Cortes Bank: the phantom wave of the Pacific Ocean

May 27, 2022 | Surfing
Cortes Bank: probably the biggest wave in California | Photo: Lyles/WSL

Cortes Bank is a big wave surf spot located 110 miles west of the coast of Point Loma in San Diego, California.

The shallow seamount is the outermost feature found in the Channel Islands chain.

Around 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, the Cortes Bank was a small island randomly submerged depending on the sea levels.

This barely flooded islet features around 16 miles of basalt and sandstone in the shallower areas.

It has an overall look of a mountaintop with a few high spots along its length, making it a hazard zone of treacherous currents and rogue waves.

Cortes Bank's shallowest peak often becomes visible during low tides. It is called the Bishop Rock.

Bishop Rock often rises three-to-six feet from the surface.

Cortes Bank: one of the most challenging waves on the planet | Photo: Mackinnon/WSL

The History of the Offshore Seamount

But this big wave surfing break has several additional shoal spots ranging in depth from 30 to 100 feet, making it a nightmare for swell hunters and navigation.

Cortes Bank was named after Hernán Cortés, a Spanish navigator and ocean explorer who participated in the initial phase of the colonization of the Americas.

It is also the name of the steamboat led by Thomas Baylie Cropper, who, in 1853, witnessed a violent commotion in the sea above a low-lying island.

The dangerous seamount had already been reported by U.S. Navy Lt. James Alden and Captain Jonathan Percival on January 5, 1846.

An officer working with the United States Coast Survey, Alden dispatched the crew of the U.S.S. Ewing to map the area that was once spelled "Cortez Bank."

In 1966, a group of investors filed a request to build an artificial island on the Cortes Bank. Their goal was to form the Republic of Taluga.

The proposal was refused.

Nevertheless, several other entrepreneurs decided to act and planned to turn Cortes Bank into the constitutional monarchy of Abalonia.

So, they bought the World War II ship U.S.S. Jalisco, towed the concrete hulled freighter into position and sank it to form the foundation of the new country.

The creative group argued that international maritime law stated that the bank was lying in international waters, so they could rule their new offshore nation freely.

However, the technical side of the operation failed, and the ship ended up deposited hundreds of feet away in deep water.

The shipwreck is now a popular diving spot, and a warning buoy marks Bishop Rock.

The Cortez Bank (1853): the US Coast Survey map of the underwater seamount

Rare and Remote

Located in an unruly patch of the Pacific Ocean, Cortes Banks has always been an extremely sensitive and temperamental heavy water area.

"Though it's only a viable surf spot about three days of any given year when the elements come together, and winter swells hit with enough intensity, this sleeping giant comes alive, and the southwest corner of the Bank transforms into a quarter-mile surfing expanse that produces some of the most unfathomable powerful waves in the world," details big wave surfer and writer Rusty Long.

"It's a grand display of force and form and one of the most radical, high-risk arenas in the world."

The author of "The Finest Line: The Global Pursuit of Big-Wave Surfing" states that "just getting to Cortes is a risky endeavor, let alone surfing the place."

Long stresses that "crews have to be completely self-reliant and prepared for any situation. Boat and Jet Ski problems, rescues, injuries, drowning-all manner of catastrophe are on the table out there, one hundred miles out to sea. Your crew is your only safety net."

At Cortes Bank, special days are a rare thing - harsh winds, and disorganized seas are the norm.

Cortes Bank was once considered one of the world's biggest surfing waves.

"It was first surfed by San Diego ship captain Harrison Ealey in the summer of 1962," explains Matt Warshaw, author of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing."

"Returning by sea from a winter stay on the North Shore, Ealey anchored in the Cortes channel and rode some six-footers by himself."

"The break was later scouted out by California big-wave pioneers Walter and Flippy Hoffman; photographer Larry Moore and pilot Mike Castillo reconnoitered the break by air in 1990."

"Moore boated back to Cortes in 1990, accompanied by three surfers who rode a handful of eight-foot waves."

Grant Baker: one of the most experienced big wave surfers takes on Cortes Bank off the California coast | Photo: Mackinnon/WSL

Project Neptune

However, there's a historical date that changed surfing at The Bank forever.

On January 19, 2001, Larry Moore, Bill Sharp, three personal watercraft, six cameramen, and six surfers debuted Project Neptune.

The goal was to witness and ride an epic swell courtesy of a combination of the huge "Storm 15" from the Gulf of Alaska and a high-pressure ridge over California.

At dawn, two tow-in teams set out to surf Cortes Bank: Mike Parsons and Brad Gerlach, both from Southern California, and Ken Collins and Peter Mel of Santa Cruz.

"The water was moving so much faster than anywhere else I've ever surfed," Collins later said.

"I remember riding a wave, looking back and seeing 50 feet of whitewater behind me, then looking forward, and there was nothing but open water than the beach would normally be. It was surreal."

The conditions were stellar perfect, with a powerful swell rolling in from the northwest over a glassy, silk-like ocean.

"On the first day, Parsons was towed into a wave that measured roughly 65 feet on the face," adds Warshaw.

"It was by far the biggest wave ridden off the continental United States up to that point."

The stunt earned Mike Parsons the Swell XXL Big Wave contest trophy and a $60,000 check.

Parsons split the prize money with Gerlach because his partner had towed him into the winning wave.

Project Neptune had national media coverage and was featured in the movies "XXL - Biggest Waves Wins" (2001) and "Step Into Liquid" (2003).

Brad Gerlach and Mike Parsons: chasing the ghost wave of Cortes Bank

A Historical Session

In 2008, Parsons returned to the scene of the crime with Grant Baker, Greg Long, and veteran boat captain Rob Brown.

"Surfline founder Sean Collins was crunching the weather and swell data for the crew, and his firm answer to Greg, Parsons, Gerlach, Twiggy, and Brown was 'no. Don't go,'" reveals Rusty Long.

"It would be a terrible ride out with 20-mph south winds, and in Collins's opinion, the ocean likely wouldn't clean up during the window between storms."

"They would have to contend with bad weather and big seas - all in a boat with very little shelter from the elements-conditions that would make for difficult Coast Guard assistance if things went bad."

"The risk was too high; the chance for success too low."

However, Mike and Greg were determined to trust their instinct and go. They felt they had a window of opportunity that should be explored.

And so the team set off from Dana Point on "an eerie, stormy south-wind morning better suited for sleeping in than for a surf excursion to a deadly, skulking seamount a hundred miles out in the Pacific."

Mike Parson admits he was extremely nervous.

"There was only a small window in between storms, and we just kept debating and waiting and seeing what was going to happen," explained the SoCal big wave surfer.

"That's what made it so sketchy being right in between storms, not knowing if we were even going to get a window. Anxiety was pretty high."

"I remember the buoys being the biggest I'd ever seen at the closer ones like Point Conception when we woke up at five in the morning the day of to see what the wind was doing."

"It had definitely laid down from the evening before, so we were like, 'S--t, let's go for it.'"

"We just thought we might get a few hours to even see it - thinking it was worth going just to see if it was rideable and get a feel for how big it really was because we knew it was a special day in terms of size."

"To us, it was worth the risk to just motor out there, and if it wasn't rideable or it blew out, or it rained too hard, we could always just come back and not surf."

"But in the back of my mind, I figured we would ride it."

Grant "Twiggy" Baker was more skeptical.

"If I'm completely honest about that session, I was in the dark. I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I was just listening to Greg, and I was his partner; Cortes was his wave," stated Baker.

"So basically, whatever he was doing, I was going to do it. I don't think I weighed in much on the decision; I just told him that if he wanted to go, I'd back him up."

"I do remember sitting at Mavericks the night before while we were still deciding, and it was pissing rain, just a complete mess."

"And I remember thinking, "s--t, it's going to take a lot to clean that swell up before it gets down the coast.'"

"But when Greg called it, there was nothing else I could do. They called it on. And I guess if you're not going to trust Greg Long and Mike Parsons on Cortes, then who?"

The 75-Foot Wave

Seven years after his first Cortes Bank historic wave, "Snips" knew he had something special in front of him.

"At a distance, we were blown away by how much whitewater there was," notes Parsons.

"We stayed way off the reef and unloaded the skis before heading over to the lineup. Immediately I knew the waves were the biggest I'd ever seen."

"It was reeling so far down the reef, and the whitewater was so big from so far away. I'd never seen it like that-just full-on, constant waves. No breaks, no lulls."

"I got really excited. But when we got out closer to the lineup, I got worried again. I'd never seen so much refraction going toward the bowl."

"The swells were moving so fast, and Brad and I were telling each other, 'Whoa, this is the real deal! We can't make a mistake today.'"

History repeated itself, and Parsons rode a wave estimated at 75 feet.

"We felt like we were in the zone. It was definitely on my mind the whole time, and we kept reminding ourselves that as much fun as we were having, we needed to stay alert and not make a mistake," concludes Mike Parsons.

"At first, I was riding waves pretty conservatively, making sure I positioned myself where I was going to make it."

"As the day went on and things got better, I started going a little deeper and edging up the reef. Cortes, it's a lot heavier if you surf it from the top of the reef than the end."

The upgrade wave earned him a Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed, even though Long surfed a larger wave just before dusk that went undocumented.

It still is one of the largest waves ever ridden. Cortes Banks' glory days wouldn't last long, though.

"Cortes' remoteness and exposure to open ocean winds kept the number of days surfed at the break to a minimum through the 2000s," underlines surf historian Matt Warshaw.

"Yet the resurgence of paddle-in big wave surfing in the 2010s began to draw a hard-charging crowd to Cortes."

In 2012, Greg Long nearly drowned during a paddle-in session at the offshore reef break and had to be airlifted to the hospital after suffering a three-wave hold-down.

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