White Sharks And 60-Foot Perfection At The Cortes Bank Session Of The Decade - Stab Mag
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Andrew Cotton, cashing checks at the Cortes Bank. Photo by Pedro Bala

White Sharks And 60-Foot Perfection At The Cortes Bank Session Of The Decade

“Friday was the best big day from dawn to dusk that I’ve ever seen as far as conditions go. It was 60-foot and flawless the whole day.”

Words by Holden Trnka
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Editors note: Normally, a story of this depth with content of this quality would only be available for our devoted Premium supporters. However, 100 Foot Wave organizer Bill Sharp has given us free reign on the content from this trip, so long as it’s available for everyone to view. Enjoy.

On Friday, the 13th of January, California’s coastline was graced with an uncharacteristically long period pulse. For just one day, light Southern California winds combined with energy that built from 6 feet @ 24 seconds to about 17 feet @ 19 seconds.

It was impossible not to score if you were south of Point Conception.

On these days where every spot on the map is alight with energy and railwork, it seems each surfer has a rolodex of potentially firing spots spinning through their minds. Pointbreaks, secret slabs, fickle sandbars, and ever-dormant coves —  all of them were firing on Friday. 

Sure it was crowded — it always is — but this was one of those swells where everyone walked up the trail at dusk with a smile, back to phones full of exuberant messages and shaky lineup shots.

There was one spot, however, that was on nobody’s radar. Well, nobody except for the six surfers and 40-something production crew who made the perilous 100-mile overnight journey.

Cortes Bank.

Mythical in nature, the open-ocean shoal, deep off the coast of San Diego, played host to a big-wave tow session the likes of which its participants had never seen before. 

“I’ve been focused on Cortes Bank for maybe 20 years,” says Garret McNamara. “Friday was the best big day from dawn to dusk that I’ve ever seen as far as conditions go. It was 60-foot and flawless the whole day.”

The monumental adventure was undertaken for an upcoming season of HBO’s highly successful documentary 100 Foot Wave, and it took a bit more planning — and a fuck-ton more cash — than your average Mentawai boat trip. 

NIne jet-skis, 41 crew members including water safety and production, a helicopter, and a 104-foot multimillion-dollar industrial ship to carry it all.

While I didn’t get an exact number, Bill Sharp — former Surfing Magazine editor and the genius who organized the strike mission — slyly told me it cost about one-eighth of a WSL Big Wave event. Nic Von Rupp ballparked it at around $150,000 USD.

The D.M. Tapper and it’s crew in Delta formation, or something. Photo by Jamy Donaldson

Though, money is only a part of the picture when it comes to producing a full-on documentary in the middle of the ocean. The rest? Really good planning and a lot of patience.

“I’ve been involved in trying to slay the Cortes Bank dragon for 30 years, back to when I was an editor of Surfing Magazine,” says Bill, proudly. “We paddled it in the ’90s and we towed it in 2001 with Mike Parsons. I’m now involved with 100 Foot Wave, and we had a very successful first season. After that, I felt that the Nazare story had been fairly well told, so I shifted my focus to the Cortes Bank. I put together a plan, and it was set to go last winter, but it ended up being the worst winter in the history of California surfing. (laughs) So, this trip ended up being over 18 months of planning.”

And how did they know this was the swell?

“On Sunday, I saw this storm on the charts,” Bill continues. “This one had all the ingredients, the perfect track, not slamming us, and a one-day window of no wind. We spent a lot of time figuring out the logistical stuff. We confirmed the boat, watched the swell, and conferred with Kevin Wallis from Surfline. Y’know, most forecasts go weird. They look insane 5 days out, and then something gets bad. We knew the swell was coming, but it always comes down to the local wind, and that’s the thing with Cortes. It’s 100 miles at sea, so if it’s 30kts south wind out there, you die.”

*somewhere, Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” plays softly*

G-Mac confirms the danger of such a mission, “I went out there in the early 2000s for the first time and didn’t make it — we turned around halfway. The weather was too bad and our little boat couldn’t tow the two jet skis.“

Not a lineup marker in sight. Photo by Tucker Wooding

Along with Garret, five other surfers were fortunate enough to get the call-up for Friday’s escapade: Nic Von Rupp, Justine Dupont, Andrew Cotton, Will Skudin, and Lucas “Chumbo” Chianca.

“I was on my way to the Eddie, and it got canceled when we were in the middle of our flight,” Nic Von Rupp explains. “Bill had been planning this for quite some time, and the perfect swell popped up. I was just fortunate enough to be involved with the right people to get out there. The logistics that go into putting a trip like this together are crazy. We left San Diego harbor, drove all night, and got there in the morning. It felt like I was going on my first surf trip ever.”

Nic continues, “The boat ride was a full-on old-school mission, Chumbo was sleeping on the deck outside all night. We finally got there and it was magical — complete glass. I’ve never seen waves so clean, so glassy for a whole day. It felt like a lake. It was a dream.”

Will Skudin in the belly of it. Photo by Rob Brown

Well, a dream with blood in the water.

“At one point, a big shark came up and bit a tuna in half right next to us,” remembered Garret. “The water safety was talking about big fish — I didn’t even wanna go look. “

Nic corroborates the story, and adds, “Like 20 minutes later one of our jet skis got bumped by a white shark, and one of the guys saw a white when we were sitting on a ski. I mean, you’re in the middle of the ocean, you know there’s some big fish down there for sure. We were getting back on the sled right away after each wave (laughs).”

So, paddle-purism aside, you can’t blame them for exclusively whipping into these mutants.

“We didn’t paddle at all. It’s hard enough to position yourself when you’re towing, and then there’s 60-footers coming through the lineup. There’s a north peak and a west peak, the safety crew had been out there before. It’s a big playing field but it’s a fucking legit wave, the west bowl ones were the best ones, they would go top to bottom.”

North Peak and West Peak in perfect synchronicity. Photo by Rob Brown.

Everyone was in agreement that Andrew Cotton’s barrel — featured as the header image on this story — was the wave of the day.

The session will be featured in an eventually forthcoming episode of 100 Foot Wave, but for now, Bill and the crew are just focused on ensuring the session gets as much exposure as possible.

“It’s strange, all of the others projects I’ve done have been for a brand and we always wanted to control the rights,” Bill muses. “We just did this because we wanted to do it, it was almost like a commune of the surfers, the shooters, and the water safety. Our goal right now is for all of them to benefit, and get eyes on their waves and footage.”

He finished our chat simply.

“I’m not gonna lie, it was pretty cool.”

Pretty fucking cool indeed, Mr. Sharp.