January 12, 2004
Cortes Bank, Pacific Ocean
Daybreak. Landless. The world was monochrome sea and sky, a smudged charcoal sketch–beauty to be admired, not lived with. Swells from the far west, relics of somebody else’s gale, lurched over the shoal and amplified, causing a stir among the peanut gallery. Oil glass, gray, inconsistent … half the predicted size.
Strong swell, spawned by a huge Japanese chunk of weather, saturated almost every West Coast surf nook from La Fonda to La Push. Surface high pressure in the Pacific Basin afforded slight winds. Benign weather graced the high-seas forecast. Excessive swell hype created a bizarre mainland-style crowd at perhaps the Earth’s most remote surf spot. Unthinkable? Not really.
Many knew morning light would usher bliss to their favorite hometown west-facing break. Many knew to call in sick or to ditch class. Additionally, many knew the combination of large, clean, long-period swell and still weather would allow an occurrence at a phenomenon in the middle of the sea, this seventeen-mile underwater mountain range capping within three feet of the ocean surface. Diver’s haven, mariner’s bane–tow-surfer’s glory.
North 32 degrees, West 119 degrees. One hundred miles west of San Diego. Few had been there. Even fewer had surfed there before January 12, which marked the fourth Cortes Bank official surf expedition. Following December 2003’s widely publicized two-boat/two-day strike (showcased on the cover of Surfer magazine), January’s session hosted nearly a dozen vessels, a few aircraft, and an ad hoc surf contest.
Minor controversy ensued. Essentially, what was once the simmering realm of a select few quickly morphed into what some viewed as another media-driven boil-over, casting conclusions that the day was “a circus,” “a joke,” and “a disgrace to Cortes Bank.” A floating flotilla frenzy.
Some whinged while others ignored the hustle, feasting on sheet-glass bombs. Shane Dorian and Mike Parsons drew clean lines in teal-blue barrels. Scott Chandler and Ikaika Kalama carved like it was six-foot Lowers. Maverick’s mainstays Jeff Clark and Grant Washburn gleefully sampled the famous southern outpost they’d heard so much about.
Other highlights included an attempt by an overweight gentleman on a kneeboard towed by an inflatable dinghy. Professional kitesurfer Bennett Williams successfully rode a wakeboard. Flea and Barney did huge leaping flyaway pullouts. Parsons, Dorian, Brad Gerlach, and Noah Johnson arrived via helicopter. Garrett McNamara staged a skins competition dubbed “If It Can’t Kill You, It Ain’t Extreme.” Considerably impressed with Cortes (despite the day’s crowd), McNamara vowed to return.
“After surfing there, I’ve confirmed my thoughts,” he said. “Cortes Bank is the smoothest and most incredible wave I have ever surfed. The biggest wave in the world will be ridden there.”
Another chapter in the colorful annals of tow-surfing. A circus? Only if you weren’t there.–Michael Kew