We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Greg Long, big wave surfer and one of National Geographic's Adventurers of the year. We discussed Greg's experience with ESPN in producing Big Wave Hellmen, a World of X Games series following five of the worlds best big wave surfers around the globe as they compete and ride the biggest waves they can find as well as general big wave surfing questions. You can get some behind the scenes information on the series reading this interview, but check out the first episode of Big Wave Hellmen on ABC Sunday, October 26th at 5 p.m. eastern time.
So you've recently finished working on a 3 part series called Big Wave Hellmen, was that any different than filming for other videos/movies?
That was quite different actually. Through the course of my career we really only travelled in tight, one or two person groups, just because we need to move so quickly. So this was definitely a larger, more coordinated production. Every single trip that we went on, it took more than usual because we needed to plan ahead for the specific boats, and camera angles to make sure everything was covered. It was just a bit more elaborate, but the guys on the other hand, did a fantastic job of understanding how fast we needed to actually act when a swell does show up on a model. In the production world that isn't something that happens easily, but the team we were working with was amazing and basically adapted to our lives.
Was it difficult to be on call, considering extra large waves aren't always readily available? How did this affect your family and friends?
Yeah, trust me, it wasn't just for the filming of this show that we're on call all the time. I dedicated the last 15 years of my life to following big waves so it's been 15 years of being on call 24/7 for 12 months of the year. And to answer your question, most definitely. You know, for friendships you don't have time, and you can't commit to being at any certain place at any certain time. Relationships are difficult unless you find someone who's very understanding, and really gets what were doing, and is supportive of our passion. I personally found it difficult to find that personality in a partner myself. Every big wave surfer will surely have a story about when they're up against that conundrum, what am I actually going to do in this situation? Am I going to follow the swell or hold up my prior engagements to other people?
At any point during the making of the series did you ever question what you were getting into or some seriously sketchy moments?
I'm very calculated in the risks that I take in my big wave surfing, I don't put my self in situations that I'm not comfortable. At this point, I have no problem looking at approaching swells, or the conditions at hand and saying, hey this isn't a swell I want to partake in. Actually, in the show there was one time at jaws when everybody went over there, and I could tell it was going to be an ugly day and I opted out of it. I wasn't going to go there and put my self in that situation. You know, once you're there you get kind of caught up, your buddies excitement, the adrenalines going. That day proved to me that everything I thought was right, out of all of my friend shooting, I'd say half of them came home injured or came to close to having a really significant wipeout. I didn't let the cameras or the pressure to produce the series influence my decisions out there. I know the potential risks, there's no photograph, documentation, or big wave award that's worth compromising your safety. This was really just behind the scenes, just let the guys follow you around, I didn't change my program one bit.
As a big wave surfer, you do what most people would consider a death wish day after day, how do you mentally prepare yourself to continuously surf enormous waves?
It's a life long pursuit, like anything you do in life, if you just try and jump straight in there and go for it, chances are whatever you're trying to do, you're not going to do successfully. Its been a gradual progression to getting to where I'm at, I've surfed some big days where I go out there and I'm comfortable. I'm relatively familiarly with the lineups even though the ocean is always changing and no two waves or two days are the same. I can go out there with confidence that I really know how to read and understand this wave because I've put years of time into training and doing that. Big wave surfing is a true athletic discipline, there are very few guys who are still going out there by the seat of their pants, and just thinking, hey, you know what, I'm going to be ok no matter what. We know the worst possible consequences of our actions; I've experienced them first hand. Every competent big wave surfers who's really dedicating themselves to do this are training in order to physically prepare themselves for the biggest days and the worst of wipeouts. That includes underwater breath training, cardio training, and working specifically on strength, flexibility, balance, and stamina. The more physically prepared you are, that's going to enhance your mental confidence, and the more mentally confident you are in the lineup, that's going to enhance your physical performance in committing to these waves.
How do you feel the new safety vests impacted big wave surfing?
The implementation of new safety equipment has improved the safety of our sport tremendously. Then there's the other side where there are people who are getting a false sense of security. They think that they can just go out there because they have these flotation suits or inflatable vests and there's no risk or anything to worry about. That's so far from the truth though, the reason I have mine is as a backup precaution, its really only used when you're held under for two waves and not going to be able to surface on your own, or getting knocked unconscious. You know, there's two sides to it, but the fact is, all I ever want to see is people going out there and having fun and challenging themselves riding big waves to come out safely at the end of the day. If someone is going out there and taking risks they shouldn't, then they'll probably learn the hard way. Hopefully what is established in the safety realm of things will help them get through it and then they'll go rethink things. Any competent big wave surfer whose out there for the right reasons, they know these are just backup precautions, not your first line of defense. The first thing, and only thing you can rely on is your physical, and mental preparation.
I don't know if you've heard or read about it, but the University of Southern Denmark has created a material that can store oxygen and release it when needed. It is still in the early developmental phases, but how would something like this impact big wave surfing?
I think that if you could use it in the right time and place, it would further increase the safety in what we're doing. What a lot of people don't understand is what you can and can't use. When you're forty feet below a giant wave like that, having the ability to reach any sort of mechanical device is tough; we have a hard enough time reaching the activation cord on our inflatable suits. If it becomes any more complicated than that, then it's not really an applicable idea. I've seen all sorts of different stuff, the masks that can allegedly extract oxygen from the water and everything in between. We'll go through and see if you can actually access these masks thirty feet below the surface in tumbling white water with your arms and legs being pulled in different directions. Its all amazing ideas and concepts, but I think were a ways off from them being applicable to surfing. I'm sure in the future some of them will actually work though.
If you had to choose one sport to make a career out of, excluding surfing, what sport would it be and why?
Snowboarding, the big mountaineering snowboarding like Jeremy Jones. To me, what he's doing is the absolute equivalent, if not more extreme than what we're doing. In recent years, I've really fallen in love with snowboarding; to me it's the closest thing to riding a big wave, you know, powering down a mountain and laying out big turns.
Lastly, what do you think you would be doing if you weren't surfing?
If I wasn't surfing, I would most likely be a lifeguard. I grew up and my father was a lifeguard for 35 years. To him it was the dream job that provided the opportunity to be at the beach every single day, and the opportunity to pretty much surf every day if he wanted. Following in his footsteps, I have that same mindset, it doesn't matter what I do as long as I'm close to the water I'm happy.
You can tune into Big Wave Hellmen, part of the World of X Games series, at the following dates:
Big Wave Hellmen Episode 1 will be airing on ABC Sunday, October 26th at 5 p.m. Eastern time
Big Wave Hellmen Episode 2 will be airing on ABC Sunday, November 2nd at 3 p.m. Eastern time
Big Wave Hellmen Episode 3 will be airing on ABC Sunday, November 9th at 5 p.m. Eastern time
Also, a big thank you to Crystal Yang at ESPN for facilitating this interview, as well as Greg Long for taking the time out of your day to be a part of it.