The Azores Islands
Rusty Long can fall asleep anywhere, at anytime, in about two minutes. Right now, in the middle of Los Angeles International Airport he’s sprawled out on a pile of board bags fast asleep. It’s uncanny. Just minutes before he was bouncing around, unloading the car, chatting with airline employees in red coats and laughing about the sketchy drive up from San Clemente at 4 am in the rain, but the moment he found out that our flight to Boston was cancelled he shrugged his shoulders, laid down, and immediately fell asleep amid the chaos of LAX.
The ability to sleep wherever, whenever, comes in handy when you spend 10 months a year traveling around the world riding the most dangerous waves on the planet. When not surfing big waves at well known breaks like “Maverick’s” in Northern California’s cold and shark-filled “red-traingle,” Waimea Bay, the birthplace of big wave surfing on Oahu’s North Shore, and Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, Mexico where large, powerful waves break so close to shore the beach shakes, Rusty, and his younger brother Greg, travel to the most remote corners of the world in search of undiscovered breaks. In the last five years they have established themselves as leaders in the next generation of surf adventurers and big wave hell-men. Between the two of them, the Long Brothers have pioneered (been the first to ride) big waves in Baja, South Africa, Ireland, Western Australia, Northern Chile and California. A “big wave” being any wave big, thick, powerful and heavy enough to seriously injure or even kill. In other words, waves with consequences. You know, screw up and you might die kind of shit.
Combining an old school style of grass roots adventure with twenty-first century technology and oversized cajones, Rusty and Greg Long simply go a little further, look a little harder and then when they find it, they fucking charge. You would never guess that the unassuming guy stretched out asleep in the middle of LAX routinely surfs waves that could kill him.
From Boston we were scheduled to catch a flight to the Azores, a group of nine islands in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean halfway between New England and Portugal, and search the little-known islands for un-ridden waves. Unfortunately, there are only two flights a week from Boston to the Azores and with bad weather moving into Boston there was no chance we were making it there today, tomorrow, or the next day. Waking Rusty up with a gentle nudge, we re-booked our tickets for four days later and headed back to San Clemente, Greg and Rusty’s hometown.
Rusty had done some research on the Azores; studying ocean bathymetry charts, weather patterns, swell models, and satellite images on Google Earth (a must have for any 21st century explorer). His well trained eye spotted some potential set-ups –a triangle of whitewater seen from space, a shallow shelf dropping abruptly into deep water on a bathymetry chart, a headland jutting out into the ocean further than any other around it on a map—that, with the right swell-wind combination, could yield the barely ridable waves he and his brother are known for.
The use of swell models –computer generated forecasts that use complicated mathematical formulas to turn a variety of marine and weather data into color-coded, animated projections of wave heights, wind speed and direction along with wave periods (the distance between wave peaks) at any given time in the world’s oceans– play a crucial role in modern surf adventure. They offer the ability to “see” swells form and watch them track across the open ocean, giving the user an unparalleled amount of information about when the waves will arrive and how big they’ll be. Blobs of Purple and white, the colors used to delineate the strongest winds and biggest waves, are what surfers like Greg and Rusty Long live for, and the reason they “check the models” four to five times a day.
Driving down the 405 South past coastal cities squeezed between 8-lane freeways and beaches littered with parking lots, we made it to San Clemente in a little over an hour.
San Clemente is the epicenter of Southern Californian surf culture and has one of the densest per capita populations of surfers in the world. Located at the northern edge of the Marine Corp’s Camp Pendleton, a rare block of open space that separates Orange County from San Diego, San Clemente is home to a myriad of surf companies, surf magazine offices, surf shops, surfboard shapers and all the economic machinery that it takes to run the surf industry. It is also graced with beautiful beaches free of development and consistent waves year round.
The Long family home is tucked quietly within the confines of San Clemente State Park in a small community of a dozen houses reserved for long-term park employees and lifeguards. The house is just 150 yards from the I-5, but you would never know it sitting beneath the Plumeria tree in the backyard or riding bikes through the campground to check the surf. Inside the park, the cluttered freeway culture of Southern California feels miles away.
Steve Long, has worked as a lifeguard supervisor in the California State Park System for the last thirty years. It’s no-wonder his boys love the ocean. “It was their backyard growing up” Steve tells me, “The ocean and beach was their babysitter and their playground.” Steve, a major influence for both his sons in and out of the water, has a certain glint in his eye when he says hello that signals a man who is content, a man who lives well. Steve’s easy nature and the general warmth of the Long House have made it a gathering place for surfers from all over the world for decades.
Their mom Jan, a teacher in the local elementary school, stays in constant motion making sure the perpetual stream of house guests are well fed and have places to sleep. Greg and Rusty’s older sister Heather, a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines, is currently in Europe for three weeks with her husband, a wildfire “hot-shot” based out of the Lake Tahoe area.
Splashing around in the water before they could walk, the boys’ passion for all ocean activities was apparent from early on. Several years of training and competing in the junior lifeguard program cemented their skill and strength in the ocean not just as surfers but also swimmers and divers. Local and scholastic surf contests up and down the Californian coast filled most their adolescent weekends. Trips in the old family RV down to Mexico offered the boys their first taste of surf adventure.
With a comfort level in the ocean that exceeded many of their peers the brothers, at age 15 and 17 respectively, made their first mission to “Killers,” a big wave break located on the island of Todos Santos, nine miles off the coast of Northern Baja.
“After that first session I was hooked” Greg says. Rusty adds, “It grows on you. You paddle out on a 15 foot day, get beat a couple of times, catch the biggest waves of your life and realize that you can handle the beatings, then you want to ride even bigger waves, and so on and so on…”
Although they still competed in local and national surf contests –Greg won the United States National Amateur Championship at age 18–their main focus became finding and riding big waves. After three years, Greg and Rusty’s appetite for big waves grew beyond the crowded line-ups of Hawaii. Rusty was going to college part time and Greg had just finished high school. Armed with fresh travel budgets from their sponsors, they hit the road, following big winter swells around the globe while competing in a newly formed big wave competition circuit.
From December through February they are in California keeping their eyes on Hawaii just in case a big swell develops, March and April usually find them exploring unknown corners of the world like Rapa Nui, Tasmania and Western Australia, where they keep a camper van, May and June in Puerto Escondido where Rusty owns property, July and August in South Africa, September they could be anywhere, and October through November in Europe.
After an evening surf with Rusty I walk back to the house past families cooking on the park’s barbeques and find Greg in the kitchen, pacing back and forth talking excitedly on his cell phone. The swell models have forecasted a large west swell to hit California and Baja in three days. The conversation consists of swell angles, wind predictions and travel logistics. Surf spots from Oregon to Baja are suggested but no decision will be made until the last minute. “A lot can change really quickly,” Greg explains. “So many variables are involved and although the forecasts help, they are never totally accurate, so I’ll keep an eye on the buoy readings tonight and tomorrow, and, depending on how things look tomorrow night, we’ll make a decision.”
Such is the life of modern day wave hunters, Greg tells me about a mission he made out to Cortes Bank –a submerged mountain 100 miles off the coast of Southern California where some of the biggest waves in the world break—traveling 18 hours round trip over a rough and dangerous ocean in the hopes that the wind and rain would slacken for just 3 hours before the next storm hit, allowing the team to surf waves 7 stories tall.
“There are so many ‘almosts’ when it comes to finding and riding big waves” Rusty laments. “For every time you score, you get skunked a dozen times at least…Wind, tide, swell direction, weather…it all has to come together just right… ”
“That’s why when the waves are pumping, you need to make the most of it,” Greg continues, and makes a few more phone calls about the impending swell.
While Greg continues to talk and pace I stumble across an article in a recent surf magazine about a three-day big wave bender Greg and Rusty went on in early December that shows just what Greg means when he says “you have to make the most out of it.”
One of the largest swells in the last four decades was brewing in the Pacific. With waves forecasted to be in the 50-80 foot range at the premier big wave breaks across the Pacific, the only question was, where to go? Greg and Rusty set their sights on a big wave trifecta. A mission that entailed surfing Waimea Bay in Hawaii, hopping on a plane to L.A, driving 6 hours north to “Ghost Tree” in Northern California, turning around and driving 10 hours south to Ensenada, then getting on a boat for the 9 mile crossing to “Killers” on Todos Santos Island, and doing it all during the same swell, which would last about 3 days.
Having already ridden Waimea Bay and “Ghost Tree,” with a total of 7 hours of sleep over two nights and thousands of miles clocked on the road, in the air, and on the sea, Greg paddled into a wave 5 stories high at “Killers,” earning him a nomination for the Billabong XXL awards –big wave surfing’s highest honor with an annual cash purse of over $100,000 dollars to prove it– for biggest “paddle-in” wave of the year. Both Greg and Rusty have made a mark at the XXL awards. On April 13th, 2008 Greg won both the “biggest paddle-in” award as well as overall performance at the annual XXL awards show at the Anaheim Grove and repeated the feat by winning the “biggest paddle in award in 2009 along with winning the Eddie Aikau, the oldest and most prestigious big wave contest in the world, beating out Kelly Slater in giant surf.
The forecasted swell came later than predicted but Greg was on it, scrambling to load up his van in the dark, dashing down to Baja, taking a boat nine miles off the mainland and riding 40-foot waves, all in a days work. Rusty, Cody (the photographer), and I had to catch a red-eye flight to Boston so we said goodbye to Greg with plans to meet up in the Azores a week later. Struggling to get comfortable in my seat as we taxied up the runway for our overnight flight I looked over at Rusty, who was already fast asleep.
After 36 hours of travel, which included a 16-hour layover in Boston, SATA flight 222 landed in Ponta Delgado on the Island of Sao Miguel in the Azores Islands. From there we caught a bouncy flight to one of the Azores small outer islands.
If the Hawaiian Islands and Ireland had a torrid love affair, and their bastard child spoke Portuguese, Azores would be its name. Low lying rock walls divide the countryside into thousands of asymmetrical shapes. Lush green hills speckled with cows and sheep join the valleys and coast. Houses with whitewashed walls and pink tiled roofs line the narrow cobblestone streets of small towns at the end of every road. Volcanic rock surrounds the islands, thermal hot springs bubble up through caves and waterfalls pour over 800 foot cliffs. The Azores Islands are rumored to be the location of the lost civilization of Atlantis.
For the first three days we drove around the island, checking and rechecking various locations without much luck. The image of Rusty peering along the coastline, a pair of WW II Russian binoculars glued to his eyes and sun burnt lips pursed in expectation, would always remind me of the first generation of surf exploration, where every bend in the road, every headland and bay held the promise of discovery. Something Greg said came to mind during those moments.
“I believe that one of the greatest joys that a surfer might ever know would come from a sequence of having left the first set of footprints on an isolated beach, paddling out into unknown waters, and riding the first ever wave at a newly discovered surf-spot. For me, forging into the unknown, seeking and finding what lies beyond… that is adventure!”
Three days after arriving, the clouds have cleared and I’m standing on a deserted headland watching 15-foot waves crash over a shallow lava rock reef. The wind is blowing lightly offshore, the sun is shining and the water is a deep island blue. Rusty is twittering with excitement, waxing his surfboard as he watches a wave suck out below sea level, fold over squarely and detonate in a frightening explosion of air and water. A wave of consequence if ever there was one. Pulling on his wetsuit, Rusty skips across lava-rock boulders the size of tractor tires, tiptoes over the urchin infested tidal zone, jumps into a small key-hole in the reef and calmly weaves his way through the piles of whitewater that dwarf him and his 6’8” surfboard.
Watching Rusty surf a spot that we later found out had only been ridden once before, by a body boarder who deemed the place “too dangerous,” was like watching a talented artist work. It was mesmerizing. Rusty surfed for two hours, catching a dozen waves. His surfing style fast and fluid, taking only what the wave would give him. Without forcing anything and with the least amount of movement, Rusty seemed to join the wave more than simply ride it. In an arena where most surfers would be struggling just to survive the drop and not get caught inside, Rusty was totally in his element, almost in a trance. As if he was fulfilling a deep spiritual need that craves the power and rush riding heavy water provides.
After the session Rusty, satiated and content, just smiled and said, “some fun ones out there today…”
Every time the wind began to shift we would start looking at the computer, analyzing all the different models and cross referencing them with maps and Google Earth in order to figure out where we might find good waves. After staring at the models for a full day we decided to make a move. It was a gamble, even the one local surfer we talked to didn’t think there were waves where we were going, but Rusty had seen a small triangle of whitewater in the grainy black and white satellite image on Google Earth back in San Clemente and a large swell was currently building in the Northern Atlantic with the wind forecasted to turn offshore for the area Rusty had in mind. So we packed up our bags, boarded a plane, and left our current island and it’s known waves behind, blindly following a purple blob on the swell model, some arrows that represented wind, and a triangle of white…all of which we could only see on the screen of a computer.
Arriving on the island of the white triangle, all we actually saw was rain and people staring at our surfboard bags. They all shook their heads and fingers at us, saying, “the ocean is too rocky, there is no surfing here.” Some just called us crazy.
We spent two days driving around the small island with our windshield wipers on looking for anything that resembled a ridable wave and although there was some potential, it began to look like the locals were right, but we had already told Greg where to meet us, so decided to stick it out until he arrived.
Greg showed up in the tiny airport smiling, Rusty still believed the conditions were going to change any minute but as we drove through a thick cloud on top of the island it seemed doubtful.
Emerging on the other side of the cloud, the sky lightened. By the time we reached the first lookout the sun was popping through. Whispers grew into shouts as we got our first look at the ocean. A new swell had arrived. Wave lines were stacked to the horizon, the wind was blowing offshore, and you could see large waves peeling in the distance. We scrambled around checking all the different points, bays and reefs we had seen on the days before when the ocean was flat.
Driving down a steep cobblestone street we inched past a half dozen cows plodding down the road with a young boy following behind. A half-mile later we parked on the side of the road next to a small bay that I’ll just call “Atlantis.” Stepping out of the car I watched as “everything came together.” Four large waterfalls cascaded off the cliffs rimming the bay, the setting sun turning the electric green cliffs a soft pink as 12-foot waves pounded along the reef. It was a surfing Shangri-la.
Wave after perfect wave poured into the bay as Greg and Rusty stretched, waxed their boards, and quickly discussed the best place to paddle out. The whole process took about five minutes. I was a bit overwhelmed. I didn’t quite know what to do, never believing that I’d be one of the first surfers to ride an unknown wave.
I put my wetsuit on and watched as Greg dropped into the first wave. There are few things any surfer prizes more than riding inside the belly of a breaking wave, called a barrel or a tube, the deeper you get in that belly the closer you are to a certain type of Nirvana that some surfers dedicate their entire lives to obtaining. Stalling at the bottom of the wave, Greg watched calmly as thousands of gallons of water pitched up and over his head. Reaching his hand out to gently touch the wave face, he stood perfectly still on his board while the wave peeled flawlessly down the reef creating an almond shaped barrel as good as any wave on earth.
As I sat next to them in the water that evening I noticed that their surfing styles reflect their personalities. Greg –the professional athlete who wins big wave surf contests, gives motivational speeches at middle schools and schedules photo shoots and meetings with corporate sponsors– surfs aggressively and competitively, paddling non-stop and catching wave after wave, cutting them to pieces with powerful carves and riding deep in the tube. Rusty –the seeker, a surfing Zen artist whose wanderlust and thirst for heavy water seem to take on a spiritual nature—surfs patiently and relaxed, smoothly flowing between stylish turns and, just like his brother, deep tubes.
Both the brothers feed off one another’s styles and seeing them surf, it’s easy to tell that being in the ocean and riding waves together is something they’ve shared with one another for their entire lives. At this unknown corner in the middle of the ocean with just the two of them, it was pure magic.
Dinner that night was a celebration. Rusty and Greg had a few beers and started to tell stories about previous adventures and misadventures; Like the time when their friend Twiggy in South Africa got his car stolen with all their boards inside it, or the two week boat trip through the Phillipine archipelago when they didn’t surf once because a typhoon kept them in a sheltered bay, didn’t catch any fish, and the ship’s cook was spitting into the holding tank then cooking the dirty bait shrimp, which in turn made them all sick. They laughed about going to the Falkland Islands and freezing their tits off for 10 days without even seeing a wave.
When they were on Easter Island, off the coast of Chile, they spent a month in the rain, only to have the wave they were hoping to surf go perfect the day they were leaving after staying up all night at a going away party one of the locals threw for them. “We decided to just give it one more look and watch the sun rise, when we showed up it was the best we’d seen it, so we turned around, grabbed our boards and charged back out there. I got tossed around a bit paddling out and sat in the channel for the first 10 minutes puking. Then caught some of the best waves of my life.” Greg says with a grin.
The wind switched as the swell faded and it was time to move on. Once again the computer models became Greg and Rusty’s focus. Walking back from an internet session spent staring at the screen with Greg, he looked over at me. “Wanna see Rusty soil his pant’s right now.”
We walked into the room. Rusty’s first words were, “how’s it lookin’ Greg? Where we goin’?”
“It looks good Russ, the models look amazing for Morocco…”
Rusty’s excitement was visible “No shit!? I love Morocco! Lets go!”
They both laugh and the discussion continues. When I say goodbye in the morning they’re still not sure where they’ll go. Greg puts up his hands and arches his eyebrows. “Maybe Ireland, maybe Spain…maybe Morocco…maybe Western Australia…we’ll have to just wait and see what everything looks like…”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Prague” Rusty says, “if the waves go flat I might check that place out.”