A few months ago, a friend of mine was staying at my house. Alanna, through her work at something called The Latitude Project (which you should definitely check out), met Greg Long. I’d met him few times at different events, but never had more than a passing conversation with him. She’d stayed at his house for a few weeks prior to staying at mine, and the day she came to stay, all three of us spent a pretty decent afternoon shooting the shit and wandering through the woods before eating dinner while the sun dropped out of the sky. Turns out Greg is not only one of the best big wave guys on the planet, he’s also one of the most down-to-earth, humble, and just plain nice people on the planet, too.
Alanna, like Greg, nearly died once. While her near-death experience came via car accident, Greg’s, of course, came at Cortes Bank. At some point over the course of dinner, they got to talking about it. It was crazy to me, watching these two talk candidly about dying and their thoughts around the actual experience–not what they learned from it, or how it made them feel about the rest of their lives–but the actual step-by-step account of what dying is like. It got me thinking.
As the limits of what is possible in big wave surfing are pushed, it’s inevitable that the surfers who are pushing those limits will go through some very, very heavy experiences. So, on a sweltering day in my older brother’s backyard in Sacramento, I got on the horn with Greg to get a full account of one of his greatest surfing horror stories. To my surprise, he didn’t tell me about his Cortes wipeout. It was one incredibly heavy day at Maverick’s. Here’s what he had to say about it, straight from the horse’s mouth:
“It was on a really big long interval swell. Swell energy was registering 25 seconds on the buoys. When it was hitting the shelf at Mav’s, it was going so fast and lurching so much that 90% of the waves that day were ending in wipeouts. I waited for an hour and a half before I found a wave that gave me a good entrance into it, so I could avoid the whole air-drop-car-crash-disaster take off. So I’ve waited an hour, had a good entry into it, and I get to the bottom. All of a sudden a wave that I thought was good and make-able… it just grows and extends as far as I can see into the channel. I realize I’m not going to make it, so I straighten out, and this thing just come tumbling down behind me. The force with which this thing hit me was almost paralyzing. I was instantly pushed so deep so fast that I had not even a half a second to think about the pressure building in my ears before it became too much and my right ear drum ruptured.
As soon as you blow out an eardrum, you instantly lose all equilibrium and sense of direction. You cannot tell up from down, right from left, and it feels like I’ve got all this freezing water being pumped into my brain. It’s like an ice pick stabbing into the side of my head. I know what’s happened instantaneously. I get super light-headed and dizzy–I’ve heard horror stories of ruptured ear drums before, so I’m able to acknowledge it and in that time, just try and stay calm and know that, y’know, ‘you are getting ready to face one of the most horrendous situations you’re ever going to have.’
So I’m down there relaxing… let me rephrase that. I’m down there doing my best to stay calm, knowing the gravity of the situation. I’m waiting for the first wave to subside. When it does, I start to swim, and I realize that I’ve got NO idea which way is up. I just couldn’t physically tell. I fumble around and I grab my leash–thankfully, it was still attached to my board–and I start climbing it back to the surface. As I’m about halfway up, I hear the next wave of the set coming. When it hits me, it pushes me right back down to where I was just a few seconds prior to that. So now I’m going back through the even more disorienting somersaults and cartwheels, flips… and by this point, I’m really starting to get light-headed and fatigued. This pain that’s in my head is excruciating, but I do my best again to relax and stay calm. I fumble around for my leash a second time, and I start climbing it back to the surface. Thankfully, that was the last big wave of the set. I get to the tail section of my board, my head comes up, I get a breath, and I’m looking at the cliffs. I’m so disoriented that at first I think the cliff is the next wave of the set. But then I realize that I’m looking at the cliff, and I see the rock field. All of a sudden, it’s vertical, and it’s upside down… the world is just spinning around me in all directions.
I hear someone yell my name, so I turn around and I see Jeff Clark coming in on the Jet Ski to grab me. But when I see Jeff, I see about six of him dancing all over the place. He comes in to pick me up and puts his arm out, and all of a sudden he moves like, 20 feet in the other direction, so I turn and start swimming towards him. All the while, I’m barely keeping my head above water. I’m swimming sideways, I’m swimming down at some points–I was just totally disoriented. We missed that pick up, and I’m all of a sudden looking back at the rocks thinking, ‘now I’ve got to deal with these things, and I can’t even tell where they actually are because everything is dancing all over the place.’ So I turn back around and focus on Jeff again, still struggling to keep my head out of the water, and I figure, ‘you know what? Just stay still. If there’re no waves, he is that good on the ski that I know he’ll come get me. Don’t try and go after him, because you don’t know which one of these six Jeff Clarks coming towards you is the real Jeff.’
I just end up putting my arm up, and he grabs me and throws me on the ski, and we just skirt past the rocks. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if I’d had to pinball my way through them. I’m dry heaving, I’ve swallowed water, I’m gasping for air… I’m just absolutely exhausted and winded. I just remember holding onto the back of sled, going over to the boat, and lying face down on the mat, almost going in and out of consciousness; absolutely drained. My right ear is in excruciating pain, and I’m just done. I was with photographer Rob Brown, and I told him ‘I know you want to keep shooting, but all I want to do is be off the water, off the ocean, and off a rocking boat right now.’ So we went back to land, and you know, there’s nothing you can do for a ruptured ear drum. I got my oral and ear drop antibiotics and that was it. One of the most challenging wipeouts of my life, for sure.
Ever since then, I’ve never really tried to push myself at a really big, long interval swell at Maverick’s. I look at those days, and it’s just not worth it to me. I know the consequences, and the likelihood of getting a good ride on a day like that is very slim. Whenever I fuck up, I definitely look for the lesson behind it, because you don’t want to be making too many mistakes like that. The world will keep teaching you the lessons you need to learn until you actually learn them and live appropriately.”
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