The Long and the Short of It

When it comes to paddling into 30-foot waves, there aren't many men in the world better than Greg Long. ASP/Cestari

Plainly put, Greg Long is the best big-wave rider of the 21st century. Tuesday, Long won the Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau in absolutely brilliant fashion, becoming just the eighth person to earn the coveted title in a contest that runs only when the surf is huge.

"It's a dream come true for me. Riding big waves is my passion, and I've been following The Eddie since I knew exactly what it was," Long said from the podium. "I was probably 12 years old, just getting into surfing. Since then, I've had every single poster from Brock Little to Bruce Irons on my wall. I look to those guys for inspiration, and to be standing up here with Sunny [Garcia] and Kelly Slater is a dream come true for me. I never would have thought that this is my first year surfing the event, and to come away with a victory is really a childhood dream become real."

While winning "The Eddie" is a career highlight in and of itself, consider that in the past several years Long has won every big-wave accolade possible. Last year, he won both the Billabong XXL Award and the Maverick's contest, and before that he was champ at the Red Bull Big Wave Africa event. Without dispute, Long is the winningest big-wave rider in the world today, and beating Kelly Slater with a perfect score in the dying minutes of an already historic day only helped to further his growing legend.

It's rare that Eddie organizers have to rush through the opening ceremony, but on Thursday, the official kickoff to the event's waiting period, the hot topic of conversation was not when the Eddie would run, but how big it would be when it did. "Everybody's been paying a lot of attention to the weather maps, and it's safe to say we're in for something special," said event emcee Mark Cunningham, a former North Shore lifeguard.

Thanks to a super storm in the North Pacific, swell models were off the charts, and wave heights were forecast to hit the 50-foot mark. "I don't think we've ever seen anything like this," said Peter Mel, who has spent plenty of time navigating weather maps.

Three days after the opening ceremony the first pulses of swell began to filter into Waimea Bay. By Monday morning, the Bay was borderline closing out. But midday Monday was nasty --- ripe with evil ledges and double-ups. A wave snapped Tom Carroll's leg and ankle. But still, there's always critics, and there was some murmuring last night that "they should have run it today."

That same mood was pervasive on the bike path this morning. "Ah, it's cleaner, but a lot less consistent and a bit smaller. Reckon they should have run yesterday," described one Aussie pundit.

By 10 a.m., it was clear organizers had made the right call. It was as clean a Hawaiian day as one could ask for, and with perfectly groomed sets topping out at more than 35 feet, rolling through every 10-15 minutes. The crowd -- equal parts famed watermen, Triple Crown pros, and bug-eyed tourists -- was estimated to be between 30,000 to 50,000 people. The surf never stopped pulsing, as heat after heat ran in what some locals called the most consistent 30-foot-plus swell in 40 years. By the end of the day, questioning the event organizers' call seemed as absurd as questioning the surfers' courage.

"What more could you ask for?" defending Eddie winner Bruce Irons said.

If we were the nitpicking type (and impatient, to boot) we might have asked for a little more competitive drama. After all, despite awe-inspiring surfing from Eddie's 60-year-old brother, Clyde, life-affirming drops from Shane Dorian and Mark Healey, a continuing return to form from Sunny Garcia, and dozens of stomach-turning wipeouts, one thing never seemed to be in doubt: the winner.

With one heat remaining, it appeared that Kelly Slater was going to toss yet another oversized check into his collection. The attitude on the beach was that it was a foregone conclusion. After all, Bruce Irons was the only surfer in the final heat who was even in the top five when it began. Long, who sort of blew it in his morning heat, wasn't even on the radar. He needed four huge scores to have any chance at the wrong end of the podium.

But then, in his own quiet, taking-care-of-business way, Long battled back from the brink.

Up until Wednesday, there's been only one perfect 100-point ride in The Eddie (by Bruce Irons in 2004). But in the final heat, Chile's Ramon Navarro broke the seal, notching a perfect score on what would eventually earn him "Drop of the Day" honors. Long, who was a completely different surfer in the afternoon, soon earned the second one. His surfing was so consistent, there was actually some confusion as to which of his waves earned the 100 points.

The heat wound down, but the waves didn't, and arguably the largest set of the day closed the Bay out as the final buzzer sounded. It looked as though Long had clawed himself back into contention, but when it was announced that he'd overtaken Slater by the razor-thin margin of 10 points, the crowd erupted.

"I'm still standing here in awe, and I want to go check the scores to make sure someone isn't going to come here and take this away," Long joked afterward.

As I type this, the festivities at the Billabong house are just getting underway. There was word that Long and his good mate Twiggy were going to keep chasing this swell to Maverick's and then maybe Todos, but seeing as he's $55,000 richer and has a long night of toasting ahead of him, those plans may change.