"I was focused," says Greg Long, trying to justify his steely demeanor in Hawaii during the recent Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau.
Earlier in the day, Long did the unthinkable: steal a certain victory from the hands of nine-time world champ Kelly Slater in the final seconds of the event's last heat. In nearly any contest he enters, Slater is the best surfer in the water. But if the contest in question is a big wave contest, that title doesn't belong to Slater. It belongs to Long.
As evening overtakes the North Shore of Oahu, the soft-spoken 26-year-old from San Clemente recounts the day with hometown friends Patrick and Tanner Gudauskas, who have just qualified for the 2010 ASP World Tour. Between swigs of warming beer they toast and laugh.
"It's the sickest thing ever," Patrick Gudauskas says. "This is the contest to win. It's amazing. A San Clemente boy is the Eddie champ, who would have thought?"
Because "the Eddie" runs only when the surf at Waimea Bay consistently tops 20 feet, Long is just the eighth winner in the big wave contest's 25-year history. And this day, a day when solid 25- to 30-foot sets poured through the bay nonstop, will go down as one for the ages. "It was about as good as Waimea gets," says Mark Dombrowski, a lifeguard on the North Shore since the mid '70s who, coincidentally, was hired by Eddie Aikau. "It was perfect. The weather and winds were great, and the waves pumped all day long."
And now with an Eddie trophy on the mantle, Long has established himself as the winningest big-wave surfer of the 21st century. Consider this: There are only four major contests devoted to surfers like Long, who spend the year chasing the largest possible waves to the handful of locations around the globe that can handle surf in the 20- to 50-foot range. Besides the Eddie, the other three are less than a decade old. And in that decade, Long has won all of them.
He took the 2003 Red Bull Big Wave Africa contest at Dungeons, a monster of a wave off the Capetown Coast. In 2008, he won the Mavericks Contest at California's premier big wave break of the same name. And he's the most decorated surfer in the history of the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards, which, since 2001, has doled a series of trophies at the end of the big wave season, which runs from November to April. He won performer of the year in 2005 and 2008, biggest wave in 2007, the monster paddle award in 2008. Last year, he finally earned the event's top honor: ride of the year.
In terms of competition results in the big wave arena, Long simply has no equal.
"Riding big waves is something I've always dreamed about," he says. "Ever since I was little I remember wanting to be out in big surf."
The son of a California state lifeguard, Long and his brother Rusty grew up on the beach, frequenting Trestles and the multitude of other breaks around San Clemente. Bit by the big wave bug early, by their early teens they were already tagging along on missions to Todos Santos, an island off the coast of northern Baja, Mexico and up north to Mavericks.
"The two of them have always been gnarly," Patrick Gudauskas said. "We got into doing the competitive thing, and they dabbled in it, too. People forget Greg was the NSSA [National Scholastic Surfing Association] national champ in 2001, but they were always way more into chasing swells and scoring crazy waves."
After their runs north and south had sufficiently wetted their big-wave appetites, the Long brothers began venturing farther south, to places like Puerto Escondido, Mexico, and the open-ocean breaks of northern Chile.
"Once you get a taste for it, you just want to go bigger and bigger," explains Jamie Sterling, a longtime friend of Greg and Rusty Long's, as well as a big wave lunatic in his own right. "It's what we do. It's what we live for."
Long continued to tackle the world's meanest waves, making countless trips up U.S. 101 to surf Mavericks and hiring more boats to take him out to Todos than he can count. He's one of only a handful of surfers to tackle Cortes Bank, a bizarre underwater sea mount that creates waves exceeding 70 feet, 100 miles off the California coast. And all the media attention he's received for traveling the world to well-known breaks for well-documented swells doesn't begin to cover everything he's accomplished when the camera's aren't looking.
But for as idyllic as Long's run may sound, it's hardly been easy. Chasing huge waves all over the planet isn't cheap, and Long's had his fair share of challenges funding his adventures. In 2007, Long's only major sponsor put the kibosh on its surf program. It didn't slow Long's surfing down, but it took a financial toll.
"It was just baffling that nobody would sign him. He was like the most eligible bachelor but nobody wanted to take him on a date," Sterling says.
Finally, in June of 2008, Long inked a deal with Billabong. "He's such a talent, and such a fantastic representative for the sport of surfing as a whole, we feel very fortunate to be part of what Greg is doing," Billabong media director Jim Kempton says.
And what makes Long such a wonderful asset for a brand like Billabong -- or anybody for that matter -- is that, besides being a wild and crazy hellman who's always in the spotlight, he's about as gracious, generous and articulate a role model as one's apt to find in any sport.
Case in point: Not all of his peers receive the sort of financial support Long does. For most of them, contest paychecks are a primary source of funding. When Long won the Mavericks Contest, he chose to split the prize purse evenly between the five other finalists. "I really wasn't that concerned with winning or losing," Long told Surfline.com. "Sharing the lineup with five of your best friends, it just doesn't get any better than that."
And that's the beauty about Greg Long's approach. It's never been about the money, or the awards, or the trophies. For Long it's simply about surfing and riding the biggest wave he can. Sponsor or no sponsor, endorsement deal or not, when the buoys are big you can bet Long will be out there in the ocean somewhere, chasing down swells with his friends and family.
Back on the North Shore, the revelry of the victory party is starting to ratchet up. Long and the Gudauskas brothers stand outside on the back deck, still trying to make sense of how far they've come. Patrick Gudauskas asks Greg Long, "What's next?"
"I don't know," Long says. "But it's supposed to be big in California tomorrow."
Jake Howard lives, writes and surfs in San Clemente.