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California's Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave Ever Ridden


Surfers, take note. Some of the biggest waves ever ridden are not in Hawaii, or Australia, they're 100 miles off the southern California coast.

Mavericks, off the California coast near Half Moon Bay, became famous among big wave surfers in 1994 when Mark Foo, one of the world's greatest big wave surfers at the time, caught his last-ever big wave and died in the cold Mavericks surf. Since then, Mavericks has become a Mecca for those who crave the thrill of surfing the big waves. The big wave surf competition at Mavericks started in 1999.

But in 2001, the waves at Mavericks were measured at a mere 20 feet. The really big waves lurk off the southern California coast, 100 miles out of San Diego at the Cortes Bank. Here, a 17-mile underwater mountain range comes to a head 3 feet below the surface at a spot called Bishop Rock. This place has been known to ocean-going ship captains and fishermen for years. The waves at Cortes Bank signal danger on the underwater rocks and are so big they show up on radar.

To get the biggest waves at Cortes Bank, you need light winds, low tides, and big storm swells from the northwest all at the same time, a Pacific surfer's version of the "perfect storm." When it happened on January 19, 2001, California big wave riders scrambled to test their skill against the biggest, baddest wave ever ridden, marking the first time tow-surfers challenged this mid-ocean break.

These waves move so fast that surfers can't catch them by paddling, so they enlist the aid of a fearless jet skier who tows them with a rope until they are moving fast enough to engage the wave.

As if being chased by a mountain of water while being towed by a jet ski at 30-40 mph isn't scary enough, then there's the wave itself. Surfers measure waves from the back and the biggest wave of the day was 30 feet according to their measurements. A watcher on the other side of that same wave would see a wall of water more than sixty feet tall, bigger than a six-story building. The same wave, after traveling more than a hundred miles and reduced to a quarter of its former size, would reach surfers at San Diego's Blacks Beach three hours later.

Mike Parsons took home the 2001 Swell/XXL Biggest Wave award in 2001 for riding a 66-foot-tall wave at Cortes Bank. In 2008, he was back and at 43 years old, San Clemente resident Parsons again won the competition (now called the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards) for surfing a wall of water at least 70 feet tall.

In various interviews, Parsons has predicted that someone will eventually find and ride a 100-foot-tall wave at Cortes Bank.

Billed by some as the "new Mavericks" is Ghost Tree, off Pescadero Point in Pebble Beach, which produced two of 2008's five big wave finalist rides. In early 2009, a ban on using personal water craft on the Monterey Bay went into effect which includes Ghost Tree. It remains to be seen whether the fines will deter the pros on the biggest wave days or not.

You can follow the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards to find out the latest records and see some great video of the year's contenders. Their annual awards ceremony, which includes some breath-stopping video of the contestants is broadcast on ESPN and held live at The Grove in Anaheim, California in April.

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