The Biggest and Bravest

The Billabong XXL Awards went down in Cali Friday night with local boy Greg Long grabbing Ride of the year.

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2009 BILLABONG XXL AWARD WINNERS: BILLABONG XXL RIDE OF THE YEAR AWARD: Greg Long at Dungeons BILLABONG XXL BIGGEST WAVE AWARD: Grant Baker at Tafelberg Reef MONSTER PADDLE AWARD: Derek Dunfee at Maverick's MONSTER TUBE PHOTO AWARD: Mark Healey at Yeti VERIZON WIRELESS WIPEOUT AWARD: Ross Clarke-Jones at Pedra Branca SURFLINE BEST OVERALL PERFORMANCE AWARD: Grant Baker BILLABONG GIRLS PERFORMANCE AWARD: Maya Gabeira

"We've been at the house all day barbecuing," explained a marinated Rusty Long, half-drunk can of Tecate in hand. "All the boys were there, we had the taco line going, it was epic. Then we took a bus up here. We're firing it back up tonight, you should come."

As tempting as the offer was, the night was still young, in fact I hadn't even gotten through the parking lot yet. Plus, after attending the Billabong XXL Awards for the past nine years, I've definitely learned not to commit to any concrete plans for after the show. As noble and heroic as all these big-wave aficionados are, in their own sadistic way they enjoy a good time almost as much as they enjoy copping a 60-foot set on the head. In the past, this has translated into some very belligerent moments at this awards show, and I wasn't sure whether I wanted to go down that path.

Alan Van Gysen/Red Bull

Greg Long with his award-winning ride at "Dungeons" in South Africa. &nbsp;<a href="#" onclick="window.open('http://espn.go.com/action/gallery?id=4071610','slideshow','width=990,height=740,scrollbars=no,resizable=no');"><i>Launch Gallery &#187;</i></a>

With the line at The Grove in Anaheim stretching halfway to Disneyland, I applied another lesson I've learned over the years. I walked straight to the front, waited for an opening and snuck right through the main gate. I immediately bumped into Rusty's brother Greg.

"I hear you guys had quite the barbecue today," I said.

"Yeah, it was a beautiful afternoon. With everybody going in so many different directions, it was great to catch up and relax a little," Greg answered.

It had been about a year since I'd seen either of the Long brothers, and although the red carpet isn't exactly the place to catch up, it was good to see them. Through the years, the XXL Awards has turned into not only a celebration of death-defying aquatic aptitude but also a chance for the heavy-water fraternity to bump chests, rub elbows and hang out on more neutral terra firma. Sure, there's thousands of dollars in prize money on the line, and sure, a win at the XXL can make a career, but by the time the awards show finally rolls around, the real competition is long since over. For every XXL nominee, past or present, it's all about the day, the swell and being in the water when the ocean is at its angriest.

"Some of these places guys are going now, they're not even surf spots," explained Garrett McNamara, who was in the running against Greg Long for Ride of the Year. "A few years ago, nobody would have dreamed guys would be riding what they are."

And who better to speak to that fact than Greg Noll, a big-wave pioneer and legend if ever there was one — not to mention a hell of a storyteller. "What these guys are doing, it defies explanation. When we were first exploring the North Shore [of Oahu] we had no idea what we were doing, we were idiots. But these guys, they're professionals, and every year they keep having to find new ways to impress us. We've become goddamned desensitized to it all."

ESPN was on the red carpet and in the front row for the 2009 Billabong XXL awards to get all the best drop-in faces and epic tales of surfing little waves.

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Brenton Ceach/BillabongXXL.com

Grant "Twiggy" Baker coming down the mountain at Tafelberg Reef. &nbsp;<a href="#" onclick="window.open('http://espn.go.com/action/gallery?id=4071610','slideshow','width=990,height=740,scrollbars=no,resizable=no');"><i>Launch Gallery &#187;</i></a>

Long gone are the days when Waimea and Sunset were the world's heaviest waves. The unridden realm no longer exists. If it breaks, somebody's going to try to ride it. And as this year's XXL Awards demonstrated, the big-wave pursuit is truly an international affair. People are breaking barriers at some of the most unlikely locales. From Tasmania to the Basque country, from Chile to Cape Town, the more exposed the coastline, the better. "I come from Basque Country," said Axi Muniain, a nominee for the Biggest Wave Award. "We have some big waves there. Some people have known about them, but not that many. That is changing, Europe is on the big-wave map now."

It's not just Europe; everything has changed. It used to be that one would have to post up along some remote stretch of coast for weeks — even months — all just to hopefully get one massive day of swell. But with the evolution of forecasting technology, surfers can be halfway around the world and in the lineup precisely when a swell is going to peak. This means they can make tactical strikes to wherever the hot spot is. They also can track swells across the seas. For example, they can ride an outer reef in Hawaii one day, jump on a red-eye flight, charge Maverick's in Northern California the next morning and be down at Todos Santos in Mexico for the evening glass-off session.

"I try and get down to Tasmania anytime I see a swell coming," said James Hollmer-Cross, another Ride of the Year nominee. "You wait until you see what the swell and conditions look like, then you go. Hopefully it pays off."

But it's not all exotic globe-trotting; some of these newfound waves have been right under our noses, like Mark Healey's Monster Tube of the Year, from a spot called Yeti in the Pacific Northwest.

"No way we're going to say where that wave is," said Jason Murray, the photographer who took the shot of Mark. "All we're saying is that it's in the Pacific Northwest somewhere. We waited to see the right swell and right conditions, then drove up there, and this is what came out of it. There's waves everywhere if you know where to look … and you're there on the right day, which is the real trick."

So there's a little backstory into why, after nine years of the Billabong XXL Awards, it is still surfing's most intriguing competition. It's not about points or maneuvers, it's about surviving and living to surf another day. "Our tour's a bunch of sissies," exclaimed three-time world champ Andy Irons. "These guys are the real men!"

Greg Long would go on to take Ride of the Year honors, while his tow-partner and good friend Grant "Twiggy" Baker took both the Biggest Wave and Performance of the Year awards. La Jolla's Derek Dunfee was recognized for paddling into the biggest wave; Ross Clarke-Jones took the unenviable Wipe-Out of the Year Award; and lovely Maya Gabeira was given the Girls Performance Award.

In the end, Noll summed it up best when he announced to the winners: "Start telling bulls--- surf stories now — when you get to be my age, everybody that can call you a liar's dead, so everybody else will have to believe you."

Jason Murray

Monster Tube of the Year winner Mark Healey deep below sea level.&nbsp;<a href="#" onclick="window.open('http://espn.go.com/action/gallery?id=4071610','slideshow','width=990,height=740,scrollbars=no,resizable=no');"><i>Launch Gallery &#187;</i></a>

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