On Friday, January 13, Cortes Bank—an open-ocean surf spot 100 miles west of San Diego—was stupid good. It was trip No. 14 for me and it really was the best I’ve ever seen it.
I think it was a combo of low tide, lack of wind and a perfect large swell direction hitting the reef with an already pre-primed ocean from multiple large swells in the prior weeks—kind of like pre-heating an oven and prepping it for the big show.
A long way from land and an even longer way from home, France’s Justine Dupont snagged the wave of the trip—and one that could earn her a women’s world record. Photos courtesy/copyright Robert Brown.
Funded by the crew that produces the Emmy-winning 100-foot wave show for HBO Max now in its second season, this my first trip out there where I did not use my own boat and drive the entire time. We left Dana Point Harbor in Orange County on the Boardroom 2 sportfisher at 4 p.m. Thursday, just before dark onto a sheet-glass ocean. I slept in the forward stateroom and did not feel a bump all night.
Waking at 4:30 a.m., I grabbed a cup of Joe in the galley and climbed the stairs to the helm station to see captain Todd Mansur aligning us up to see “the mothership”—a 105-foot workboat out of San Diego—sitting a few miles up from Bishop Rock. I had Todd motor us in position to get photos of the crane swinging all nine personal watercraft into the water for safety crews, videographers and tow-in surfing teams. (The speed of the swells moving through the open ocean means that surfers need to be towed into each wave by personal watercraft that can match and exceed the speed of the waves.)
When the back of a wave looks like this, you know you’re looking at a big wave.
Now it was time to quickly line up our shooting position just off the Cortes Bank buoy and get a look at the waves. It was really glassy but as usual not as big as I hoped for. That changed fairly quickly as the swell peaked between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. And it was booming.
Surfer tow-teams included Garrett MacNamara and Andrew Cotton, Justine Dupont with Lucas Chianca, then Nic Von Rupp and Will Skudin. Garrett and Will have been to Cortes before but none of the others had so a lot of waves went unridden.
The highlight of the trip? France’s Justine Dupont charging the biggest wave of the day for a potential women’s world record. She dropped and dropped forever and finally arced her giant bottom turn and made it a complete ride.
I have had two extremely close calls out there so I am always cautious about moving too close up the reef where most of the rides start. You must respect the fact that another very large wave can appear out of nowhere on these giant swells, and they come at you kind of sideways. It is either a connection of two of the ground swells overlapping or just enough angle change to have the swell spill over another part of the reef and come at you sideways.
Whatever creates it, the result is no fun and absolutely terrifying, and if not prepared you easily could get killed and lose your boat. I have nightmares remembering how close it really was both times.
All of this happens more than 100 miles from shore.
This was also the first time I could stand approximately 30 feet above the water on top of the sportfisher roof, where I clipped my safety harness to the radar tower frame. You’d think that shooting pictures from that high above the water would make the waves look smaller, but as you can see from the images here it didn’t. Better still, it put me above the giant side waves that push off the monster waves and about halfway up their faces so it was the ultimate shooting angle.
I also could spot rogue waves coming sideways as well as see the surfers start their tow-ins.
This trip actually was planned a year ago but never came together due to lack of swell with good weather. But early last month (primary trip organizer) Bill Sharp told me the trip was on and that he wanted me to be the still photographer and boat safety coordinator for the Boardroom 2 as planned the year before. Bill knows I will not let our boat be placed where it should not be and that I would make sure the videographers on our boat would be in the best place to be able to shoot every possible bit of action and wave riding.
I’m proud to say we all made it home safely with some incredible photographs and indelible memories of Cortes Bank firing on all cylinders with some of the world’s best big-wave surfers taking it on.
After a successful day of intense big-wave riding action, the surfers and production team members headed home.
Editor’s note: A former Powerboat magazine photographer and longtime speedonthewater.com contributor, Robert Brown was part of the first trip to Cortes Bank—dubbed Project Neptune—more than a decade ago. He is considered to be among the best big-wave surfing photographers of his generation.