Cortes Bank sits one hundred miles off the coast of California. A shallow sea mount or a barely submerged island, it runs approximately 16 miles long and rises out of a sea of nearly 1000 fathoms or 1- mile deep. Various (and hilarious) attempts by individuals to lay claim to this island, a veritable aquarium of sea life for diving and offshore fishing were scuttled by the United States government when it was declared that the bank, as part of the continental shelf, was U.S. territory.
One of the signifying characteristics of the mysterious Cortes Bank is due to its shallow waters rising out of deep sea depths with underwater high peaks to create a rideable wave of monstrous proportions. As far as we know, ever since 1961, wild-eyed surfers have traveled to this offshore mecca (a.k.a. The “Ghost Wave”) in an attempt to harness the power and speed of Cortes Bank for the ride of their lives. Numerous near-deaths, tragic boating accidents, and lost crew members have been attributed to this spot.
In January of 2008, surfer Mike Parsons was photographed on a wave judged by the Billabong XXL judges as 70+ feet along the face—later determined to be at least 77 feet. Other surfers claimed to have witnessed Greg Long ride one even bigger that was never captured on film. And still others are surfing out there without telling anyone. What we do know is that Cortes Bank has the ability to hold one of the largest, rideable waves in the world.
In January 2023, Garret McNamara went to Cortes with Will Skudin, Justine Dupont and others to film for his upcoming 3rd season of his 100-Foot Wave series. The forecast was promising, but nobody expected the pristine conditions that met them out there that day. This is the telling of a moment when the ghost wave gave back from the eyes of the people who were graced to be out there. This is Cortes Bank.
Editor’s Note: Big Wave rider Will Skudin hails from Long Beach, New York where he launched an unlikely career chasing monster swells around the planet. Will is known for his ability to withstand cold swells in Ireland, chase the heaving monsters at Nazare, and - on this day - be one of the crew tapped by Garrett McNamara to go film at Cortes for the upcoming series of 100’ Wave. Beyond that, Will is a gentleman and deeply spiritual human. He loves what he does and it shows. Keep your eye on him. He’s a magnet.
It didn’t really hit me what was going on until I woke up 100 miles out on the ocean, because there had been so many moving parts to get there. I was coming in from Ireland, and had stopped off in New York for four hours to pack my shit. We launched the boat in the dark and headed out to sea. I feel like the ocean rocked me to sleep that night.
When I woke up the next morning and walked out onto the deck, the sky was blood red and as the sun came up, the water was oily glass where you could see the boat wake for miles and miles. That was the indicator that, if anything was breaking on the reef at Cortes, it was gonna be out of control. We docked outside the back of the wave, watching the spray roll off the back of each set. That told us just how big it was.
Then it was a mad scramble to get our wetsuits on, our gear ready, get the skis in the water, etc. It was crazy. I spent the first three hours on the ski, moving a photographer around to get the best shots. It was wild for me to be out there, as close as I could get to the wave for the photographer, watching it unfold. The first hour, I was like … WOW!!! The 2nd hour was amazing. By the third hour my brain was going haywire. I needed to get out there!
I wanted to let go of the rope and ride a 60-foot, glassy wave. I’ve been doing this for twenty years and I’ve never seen waves this big and this glassy. There was always texture. Yet here we were, a hundred miles out in the middle of the ocean, in this area with no wind and amazing conditions. I didn’t want to overstep Garrett MacNamara’s filming of “The 100’ Wave" thing, but I had to. I got on the radio and offered to put another ski out there so as not to slow down the rotation. I had done the math in my head and the forecast was that the wind was supposed to pick up. So with three skis in the water already, and two riders per ski, I knew I needed to make a move in order to get on that wave while it was still glass.
Drake from Water Safety gave up his ski to Nick and me. The swell was inconsistent. There was only one decent set every half hour, and it was tough to find your takeoff spot on the ski without any visual landmarks and remember your place in the rotation. But then… we found our rhythm.
The speed of that wave was ridiculous. It was faster than Nazare, faster than anything I’ve ever surfed. Unexpected speed. The way the swell hit the reef, it was almost like the wave would reach for the sky. It would hit the reef and then stand up another 15 feet. It was the most vertical face I’ve ever seen, and it definitely packed a punch.
There was also a full aquarium going on out there. We saw seals surfing that big wave before we got out. There was a giant white shark ripping on a tuna. Two whales passed near the boat and there were hundreds and hundreds of birds. The water was so clear and blue. It was almost hard to take it all in.
Stand outs of the day were definitely the women in terms of how they attacked the situation. Justine was out there with Lucas, Izzi was getting towed into waves by Chuck Patterson. Izzi was on the rope for two hours looking like she never wanted to go in. They surfed the shit out of the waves out there. They were ripping.
What is significant to me is that it was almost 20 years ago to the date that I had been out there with Garrett before. As a 17-year-old surfer,one day I had walked up to him with $500 and literally begged him to take me to Cortes Bank. That day was glassy too, but probably only 30-foot conditions. It wasn’t what Garrett and those guys were looking for, so he spent the afternoon towing me into waves on the ski. That trip to Cortes, almost 20 years ago to the day, showed me what was possible out there. This trip in January was like coming full circle, being out there with Garrett MacNamara again on this particular day, in these conditions, after I’d put in 20 years of chasing big surf.
Editor’s Note: A 5X stand up paddle surfing world champion, Izzi Gomez now has her sights set on adding big wave world titles to her already impressive résumé. At 23 years old, Izzi is unstoppable. On this day, she and Chuck Patterson concocted a scheme to fly out to Cortes Bank while they were surfing in the lineup at Pe’ahi in Maui. Bringing their own crew, Chuck and Izzi spent hours surfing the great wave at Cortes. She has - at last check in - not come home to dry out since.
On Wednesday, January 11, 2023, Chuck Patterson and I booked the redeye to LAX while sitting on a jet ski in the channel at Jaws. By now I had been sitting in the lineup for a couple of hours, trying to paddle into some waves. We made the booking when I came back to the ski to take a break.
Chuck was pretty amped and he said, “We can make Cortes happen. Are we doing this or not?!” I knew it is so rare for Cortes Bank to break, and after taking a look at how good the swell was shaping up to be, I couldn’t say no. After that Chuck towed me into a couple of more waves and then we were on our way!
When I arrived home from Jaws, I had three hours to pack and get to the airport. I had never done a strike mission trip like this before, so I was pretty nervous and went through my checklist like a hundred times to make sure I didn’t forget anything.
We arrived back in California around 6:30 AM on Thursday the 12th and had a few hours to get ready and head to the boat. We had a great crew with incredibly positive energy who made this trip even more special. When we got on the boat and started moving, I was thinking to myself, “I was in Hawaii just 24 hours ago, in the water at Jaws! This is crazy!”
I didn’t sleep very well on the ride out to Cortes because I was so excited. This is a spot I’ve dreamed about my entire life and I just couldn’t believe that I was finally getting to experience it. Chuck woke me up at 6 AM the morning of and told me to start suiting up.
Once we were ready, we threw my tow board on the ski and headed out to the lineup to check the wave. It’s hard to see just how big it is from the boat. I was still in disbelief that I woke up over a hundred miles offshore in the middle of the ocean to see these gigantic, perfect waves with no land in sight. Chuck drove me directly into the lineup and I just couldn’t stop thinking “How is this real?“
Chuck took the time to explain the lineup to me, where the wave breaks on certain tides and in different swell directions. He really spent some time making sure I understood the place. I can honestly say I have never experienced any wave like this in my entire life. Seeing these swells that have been traveling for thousands of miles finally hit a reef in the middle of the ocean shallow enough to break was just insane. The raw energy and power of this wave was amazing.
I was pretty nervous whipping into my first few waves because Chuck kept stressing about how this wave moves a lot faster than normal. He kept telling me not to fade too much after takeoff. Chuck is such an excellent ski driver and he put me in the perfect spot every time. I fell on the end section of my first wave and the beat down wasn’t too bad, but I definitely got pushed really deep.
I have to say that this was the best day of my life. Cortes Bank was a place that was like a myth to me as a kid from the Gulf Coast of Florida, and I still can’t believe I got to surf there. To have a friend and mentor like Chuck Patterson take me under his wing for this once- in-a-lifetime experience is something that I will remember forever. I’m so fortunate to have someone like him who is willing to share his wisdom and knowledge in order to help me achieve my goals. Thank you, Chuck!
Editor’s Note: Justine Dupont from Bordeaux, France has established herself as the best female big wave surfer in the world with multiple World Championships through the WSL XXL Awards. Her performance in tow in surfing allows her to rival the best male surfers in the discipline. In 2013, Dupont became the first woman to surf the 15m Belharra in the Northern Basque Country of France. In February 2020, she surfed one the biggest waves ever surfed in the world and won the first-ever Nazaré Tow Challenge. In January 2021, at Jaws, Hawaii, she surfed the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman. In 2023, she was one of the first women to compete in “The Eddie”. At Cortes, she was a part of GMac’s crew filming for the third season of MacNamara’s 100-Foot Wave series.
The conditions were incredible and there was almost no wind.
It's really strange to find yourself on the open sea without seeing any coastline. There was a lot of sea life on the reef with seals packed under the waves to protect themselves from white sharks which were also plentiful in the area.
While waiting for waves on the jet ski, several sharks came up to inspect us. It was terrifying. So as soon as we completed our rides we immediately jumped right back on the ski to spend as little time as possible in the water.
I love teaming up with Lucas Chumbo to town into big waves. With him, I am in the best possible hands. He is the best big wave surfer in the world and I knew he would do everything possible to position me on each wave perfectly and put me on the biggest ones. Everyone surfed lots of waves that day. It's so amazing to share moments like this together.
I caught some of the biggest waves of my life that day at Cortes Bank. The speed of each wave was impressive. There was barely any chop at all on the surface so my board was constantly in contact with the water. That is a feeling I'm not used to; it felt like snowboarding in powder.
What an honor to be part of this expedition with an incredible team for Garrett MacNamara’s third season of “The 100’ Wave.” Thanks again to Garrett and Bill for the invite and thanks to “The 100’ Wave'' team for making this possible.
Editor’s Note: Chuck Patterson has been charging mountains and chasing waves as a full-time sponsored athlete and stuntman for over 30 years as a master across many disciplines including skiing, snowboarding, big wave surfing, stand up paddling, kiteboarding, windsurfing, foil surfing and speed flying. He is consistently amped for adventure and pushes the limits of what is possible for himself and other athletes across the globe. On this trip, he was coaching Izzi Gomez on surfing giant waves and catching a few for himself in between. Chuck is radical. If you see him coming, you’d better have your A-Game on or leave the room.
Chuck’s been out to Cortes Bank 4 or 5 times previously, but this time he was there on a different sort of mission. His goal: to launch up-and-coming big wave rider Izzi Gomez into as many waves as possible. Chuck and Izzi go way back. They’ve been friends for most of her career and CP acts as a mentor to the former 5x SUP Surfing World Champion-turned-big-wave-chaser. They hatched their plan for a strike mission to Cortes while sitting in the lineup on a jetski at Jaws on Maui. What unfolded next is a tale for the history books.
Chuck says, “When we woke up that morning on the boat, we witnessed an incredible sunrise. Anchored a good 2-3 miles from the break, we could see the white water which was a good indicator that the swell had some size to it. When the sun rose, we could see the conditions were pure glass and perfect. We were mesmerized by it. It seemed so surreal to see waves breaking like that since we were 100 miles out in the middle of the ocean”.
From their rendezvous point with the team, they still weren’t sure of the size of Cortes that day. “The only thing we could really tell,” explains Chuck, “is that every once in a while, there was a set that would have a barrel and a big spit so we knew it had some size. But it's a totally different thing when you’re on the boat some distance away, than when you’re on the jet ski looking straight up at it.”
The buoy off of the shoal at Bishop’s Rock stands 38’ high. It is one of the channel markers to protect ships passing by as the depth shortens dramatically in this hazardous spot. “You could see the buoy in the background from where we were getting a closer look at the wave,” he remembers. “And on the sets we could see that the buoy was easily the same height as the wave.”
Wave perspectives are funny out in the open water. With nothing to use as a measurement to gauge the height, it is easy to assume a wave is much smaller than it actually is. “You think it’s a 6-footer, and then you get out there on the ski and you realize it’s like 40 feet. Oh my god!”
Izzi and Chuck got loaded up, had a safety meeting with the team on the boat, and then headed out on the ski together to take a closer look at this mysterious wave.
“We ripped in and out of waves for like 15 minutes. I was showing her the different peaks and how the wave ran. We decided to concentrate on the West Bowl which had a little more consistency in the swell even though it was about a football field away from where the boats were anchored.” Chuck remembers.
He decided to test out the first waves in order to give some feedback to Izzi before putting her out there for the first time. Bryce drove the ski to put Chuck into the wave in good position. Chuck says, “There were four skis out there in the rotation. Three were from Garrett McNamara’s crew filming for his “The 100’ Wave" episode, and us. There were usually about three waves in each set so it was important to be on your game, remember where you were in the rotation, and be ready not to miss any waves.”
Chuck put Izzi on the rope next and towed her into her first wave. He followed with the ski along the lip of the wave to keep an eye on her. “This wave,” he says, “travels 2X faster than the wave at Jaws because it comes out of such deep water and there is no other reef around to slow it down. Then it hits this one shoal and stands straight up.” Riders move at speeds close to 40 mph at Cortes Bank, so wipeouts can be calamitous. At those speeds, the water feels hard when a rider goes down. On Izzi’s first ride, the white water caught up to her and she was knocked right off her board. Chuck came in on the ski to pick her up.
“What’s cool about it,” says Chuck, “is that the speed of the wave is so different from other places, so you really begin to understand your board, whether it is fast or slow, and your fins are humming. You learn a lot at that speed.”
Izzi and Chuck switched out again and Bryce towed Chuck into a few more waves. Here is where things began to go south. “A big set came and we were in the right spot,” remembers Chuck. “You always want the second wave of the set because it pulls the water off of the reef and is the biggest wave. I took off on the second wave and realized how fast it was gonna go, so I went high and moved into the pocket. That’s when I saw a bump or a ripple 20 feet wide coming up the wave face. I watched it as it moved up to the top of the lip and, when it hit the lip, it made it fold over instead of throw. When that lip hit me it knocked me right out. I came to in the white water, going over the lip, and I couldn’t move my hands to grab my vest. “
“I managed to pop up and take a breath right before the next wave of the set caught me. It just destroyed me and pushed me super deep. I always keep my eyes open so I can get a sense of where I am, and the water went from turquoise to pitch black. I was running out of air.”
Chuck was able to fight his way to the surface again. He looked down and saw that one of the pulls on his vest was not fully engaged, so he pulled again in order to inflate the vest. That’s when the third wave hit him.
The third wave pushed him deep again, but now that he was inflated he rose and skipped along the surface until he was driven a hundred yards or more from where the skis were and where anyone could get to him. He was punished by a fourth wave before Bryce was able to retrieve him on the jet ski. When he was returned to safety, he knew he was hurt. His back was on fire and he could not move well. Something was definitely wrong.
Chuck says, “Look, I know I am lucky to be here and I’m just glad I can hold my breath. I was upset that it happened. Izzi and I had such a plan for the day, I couldn’t just entrust her to anyone else. I wanted to stick with the plan and get her into some waves, no matter what.”
He remembers calling out, “All right Izzi. Let’s go!” And the duo returned to the jet ski and their place in the rotation. There was a lot of waiting - twenty or thirty minutes between sets - and the forecast said the wind was going to come up. But then Izzi began getting into the flow as Chuck whipped her into wave after wave on the jetski. “She was stoked and her boards were working really good,” says Chuck.
“Izzi got some of the best waves of her life out there. It was her childhood dream to surf Cortes Bank, which I didn’t even know at the time. To share those historical moments is so rad.”
It turns out Chuck broke three ribs in his back that day and suffered a T-12 compression fracture in his spine, but he has no regrets. “It was so rad for me to see Izzi come out of her funk and get her stoke back for big wave riding. It was amazing to watch her shine. Now she’s just on fire! She’s more confident in her decisions and she is so stoked to be back into big wave riding. There is something that is so gratifying about helping someone else achieve their goals … it’s almost as good as when you do it yourself.”
“Justine DuPont was also there that day with McNamara’s crew. Justine pretty much just stole the show from the rest of the guys out there. I’m so stoked for her too because I know that is her mission. The women were just the best part of that day.”
As Chuck begins to rehab his ribs and the compression fracture in his spine, he’s not looking back. In fact, Izzi left California to head back to Maui and scored her first barrel at Jaws within 48 hours of riding the swell that hit Cortes Bank. She is lit up and on fire and, as Chuck says, “There is no other way to be. We all have to keep chasing our dreams and putting ourselves out there with people who are like-minded and understand why we do the things we do. That’s what the stoke is all about.”