Greg Long: Illumination

posted by / Magazine / December 21, 2013

Images for Surfing Magazine FEB ISSUE 2014
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

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  • Kevin Bacon

    Hi this is Kevin Bacon. As many know me from the movie Flatliners decades ago, tempting death for personal gratification will continue in vanity. Greg is a courageous person. Life past the flat line is moot so why ponder. Thank you very much for giving us your world.

  • John

    wow – really inspiring read its refreshing to see a surfer with such a clear perspective on life and whats important – good luck with the future greg and i hope you are able to pass on this message to the youth as a feel it will do a tremendous amount of good

  • Wooly

    Well written piece. I really appreciate Greg taking the time to share this experience and I admire his willingness to grow in his self-awareness and then share what he learned with others.

    At a few places in the story the expectation grew inside me that I was about to hear about some reference point outside of himself (e.g. God) to give some grounding to the meaning and focused purpose he experienced. He shared more of an existential learning from it all which is fine. I do wonder, given this experience, if his view of God changed as a result. But that could just be me.

    Thanks Greg for sharing this with all of us. We are happy you made it through not just the crazy hold downs under water, but the year after such a traumatic incident. Blessings to you.

  • Lobo

    When God created Adam, He breathed into him the “breath of life” and Adam became a living soul. Neshama is The Lords breathing the breathe of life into a body of dust creating the first man…Each breathe everyone takes and from morning to eve is a full circle…..33.33333 degrees full circumference and unbroken circle… Jesus gave His last breathe on earth before He resurrected to Heaven. He sits at the right hand of the Father and He knew Greg Long would survive to live another day before the world was created. Jesus died on the mountain He created and by His Spirit His Word is carried around the world by His faithful servants. I Lobo am here to let Greg know Jesus stands at the door of your heart and knocks let HIm in and He will give you eternal life and Kent does not know HIs truth yet…..

  • Chauffeuring

    You could surely go to your knowledge of a paintings you write. This field desires of even more excited internet writers as if you that may not be reluctant to express the direction they feel. All of the time observe a person’s cardiovascular system.

  • Christine

    Amen brother :)

  • Larry Goddard

    Hi, Greg,

    I had a Near-Death Experience at age 12, ao I understand what you discovered about gaining a new perspective on what is really important in life.

    Another “Greg” I know nearly drowned at Makaha on Thursday, December 4th, 1969. He had paddled into a 46-foot closeout wave at Makaha, and was held down for about a minute. That’s long enough for 3 waves! Try running a 50-yard Sprint, then see if you can hold your breath for 60 seconds… You had better be in GREAT physical condition!

    Greg Noll was the last guy out that day… the handful of guys that had gone out earlier had already left the water… because it had become TOO big and unridable. And, in addition, the NW wind had gotten stronger, up to 25-30 MPH! The waves were really getting UGLY. But, Greg was determined to RIDE in, not PADDLE in.

    Instead, he had to swim in… Oh well. Big surf can be pretty humbling.

    You have your head in the right place, now. Your newly-gained Insight on Life is precious, Greg. Thanks for sharing with us!

    Merry Christmas! Larry “The Weatherman” Goddard

  • DK

    Awesome letter Greg, you’re right, importance in life change greatly when you believe life may be over….Only when you have no assurance of eternity. When you do, the most important thing in life remains the same. I love life like the best of them, yet we all know we will die someday, unless Christ returns before that happens, and we are one of his. In other words, Jesus Christ gives everyone a “free will” opportunity to go to heaven after leaving earth forever, by simply 1. Asking him to forgive you for all your sins. 2. Asking him into your heart. 3. Living for him. With that you will have complete peace when death is upon you. Why? After death the next step is being with Jesus in heaven forever. I pray that you will give your heart to him. He truly loves you, like no other. Please read John 3:16

  • GBD

    Great piece, Greg. Nice to hear that this experience provided you with such an awakened sense of awareness and insight. Thanks for sharing and good luck on all of your journeys in the future.

  • Max

    Truly inspiring and insightful Greg. You clearly have an amazing outlook on life and your passions. Thanks very much for sharing your story.

  • brittany

    You’re a legend Greg! Love the article- Honest and well written. Thanks for sharing your experiences and knowledge.. peace!

  • Clark Abbey

    Thanks for sharing this Greg. Glad your still with us. Love you brother,


  • Ricardo Taveira

    Aloha Greg, I had the opportunity to hear your talk story at TBR and met you in person a few days after at the lineup at Waimea Bay. You were really nice and we actually had a conversation about apnea training. I would like to let you know that I was amazed of your simplicity and felt grateful to you for taking the time to talk to me.
    The words and messages of your article definitely makes people reflect about their lives. You don’t only inspire people from the waves you surf, you also inspire them by the way you are. Keep the great spirit and God will always be with you my friend.

  • bufu

    great read. It’s good to hear that you have found peace.

  • Preston

    This was a powerfully written piece that could only come from someone who has spent so much of this life in the water. Thank you, Greg.
    Now, on this Christmas morning, I’m compelled to make an observation, and I hesitate because it would not surprise me that responses following will collapse dialogue into a holy war.
    After Long acknowledges the fragility of life (a truly liberating epiphany), it is disheartening how many folks are compelled to exploit Greg’s narrative to spout dogma. It reminds me of the inspired bumper sticker: “Jesus, Please Protect Me from Your People.”
    Are we open and secure enough to ponder Greg’s words? “We all come from different walks of life with countless life experiences shaping who we are and the path we choose. What matters is we all strive to go forward having fun, walking our unique paths helping others along the way.”

  • John Maher

    Thank you for the reminder to keep what really matters in perspective Greg. Beautifully written perspective and articulated connection between ego and spirit. Merry Christmas amigo.

  • Liz

    I am so glad I found this article you wrote, my son just joined the Navy, he is trying out for Seals, and ask that I send him news articles about surfing, he used to do NSSA contest when you kids were younger and your dad the lifeguard at San Clemente, he is also a Ocean Lifeguard and he has done the ASP run, and loves big waves, not to the extreme that you have though but I am sure if he had the opportunity he would be out there, your words are so heart felt and I don’t think I could have found a more perfect view of what lifes about then your words have told, I am sure this is a article he will pass along to other sailors in his group to read, May happiness follow you wherever life takes you. Thank you, from a sailors mom

  • robert trotter

    Buzzy trent just said thats enough. My friends and I were always in awe of this man. We never asked him why, or for his stories.
    buzzy became an avid long distance bike rider, and worked as a yardman for a family friend till he passed.

  • JB

    I’m just gonna soak that in… for the rest of my life.

  • Drew

    Thanks, Greg.

  • Pete Simpson

    Nice to see such a humble and elequent speaker represent our sport. The Neanderthal perception has followed this sport for far too long. Thanks for the deep and thoughtful insight into you pysche after such a harrowing experience.

  • Jake


  • player hater

    awesome piece of writing, thanks for sharing greg

  • Del

    In High tide & low tide he will be by your side……

    Moving Greg..

  • guest

    good to see that greg long is as douchey as fuck as always

  • Larry

    Well put Greg. You are a stud–I saw you at the 25th Eddie. I took courage to admit all that your shared. I think that your words prove that you understand what is beneath the surface of life. Never quit and “in-joy” the ride–it is in the moment that we exist the past is lifetimes ago and the future is never guaranteed. Wishing you all love, health, happiness and abundance in 2014.

  • mal

    Well said, JB :)

    A man of similar will, wisdom, and courage, Muhammad Ali once said: “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life” – sounds like warp-speed wisdom was bestowed upon you at Cortes Bank a little over a year ago, Greg. And with that, thankfully, the agency to share your thoughts & emotions from-the-heart. Keep on shining…and thank you.

  • carol

    Nice writing brother…you are so right that negative experiences are opportunities for us to learn and to grow. Sometimes it just takes us some time to get out of that funk before we see the light!

  • DFR

    awesome. thanks for those words greg.

  • matt

    thoughtful and insightful.

    thanks greg.

  • Octavio Medina

    Dam Greg thanks for the insight really does shed light on the danger of Big Wave Surfing, but as well as the after effects that are caused if one was to have their life almost taken away doing what they have had passion for so long. Respects Brah!

  • Kathy Unger

    Amazing article… it succinctly expresses a lot of the major themes and philosophies of so many enlightened spiritual teachers.

    Turning your worst tragedy into your greatest triumph is the most healing thing you can do on a physical, mental and emotional level.

    Thanks for sharing your story… It’s by sharing our stories that we can teach and heal each other. It’s the emotional glue that connects us all.

    Thanks Greg – Beautifully written :)

  • Val

    You are a bright light Greg. I am inspired by you, thanks for being!

  • Gareth

    Fantastic article – makes you appreciate life and what really matters

  • Howard Ziegler

    There are limits to everything. An important lesson in life when reading and studying rhetoric or advice of famous spiritual masters regarding powers of the mind is to keep one’s understanding within the context and parameters of which what is said is applicable and originally intended.