In 2008, professional surfer Mike Parsons rode a wave for the record books.
The wave’s dizzying camber arched more than 70 feet from lip to trough (almost as tall as the Zura residence hall), and importuned Parsons’ famous ride that dominated the Billabong XXL international big-wave contest. It was the largest wave in documented surf history and was ridden only 100 miles west of San Diego.
Protruding from the depths of the Pacific Ocean about 50 miles southwest of San Clemente Island, Cortes Bank is a California mountain range upon which mountains of another sort form and fade with the rolling swell. Vastly exposed to open-ocean swell from any direction, the enormous bank produces some of the fastest, largest and gnarliest surfable waves known to man. The bank stands two-thirds of a mile high and reaches just six feet below sea level at its highest point, Bishop Rock, where the abrupt incline jacks up to create the ideal playground for serious big-wave surfers.
“Cortes is really an anomaly,” Sean Collins, chief surf forecaster and president of surfline.com, said. “In California, we have offshore islands scattered all over the coast. Where Catalina, San Clemente and the others popped up above, Cortes didn’t quite make it out of the water.”
This worked out to the benefit of Parsons, who harnessed the monsters created by the underwater mountain range to set two consecutive records for the biggest waves ever surfed, each measuring more than 65 feet tall.
“Based on where it’s located and how the wave hits the reef, I think the biggest waves in the world will continue to be ridden there,” Parsons said.
Surfers at Cortes Bank are thought to reach speeds of 30 mph on the wave’s face. The only way to achieve proper positioning in the wave is to tow in behind a motorized watercraft and let go when traveling the same speed as the breaking wave.
As with all big-wave spots, the perils of Cortes Bank are just as dangerous as the waves. The isolated reef churns the swells in a unique and strangely dynamic pattern, channeling a powerfully helter-skelter current around the jagged bathymetry.
“You’ve got different swell circling all around the reef … there’s a ton of current,” Parsons said. “You feel pretty vulnerable, like you are in the middle of the ocean. You could literally just be gone pretty quick.”
“It’s a spooky place,” Collins said. “It’s sensitive because a lot of people want to go out there just to see it, but if you get anywhere near the wave, you stand the chance of getting mowed down by an 80-foot wall of water.”
Unlike the more popular Northern California big-wave hub, Mavericks, where Hawaiian surfer Mark Foo drowned in 1994, Cortes Bank has yet to claim any lives.
Cortes Bank was conquered less than a decade ago when Parsons won his first Billabong XXL title in 2001, and it is still largely in its infancy as a popular big-wave destination. A day of good conditions will find a group of 40 surfers in the lineup, symbols of the diehard dedication the sport inspires. Forty surfers willing to travel 100 miles off the coast into the blue yonder for a remote chance to ride the biggest waves on Earth — this is what the sport is all about.
“It’s a magic spot,” Parsons said. “The playing field is huge. (The wave) is literally pealing for a mile in the middle of the ocean. It’s wild.”