to hold our breath for extensive periods of time, but a two-wave hold-down is not a common occurrence. They do happen, but not often and when they do, they’re scary. So I started climbing my leash again and that’s how I found my way to the surface and barely got my head above water. Then a third wave came. It wasn’t as big. I was fortunate that it was a two-wave set. That wave washed over me and when I came up I couldn’t get my head above water. I couldn’t focus on anything. The whole world was spinning around me. The rocks on the inside looked vertical and spinning around. I saw the video afterward and I was totally lost. I was swimming sideways and back down. Jeff came around and grabbed me on the ski right before I went through the rocks. I remember looking at those things and thinking this is going to be the worst situation of your life right here. They were dancing all over the place. I couldn’t even begin to swim and figure it out. He actually made a couple passes to pick me up. I remember one time I was looking to grab his hand and as he came to get me I ended up swimming sideways. Eventually, as I’m getting ready to go through the rocks I just sat there and thought he’s either going to get me or he’s not. So he threw me up onto the sled, took me over to the boat, and I ended up going to the hospital to get my ear taken care of. If I had been down there ten more seconds, or who knows how long, I wouldn’t have been able to get back up to the surface. That would’ve been it. That was the most terrifying wipeout of my life.
Did it take a while to get back in the water after that?
GL: I had to wait for my ear to really heal. Once you do that it becomes more susceptible to happening again and again. I’m really careful to make sure to clear my ears when I wipeout now. That’s a really terrifying feeling because once you’re down there you’re really helpless. I don’t even want to think about what would’ve happened if my leash had broken.
Who are your heroes?
GL: Too many to count. It really comes down to anybody I see out there really pursuing their passions and dreams, whether it is starting your own business or the traveling surf bums I meet on the side of the road. Anybody out there living their life exactly how they want to and not feeling the need to conform to those ideas of what’s normal. Out there enjoying life. You see people every day just so stoked and happy with the world they set up and what they’ve surrounded themselves with. Those are the people I love being around, love talking to and who I’m inspired by.
Do you have a typical day?
G: If the surf is good, I will be surfing two to three times a day. I try and do at least an hour of yoga. I always get into other projects based around this career whether it’s working on new documentaries, getting big wave surf events up and running, or working with environmental organizations. I’m always trying to keep this whole world of big wave surfing and this career running. It essentially becomes a business. Always researching online, looking for new potential places to surf and to explore. I look at weather around the world and any swell worth chasing.