Pacific’s Cortes Bank is full of big-wave surprises

Fred Swegles
The Orange County Register
Oct 20, 2011

Cortes Bank, Greg Long 3 wave hold down, Garrett McNamera Greg LongFor surfers who ride big waves, perhaps the most enticing, terrifying and humbling spot on Earth is a sunken island in open ocean 100 miles off the Southern California coast.

Cortes Bank was a California channel island 10,000 years ago, when the Ice Age lowered the sea level by 400 feet, journalist Chris Dixon says in his just-released book, “Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth.”

Today it’s a hidden island, a sea mount where the ocean floor rises from a depth of 6,000 feet almost to the surface. In 1990, Dixon writes, Orange County surfers Bill Sharp, Sam George and George Hulse set out with San Clemente-based surf photographer Larry Moore from Newport Harbor in a 29-foot-long boat. They were on a secret mission to see whether a large swell that had passed Hawaii would produce large, surfable waves at a reef that rises to within 15 feet of the surface in open ocean, marked only by a warning buoy.

Now, Cortes Bank is a fickle, rarely ridden, world-famous surf spot that can be spectacular when conditions are right. Dixon, a former Orange County resident and a former editor with Surfer magazine, now lives in Charleston, S.C. He was in San Clemente on Friday to sign books and describe how the story of Cortes Bank came together.


Since 2008, when Dixon wrote a New York Times piece about the bank and became obsessed with it, he has learned there’s more to the story than surfing:

• In 1846, the crew of the USS Constitution, on its only sail down the California coast, apparently saw waves there and reported the open-ocean hazard, Dixon said.

• In 1855, a clipper ship, the Bishop, may have struck the pinnacle of Cortes Bank, which became known as Bishop Rock.

• In 1985, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise hit a reef 100 miles off San Diego. Dixon later confirmed it was Cortes Bank.

The book describes how, in 1985, a newspaper article about the Enterprise incident caught Moore’s attention. As Moore, then photo editor at Surfing magazine, researched the sea mount, he became convinced it had potential for surfing. In 1990, he and Cessna pilot Mike Castillo flew over the bank during a giant swell and were shocked at what they saw. Castillo turned to Moore and said, “If anyone ever tries to surf out there, they’d better take the … pope along to pray for them,” Dixon told an audience Friday at the Surfing Heritage Foundation.

Read more at The Orange County Register…

Read more on Greg Long talks about 3-wave hold-down at Cortes Bank

About jw60sea

Jim Caldwell has over 26 years of experience in the public safety sector in occupations ranging from professional ski patrol, and ocean lifeguard to firefighter. Jim has worked for the Redondo Beach Fire Department for the last 22 years holding successively higher positions of responsibility. For the last six years, Jim has held the rank of Engineer with responsibility for driving and operating the Department’s Engines and Tillered Aerial Ladder Truck. Throughout his career, he has shown a dedication not only to public safety but also community service.
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  1. Pingback: Surfline: Apocalypse Swell: All Paddle Edition – Cortes Bank | Jim Caldwell's photolog of Hawaii's North Shore

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