I T’S A SURFER’S ULTIMATE DREAM, OR WORST NIGHT-MARE: A 100-FOOT-TALL WALL OF WATER breaking like a horizontal tornado, crushing anyone daring or dumb enough to get in its way as it roars along at up to 60mph with the force of a locomotive.
If anyone is ever going to conquer the biggest, gnarliest waves in the world, it could very well be Mike Parsons. Three years ago, (2001) the wiry, freckled 38- year-old pro surfer from California took a ride on a 66-foot-tall wave—the biggest ever known to have been surfed at the time—as it crashed over Cortes Bank, a remote underwater mountain 100 miles off the coast of San Diego. As he dropped in over its lip, Parsons recalled, “I kept going down and down. I’d never felt anything like it. It gave me a buzz for a month afterward. All I could think about was going out and finding another one.
Since then, Parsons and an elite cadre of professional big-wave hunters have been doing exactly that. Bankrolled by the surf-clothing company Billabong, which has put up a $250,000 bounty for the first surfer to ride a 100-footer, they have criss-crossed the globe in search of the Big Kahuna: to Maui’s infamous Jaws surf break, to El Buey off Chile’s northern coast, and to a still-secret island off Aus-tralia’s coast the surfers nicknamed Cyclops for the size and force of its eye- popping rollers.
Nowhere, however, holds more promise than Cortes Bank, a vertiginous 25-mile-long mountain range that juts up more than a mile from the ocean floor to within 6 feet of the surface. “You’ve heard of the perfect storm? Well, Cortes Bank is the perfect wave,” says Sean Collins, a surf forecaster whose surfline.com in Huntington Beach, Calif., serves as the intelligence-gathering center in the search for the monster wave.
Maxing out. Using topographical maps of the ocean bottom and computers to monitor storms and winds that can combine to create the ideal wave, Collins has calculated the big-wave potential for the world’s top surfing spots. The best, such as Maui’s Jaws, where another surfer recently bested Parsons’s feat by riding a 70-footer, “max out at 80 to 90 feet,” Collins says. But because Cortes’s banana- shaped, convex western side focuses the ocean’s deep-water swells like a magnif-ying glass, he explains, “you could feasibly get a 1,000-foot wave, but definitely a very good, ridable 150-footer.”
Paddling into a “ridable” 150-foot wave used to be unthinkable . But that was before the advent of tow-in surfing, in which surfers are pulled into the path of a big wave by a high-powered Jet Ski. Pioneered in the 1990s by pro surfers like Laird Hamilton, the hulking husband of model Gabrielle Reece, tow-in surfing has become the hottest thing going in the sport. It’s bound to get even hotter thanks, in part to the just released movie Riding Giants, which features Hamilton and others on the watery equivalents of a bucking tyrannosaur.
The film was shown during Mike Parsons’s last trip to Cortes Bank in January, when more than 100 tow-in tag-alongs turned up as word of a bevy of big swells spread on the Internet. Exciting as it looks, some worry that tow-in surfing will lead fledgling surfers to, well, get in over their heads. Not to worry, say the pros. “An average surfer can easily get towed into a giant wave,” Parsons says of the tag-alongs who turned up at Cortes Bank. “But an average surfer can’t ride one.” Yes, but we can always dream..
U. S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT
August 16, / August 23, 2004. (pg. 82)
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