The West Coast break Cortes Bank serves up some of the world’s biggest ride-able waves collectively called Ghost Wave. Featured in the documentary Step Into Liquid, Ghost Wave even dwarves the Hawaiian monster wave, Jaws. Dubbed one of the world’s seven wonders, Ghost Wave has been thrust in the spotlight by the new non-fiction thriller Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth by daredevil journalist Chris Dixon of Surfermag.com.
Learn more about the hard-charging mountain of water that tests surfers to their outer limits.
Engage the wave: 10 startling facts about Ghost Wave
1. Ghost Wave arises from just the right swells, under just the right conditions, at Cortes Bank – a sunken mountain chain 100 miles off San Diego. Journalist Chris Dixon describes the submerged 17-mile island as “huge and gorgeous” and reveals that it has hidden depths.
2. During the 1960s, two adventurers – B-movie actor Joe Kirkwood and a Laguna engineer – dreamed about building a nautical nation called Abalonia on Cortes Bank. The adventurers enlisted the USS Abalonia: a concrete cargo ship. They hoped to anchor it amid the rich shellfish beds and claim jurisdiction over the area. But just after the Abalonia’s 1969 launch, it foundered and sank, almost killing the crew. Its wreck remains.
3. Cortes Bank retains an uncanny frontier feel. The area has no beach, no coastline, nor landmark of any kind. Riding Cortes Bank’s swell has been described as “like surfing on Mars.”
4. Cortes Bank is just as weird under the surface as on top. Dixon documents abalone the size of bibles, lobsters the size of men, even sharks the size of busses, swimming amid giant kelp forests.
5. The biggest waves at the amazing break arise when light winds, low tides, and giant swells from the northwest collide. Launched from an outcrop called Bishop Rock, Cortes Bank waves routinely rise 60 feet. That is higher than a six-storey building. Hence the decision of one big wave surfer Bill Sharp to write his will before tackling the break.
6. Despite their size, Cortes Bank waves move so fast that surfers cannot catch them by paddling. Instead, each Ghost Wave wannabe hires a jet-skier who tows him with a rope until he is travelling fast enough to engage the wave: a ritual called “tow-surfing”.
7. On January 5, 2008, some of the strongest storms ever logged in the northern Pacific spawned mammoth swells. Eager to engage, a daredevil surfing team scrambled and tow-surfed out to the reef to catch some of the biggest surf ever ridden. The waves soared up to 85 feet, reaching speeds of 45 mph. “We were all real worried about all the chop,” big wave surfer Mike Parsons told Surfline. Whether it would be ride-able at any point that stormy Saturday was a gamble.
8. But, on that fateful January day, Mike Parsons succeeded in riding a Cortes Bank 77-footer – a record, according to the Guinness World Records.
9. Now, 100-foot waves are the holy grail of big wave hunters relentlessly seeking to up the ante – get a bigger adrenaline rush and buzz of achievement.
10. Eventually, Parsons reckons, someone will find and ride a 100-foot-tall Cortes Bank wave. “If you put yourself in the right place at the right time, it will happen. It’s only a matter of time now.”