ONE HUNDRED MILES west of San Diego, a lost Channel Island rises 6,000 feet from the sea floor to just 12 feet short of the surface. On the exceedingly rare conditions of calm wind and giant swell, this sunken mesa is capable of spawning the biggest surfable wave on the planet. The break is known as the Cortes Bank.
Until the new millennium, the Bank’s existence and its ability to produce waves at an almost fictional scale were known only to a handful of anglers, surfers and divers that had spent the previous generations plundering an underwater eden of abalone and fish (or nearly dying in their attempts).
Then on January 19, 2001, California big wave surfers Peter Mel, Ken “Skindog” Collins, Brad Gerlach and Mike Parsons stunned the world with a tow surfing mission they called “a shot to the moon.” On his very first wave, Mike Parsons dropped in on a 66-foot bomb, claiming the first of two world records at the Bank’s Bishop Rock.
MY RESOLVE TO WITNESS this wave for myself was reinforced in 2008, when Parsons and Gerlach and their apprentices Greg Long and Grant “Twiggy” Baker motored to the Bank in the teeth of the worst storm recorded off California in over 50 years. They were rewarded with a window of calm weather and titanic surf at midday, and there, four terrified men proceeded to tow into the biggest waves ever documented.
After writing about what was, in my mind, an Everest summit for the sport for The New York Times, I became increasingly fascinated not only with the surf stories, but the maritime mysteries surrounding the Bank and began work on a book dedicated to the break, finally making a trip there in 2009.
At the same time, Greg Long was well on his way to becoming a de facto leader of a new school group of surfers who decided to harness what they had learned from tow-in to return to traditional prone paddling–and one of the places Long and his friends most wanted to test their mettle was at Cortes.
Their odyssey at Cortes Bank has consumed my life for the past three years. The accompanying photos were taken during paddle surfing missions to Cortes on December 27, 2009 and November 2, 2010.
If you find yourself in San Clemente, California, I’d recommend a stop at the Kona Gallery and Photojournalism Center for photographer Jason Murray’s exhibit “Goliaths of the Pacific,” running through January 15, 2012.
My book Ghost Wave: The Discovery of the Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth hits wide US release on Tuesday, November 1, 2011.