Surfing wave

Surfing The Cortes Bank

Cortes Bank (or Cortez as some spell it) became such a fascinating study that I couldn’t resist posting more information on it. I think it’s the ultimate extreme wave – but if you feel there is one out there even more extreme please do let us know!

So how extreme is it? Well, it’s 100 miles from shore for a start so will take you about 4 hours to get there in a nice fast boat, the waves are so big they can be picked up on radar, and although I said the tallest underwater peak came to within 6ft of the surface (according to Wikipedia), surfers themselves say this can be a little as 3ft at times.


The Cortes Bank picks up swells from every direction. They come in so fast that paddling into one of those huge waves is virtually an impossibility which means you must have a tow-in, so not a cheap wave to surf. But the feeling is that Cortes Bank is the place most likely to produce the 100 footer that the world’s most experienced big wave chargers are waiting for…

And now with thanks to The International Herald Tribune of 9th January and Chris Dixon, read the account of the storms on 5th January which led some of the world’s most extreme and experienced surfers to take up the challenge:

“On January 5th 2008 one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the northern Pacific Ocean pummeled the U.S. West Coast, leading to widespread flooding and state and federal disaster declarations. The storm also left behind some of the most extreme waves ever surfed.

With a second major storm bearing down, four of the most experienced big-wave surfers in the world launched a boat and two Jet Skis toward Cortes Bank, an underwater mountain range whose tallest peak rises 4,000 feet, or 1,220 meters from the ocean floor to within about 4 feet of the surface. The perilous spot, about 100 miles, or 160 kilometers, off the coast of Southern California southwest of Los Angeles, had been surfed only a handful of times in the past decade. With the right conditions, its shallow waters turn huge ocean swells into giant, perfect breaking waves.

“I’ve made some heavy missions out to Cortes Bank,” said Greg Long, one of the surfers who Saturday. “But this time, it was all on the line. The biggest storm. The biggest swell. The biggest buoy readings ever seen. And as far as the risk factor, it was off the charts.”

Long, a 25-year-old Californian, made these comments while watching a video of the experience with the surfers who had joined him: Grant Baker, 34; Brad Gerlach, 41; and Mike Parsons, 42.

They slingshot one another from behind their 140-horsepower Jet Skis onto some of biggest swells ever ridden. They gawked as Parsons froze the screen on an image of an avalanche of water swatting him like a fly.

“We couldn’t go fast enough,” Long said. “The waves were moving so fast that it felt like we were moving backwards.”

Before the first storm passed the Cortes Bank, surfers were stunned that weather-buoy readings showed massive swells that had the potential to become breaking waves of 80 to 100 feet. As they studied the weather maps, Parsons, Long and the surfing forecaster Sean Collins thought there might be a brief period of calm between storms.

“They had this tiny window,” Collins said, adding that if the weather had changed it would have created poor surfing conditions.

The surfers committed to the trip just as the big storm roared to land late Friday. But, Long said, he woke up at 4 a.m. Saturday to calm winds. The surfers converged at dawn on the Dana Point Harbor between San Diego and Los Angeles with the surf photographer Rob Brown and a videographer, Matt Wybenga.

When they left midmorning, the ocean was still so disrupted that they could carry only one of the two Jet Skis aboard Brown’s boat. The surfers, wearing an emergency survival suit, took turns following in the other Jet Ski.

About 50 miles offshore, the weather continued to ease while the deep swells continued to grow. Just past noon the surfers cautiously launched their Jet Skis toward the waves.

“We looked out to the north at these giant mountains of water,” Gerlach said. “And the wind was just perfect. It was creating these giant, giant tubes.”

Over the past seven years, all four surfers have either won or been nominated for Billabong XXL Awards, considered the top honor among the big-wave set. Gerlach, Long and Parsons are considered the most experienced surfers of Cortes Bank. Several waves, they said, far eclipsed anything they had ever seen.

The surfers traded vast, swooping carves and dropped down vertical blue walls 80 feet high or more at perhaps 45 miles an hour – faster than they had ever surfed. They rode cautiously, they said, realizing the consequences of a collision with a 20-pound, lead-weighted surfboard, or a harrowing pummeling beneath the dense foam.

“There was so much water moving, and so much turbulence, that you could have had a worst-case scenario of a guy getting flushed through the white water and you simply might have never found him,” Baker said.

S Baker and Parsons endured horrifying wipeouts, bobbing to the surface thanks to their flotation vests. Then, with Gerlach precariously skiing behind him on his foot-strap-equipped surfboard, Parsons was unable to outrun a giant wave – even with his ski at full throttle. After they were driven under water and tossed around, the surfers and the Jet Ski emerged, sputtering but unscathed.

The surfers waited until it was nearly dark before heading back, barely outrunning the second storm before pulling into the harbor entrance at midnight.

When asked to gauge the size of the waves, Baker pointed to a poster of Parsons that promoted the 2002 surf movie “Billabong Odyssey.” The photo was of a stunning Cortes Bank ride that XXL judges deemed greater than 60 feet high.

“That doesn’t even come close to what we were seeing,” Baker said.

Long added: “It just all came together. Definitely the best surf session of my life.””