A burning passion lives behind the cool demeanor of Steve, Rusty and Greg Long. A gift handed down from a father to his sons, a torch carried to places few will ever go.
It’s a gift of water and sand. Cool ocean breezes. And especially, surfing.
The beach breaks and coastal wilderness areas of Southern California and Mexico have come to mean everything to the three men. It began as Steve’s teenage obsession back in the 1960s. Eventually, it came to shape his and his sons’ careers. They’ve explored the wilds and spent countless hours in the water together. The boys got to grow up on the state park bluffs where their dad worked and that overlooked one of the top surf spots in the U.S.
It all could have been too much. Another dad’s imperious pursuit to make his sons love what he loves. But that’s just not the way the Longs do things. Steve made sure to share his love of, and not merely the mechanics of surfing. There would be no teenage rebellion, only an unbreakable bond.
What sets the Longs apart from other surfing families is that Steve is a retired San Onofre State Park chief ranger and now consultant to the non-profit San Onofre Foundation, older son Rusty is an accomplished pro surfer, writer and photographer and Greg is arguably the best big wave surfer in the world.
Steve grew up in Anaheim, but soon figured out even that was too far from the ocean for him. “I came to Doheny with somebody’s grandparents in 1963. My first opportunity was on a hollow, cigar box-type paddle board that the grandpa had in his rafters. I rode a wave like I was riding on a boat. It was little one-foot Boneyard and I was hooked.”
He saved his lawnmowing money and bought himself his first board shortly after. It had been painted and he didn’t realize until much later that it was a board made by shaper Dale Velzy, now considered some of the most coveted boards on the planet. Eventually, he and his friends discovered Cotton’s, a left-hand break that sits just below Richard Nixon’s former Western White House. It remains Steve’s favorite spot.
Steve got a job as lifeguard at Huntington State Beach and eventually worked his way to San Onofre in 1978, where as chief ranger, he got to live on park property. His daughter Heather arrived in 1980, followed shortly after by Rusty in 1981 and Greg in 1983. “With the park and the beach as a backdrop and me as a lifeguard and avid surfer, basically they were exposed to the beach from birth.”
The boys played soccer and were very good baseball players, but a trip to Baja, Mexico, in 1989 changed everything.
“El Cardon was the place they all graduated from Boogie Boards to standing up on a surfboard,” Steve says. Heather learned to surf there as well, but it was the boys who had their lives changed. “It was an annual family trip for four or five years. We’d camp on the beach in our Volkswagon bus. It got the whole adventure aspect going for them. There we are camping out, miles from civilization. It was a very rustic experience.”
Rusty agrees. “That’s really when the hook was in us for surfing,” he says. “Before that, we were loving the Boogie Boards. But being able to glide down the line on a perfect sand bottom point break was just something completely new and that’s what it was all about.” And he’s sure the way they learned made a big difference. “Having dad to show us the ropes gave us more confidence and an accelerated learning process, and it’s just a good thing to do as a family.”
Most kids want to learn things from their parents, Greg says. “I wanted to do anything my dad did. It was fun and interesting to follow in his footsteps.”
The boys were trained by their father to be safe, know the waves, and that better waves were always more important than more waves. Greg can trace a trademark of his own style right back to his dad who he always remembers as “Sitting out the back patiently, only catching a couple waves a session, but when the biggest set of the day came, he was waiting for it.”
Rusty wishes the surfing protocol their dad taught them of taking turns and staying out of other people’s way in the lineup was something more fathers passed on for today’s crowded breaks. “I see more disrespectful kids at Trestles than any other time in my life. Respect, says Rusty, “That’s something dad always engrained in us.”
As they progressed through the amateur ranks, got their first sponsorship deal and had to face the question of what they could do as pros, the three of them made a trip to big wave spot Todos Santos in 1999. There, Steve knew his role had changed. After being knocked around in the surf and having his surfboard leash snap, he decided to go sit on the cliffs with a video camera and document what the boys were doing.
“The first time Rusty had a pretty serious hold down, I realized I was kind of helpless” Steve admits. Consequently, Steve and his wife Jan insist that if the boys want to do this as a job, they must have health insurance. And when the injuries have come, he says he instinctively goes into lifeguard crisis management mode, sparing himself from the usual run of parental emotions. And when he has to relay the information to Jan, he spares her too. Listing the various injuries his sons have had over the years, he chuckles, “It’s probably safer than skateboarding.”
And because of safety, Greg and Rusty choose their friends wisely. “We simply don’t travel with people who are liabilities,” Greg says. “People we have to baby sit, or are going to make situations more difficult than it needs to be.”
When Rusty was badly burned in Mexico in 2011, and Greg nearly drowned at big wave spot Cortes Bank near the Channel Islands in December 2012, they were close calls for the family, but Steve believes the boys have the right outlook.
“I think I instilled in the boys a healthy respect and the right amount of fear, but also to be somewhat fearless,” Steve says. “We’re all going to die at some point and the challenge is to live as full a life as you possible can and enjoy the miracle of life. To fill it up with what they have chosen to do, they are leading very rich and full lives.”
Greg says the support of his family was key to getting through a near-death experience to winning the world title just a few months later. “It’s been a serious rollercoaster for me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about everything that happened. I’ve adamantly had to push forward and get back to where I was and other times feeling disenchanted with it all. With all that, I’ve spent a lot of time confiding with mom and dad and my brother and sister.”
The sentiment, he says, was simple: Just be happy with what you have.
What none of them are happy about is the continuing threat to build a toll road extension over their former backyard, an extension many believe would kill the world-class wave and erase the park’s natural beauty.
“You have people who don’t care about our lifestyle,” Rusty says. “The people who live here choose to live here because of this beach and the lifestyle you can have here.”
Greg wonders if the problem is visual. “How can some people be so short-sighted that they might make a few bucks on the short end, but take away from generations the joy brought about by the beauty of not just the wave, but the coastal wetland.”
Steve, who dealt with the issue for years in his official capacities as one of the park’s sworn protectors, believes something might have been missed. “I like to think that maybe there are some alternatives that haven’t been looked at and should be discussed now. Let’s have some rational dialogue, rather than emotion or have it all being driven by dollars and profit,” he says. “Highways are going to be obsolete someday.”
Rusty and Greg continue to roll ahead, much to Steve’s satisfaction. They’re always checking the swell forecasts for various places around the world, getting ready for that next trip. There’s even talk of the brothers starting their own vegetarian restaurant.
And more time in the water together, a father and his sons, sharing waves. Anybody else is welcome too, because the Longs know the gift of the ocean hasn’t just been for them.
“It’s just the spirit of aloha that Duke Kahanamoku and everyone who passed on this wonderful legacy of gliding on waves tried to instill in younger generations,” Steve says. “They’ve got their own California version of it.”