Big-Wave Surfing at Cortes Bank

Big-wave surfing is not for the amateur. This isn’t splashing around with a rental board at Waikiki on your Hawaiian vacation. This is fear and madness, crazed adrenaline maniacs skittering down the face of an angry, roiling, ten-story high wall of water. One lapse of judgment, and the wave crushes the surfer like a sledgehammer of wet cement. The cliché rings true: don’t try this at home. In the past ten years, three experienced big-wave surfers died in Hawaii and California.

Big-wave fever is relatively new to the surfing world, only in the last 15 years have surfers tackled the monster breaks with any regularity. The addition of jet-ski watercraft in the early 1990s opened up more possibilities, towing surfers into waves unreachable by conventional paddling. Today, surfers scour the planet looking for ultimate waves, from Maverick’s in northern California, to Jaws at Maui, to Chile, Australia, Africa and Tasmania. But California’s surfing spelunkers can save some travel time and money, because one of the largest and most powerful waves on the globe is right in their own backyard. Well, not exactly in the backyard. There’s a bit of a commute. Cortes Bank is located 100 miles west of San Diego, in open ocean.

The first documented expedition to Cortes Bank, in January 2001, yielded a jaw-dropping 66-foot wave successfully ridden by San Clemente surfer Mike Parsons. When photos hit the surfing magazines, the shock of discovering such a massive and unusual wave recoiled through the surfing world. Two surf documentaries, Billabong Odyssey and Step Into Liquid, have added to the buzz and helped put Cortes on the map as one of the world’s serious big-wave spots. And yet with all the excitement, in four years it’s been surfed only four times. So why? Isn’t this America, where things move at nano-speed in terms of sponsorship and commercial potential? Why aren’t there Cortes surf competitions every week, with logos, banners, circling helicopters, cruise ships, and floating hotels? Because Cortes Bank only breaks a few times a year. That is, if it breaks at all.

Blame for discovering Cortes falls on the shoulders of Larry “Flame” Moore, longtime photo editor at Surfing magazine. Since the 1970s, Moore knew of a spot on the oceanic charts that would be a good place to avoid in a sailboat. About 100 miles from the coast, the ocean floor suddenly rose up to half a fathom and formed a reef. In the open seas, miles from anywhere, the water was only three feet deep. Nobody knew about this at all—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ocean buoy had been out of commission for years. The USS Enterprise aircraft carrier discovered this the hard way, tearing a big gash in its hull back in 1985.

Moore knew that such dramatic changes to an ocean topography creates very surfable waves under the right conditions, as the water rolls up the underwater mountain and smacks into the peak. “There’s gotta be a break out there,” he remembers thinking. And then in February of 1989, he saw some amazing photos of a swell that hit Hawaii, creating some beautiful 40-foot waves. Currents always brought Hawaii’s swells to California, about 48 hours later. The same storm was on its way. Moore convinced a friend with a plane to fly a reconnaissance mission out to the mystery spot.

“Twenty miles from Cortes Bank, we could see it breaking,” says Moore. “As we got closer and closer, we were screaming louder and louder. We’re talking well over 80 feet. Easily. It was something I will never ever forget. Not only was it gigantic, it also was running down the reef, to where riding it that size, guys could ride this wave for nearly a mile.”

Moore went back to Surfing magazine and got the staff all excited with his photos from the trip. The following year, Surfing’s then-editor Bill Sharp put together a small expedition, and at three am, Sharp and Moore and a few others left Newport in the 29-foot sportfisher to find Cortes Bank. Sharp remembers it was the only time he ever wrote out a will before going surfing. Fifteen miles away, the wave was already visible.

“It was just an amazing thing,” says Sharp. “You could see the strange curlie cues on the horizon. It wasn’t big by any stretch, less than 20 feet on the face. But it was just spooky. Big mushy waves rolling in. The waves move 30 to 40 percent faster than they move along the coast. We knew that catching them was going to be difficult.”

Sharp and the others did catch a few dozen waves, wiped out several times, and knew immediately that if the weather hit just right, Cortes had potential to be a monster. All it would take was enough advance warning, and a team could be ready to go. Unfortunately, the wave wasn’t. Year after year, the weather didn’t comply. People moved onto other things, and Cortes remained unsurfed, winter after winter. From time to time, Moore pulled out his aerial photos from 1989, and looked at them. Was it a freak of nature? Would it ever happen again?

One of the Cortes inner circle, Sean Collins is president of Surfline, a wave forecasting company used by the Coast Guard, National Weather Service, and most surf companies around the world. He studied the photos and weather patterns, working with Sharp and Moore to develop possible scenarios for when – or if – the wave would return. The optimum conditions for surfing Cortes were two-fold. First, the swell needed be huge, and from a storm that’s at least 600 miles away, but not more than a couple thousand miles. Also, the local winds normally blow up to 25 knots on the open sea. Surfers need 10 knots of wind maximum, otherwise the waves get too choppy, and it’s like surfing moguls down a ski slope. For nine years Cortes lay dormant. And then in early 2001, Collins spotted the perfect weather conditions rolling across the Pacific.

Sharp put together a team of four big-wave surfer pros – Mike Parsons, Brad Gerlach, Ken Collins, and Peter Mel—and hit Cortes on the morning of January 21. The sun was bright, the wind had dropped, and the waves were enormous, 40, 50 feet, and growing bigger. The crew eagerly fired up their jet-skis and started pulling surfers into the waves. The water was deep blue and pristine, lots of sharks and other creatures. But the waves – the waves were so unusual.

At most big-wave breaks such as Maui’s “Jaws,” the waves can get up to 90-95 feet, but they start losing their shape, explains Sean Collins. “Whereas Cortes is kind of unlimited. The shape of the reef is really good. It can hold its shape as high as the wave you can put on it. If you calculate the reef, you could get a wave over 100, possibly 150 feet with good shape.”

Around 10 am, Mike Parsons nailed his 66-footer, earning him $60,000 for riding the biggest wave of the year. “That was my first wave, long before I had any idea what I was getting myself into,” Parsons said later. “Easily the biggest wave I’ve ever been on.” But the prize came with a price—his surfboard. Most surf breaks, if a surfer loses a board it simply washes up on the beach. Here in the open ocean, a lost board is gone forever, especially with the speedy current. “We flew around for 45 minutes and never found it,” says Moore, who was photographing the day from a plane. “Two weeks later, a sailboat found it off the coast of Baja. It had drifted 120 miles to the south. He eventually had to buy it back.”

The Cortes expedition still fresh in the memory, Bill Sharp created a contest project to find and surf the biggest waves around the world. Sponsored by Billabong clothing, the Billbong Odyssey has spent three years spanning the globe searching for the biggest unridden waves. The recent film and DVD Billabong Odyssey chronicles the mission, depicting a “Delta Force” of surfers, lifeguards and paramedics ready to hop on a plane with minimal warning. “Big wave surving is probably the ultimate superlative on this earth,” says Sharp. “The biggest mountains have already been climbed. The thing about the wave surf, no matter how big this year at this spot, there can always be a bigger storm with a bigger swell. There’s no finish line.”

The dramatic appeal for big-wave action, Sharp explains, is because we’ve all had a taste of a wipeout. “Everyone’s been to the beach. You might not be a surfer, but you’ve gone out swimming, and had a 2-3 foot wave knock you down. It’s a panicking feeling for a few seconds. Now extrapolate that 30, 40 times, breaking on top of you.”

Sharp and the Billabong Odyssey have returned three times to Cortes with surfers and camera crews, but none of the waves have matched the Parsons monster of 2001. Publicity has become problematic, say Collins and Sharp, especially the trip in January 2004.

“It was just a circus out there,” says Collins. “There were probably at least 10 to 12 boats, about 60 people, 40 surfers, people in street clothes. Someone could have easily been killed. Fortunately the waves didn’t get super huge.”

As surfers comb the planet to find the elusive perfect big wave, Cortes sits off the coast of California, waiting for its next media moment, that ultimate 100-foot day with calm winds and perfect swells. As Larry Moore says, “Every single big-wave rider in the world wants a piece of that!”