San Clemente big-wave rider Greg Long only really began to worry when the second towering wall of water crashed over his head just as he was about to reach the surface.
It was Dec. 21, 2012, and Long and several other big-wave surfers were riding giants at Cortes Bank, about 100 miles off the coast of San Diego. Just moments earlier, Long had wiped out on a 25-foot wave and, as often happens, had been thrust as many feet below the surface as the monster swell continued on its way east. He'd had the wind knocked out of him and felt pretty bruised up from the impact of the wipeout, but that was nothing unusual.
What was unusual, though, was that Long's inflatable wet suit had failed to deploy, which made it nearly impossible for him to reach the turbulent surface and get rescued by a Jet Ski. Just when he'd almost made it, he had been sent straight back to the darkness. "I knew I was in pretty grave danger," Long recalls. "I had to relax and control my mind."
His top concern was keeping himself from swallowing water, but Long's brain was telling him to breathe. He could feel his stomach fluttering with involuntary spasms as his lungs began to shut down. "When the turbulence finally started to subside, I was swimming to the surface, and the third wave passed over me, at which point, I knew I was going to black out soon."
Arms flailing, his fingers grasped his leash, and at length, Long managed to pull himself up again, battling against the washing-machine-like turbulence. "Either I was going to get up to the surface," he figured, "or black out 30 feet underwater."
Instead, Long blacked out only a few feet underwater, right before a fourth wave crashed on top of him. As soon as it passed, arriving at the scene was a Jet Ski steered by his close friends D.K Walsh and John Walla, another San Clemente surfer who'd helped Long pioneer the recent trend of paddle-in big-wave riding. Long was face-down in the water, but as soon as they pulled him aboard, he came back to life, vomiting a mixture of blood and foam. Within an hour or so, the Coast Guard had choppered Long to a hospital, where he underwent treatment for secondary drowning, and he began to consider whether what had just happened was life's way of telling him his surfing days were over.
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"That was the heaviest moment of my life," he says. "Since then, it has become one of the most amazing experiences of my life, but at the moment, it was terrifying, knowing how close I'd come to drowning."
Ultimately, Long realized he wasn't going to let fear stop him from dominating the sport. Although he says he still relives the experience every time he takes a wave, he's already back in the big competitions and recently pulled a third-place finish in the infamously dangerous Maverick's Invitational near San Francisco. On the horizon: paddling into some of the world's largest waves at Jaws, on Maui's north shore.
"Big-wave surfing has been my No. 1 passion and guiding light in life," Long says. "It's been the most beautiful, adventurous life I could ever dream of living. But how quick and easily it can be taken away from you. The next wave you ride could be the best of your life—or the one that ends it."