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Thursday, November 4, 2010
100 miles and running

When it comes to riding big waves, it's hard to break new ground. To make any news these days, you have to ride a 100-foot swell, pioneer a new death slab or survive a wave that's not really a wave. With that in mind, we decided to do something this winter that hadn't been done before: surf Maverick's and the Cortes Bank back to back on the same swell. The Jaws/Mavs/Todos trifecta is a proven commodity, with Waimea or the Hawaiian outer reefs sometimes in place at the starting gate and Ghost Tree filling in for the middle stop, but Cortes has never been part of the equation.

With a La Nina winter upon us, the forecast for an early season made our crew a bit trigger happy. If the possibility of our winter storm cycle ending by early January is real, we figured we'd better get our act in gear and make the most of what comes our way. When the late-October charts showed a massive swell forming in the North Pacific, we decided to make our move. The crew -- including Jeff Clark, Shane Dorian, Mike Parsons, Greg Long, Mark Healey and Ian Walsh -- was stellar.

The first stop was a good but blustery opening day at Mavs. As news of Andy Iron's passing spread among our crew, it was with heavy hearts that we continued on our mission. With the day winding down, we had exactly 12 hours to get from the lineup at Mavs to the channel at Cortes. We were racing the swell, weather, and maddening logistics of getting six surfers, a videographer and myself back to the Half Moon Bay harbor, breaking down all the skis, loading up boards and gear, flying from SFO to LAX, transferring to San Pedro and getting on a boat for a six-hour midnight express to the Bank.

Sounds easy enough, but we also were meeting our mothership, the Condor, a large fishing boat out of San Diego. Finding a suitable option with space, power and a captain who's interested in hosting a surfari 100 miles out to sea on 36 hours' notice is not the easiest task. This vessel needed to be loaded with five skis, more crew and a grip of equipment that wasn't with us up north. If only we could travel with carry-on jet skis; it sure would make things a heck of a lot easier.

The mission sounded simple enought: Rendezvous at the Cortes Bank at 6 a.m. and score giant tow surf. The swell had peaked at Mavs later in the day than originally forecasted, so our chance of timing the swell's arrival at Cortes was looking favorable. After a long night of one-eyed sleep in wet, wind-blasted board bags in the gunnel of our water taxi, we approached our temporary home, already positioned at the edge of the reef. Fortunately for us, by the time we rose, they had already off-loaded three of the skis and were dropping the last two in the water.

Mike Parsons, the original Cortes Bank charger.

Shortly after sunrise, the swell arrived on cue. We couldn't believe our fortune. With so many moving pieces, the realist in me was prepared for the worst, as one mishap could compromise the expedition. A jet ski would fail, baggage would be misplaced, a failed connection or the wind might disobey expectations. As the sun rose, we pinched ourselves because everything was coming up roses. Yes, the swell took a little while to fill in, but we'd basically pulled it off. By 10 a.m., everyone had gotten a bomb, the sun was shining and angels were singing. It was too good to be true.

That must have been what the fog was thinking as it steamrolled its way across the Pacific toward our little slice of big-wave heaven. At first, it was a whisper of low clouds, then before we knew it, a wall of impenetrable mist accompanied by an unfriendly sea breeze. When you're 100 miles out to sea, you don't mess around with fog. We immediately aborted our mission and headed back to the safety of our base camp -- a perfect excuse for a lunch break and siesta.

After days of prepping and coordination between Long and myself, Long joked, "Making this trip happen was a big pain in the ass. I probably spent 10 times as much time prepping for the trip than I did surfing, but in the end, it was worth all the effort. We scored decent Mavs and pretty large, clean Cortes."

In a remarkable big-wave career that has spanned more than 35 years, Clark likely became the first grandfather to surf Cortes. Add that to his long list of big-wave achievements. "When Mark asked me to be his tow partner, it was unreal," he said. "I had been at Cortes once before, so the chance to go out with a handful of the best surfers was an amazing opportunity I was not going to pass up."

Clark got some great waves and towed Healey into some bombs. It was great to have such a legendary big-wave rider surfing with us on the mission, and the whole crew was equally honored to have Clark with us.

After a few hours of successive fog banks toying with our emotions and having caught enough rockfish to feed our crew, we finally had a break in the weather. The wind laid down, the sun came out and it was time for a paddle session. As with the first session, there were some memorable wipeouts, a couple of enormous caught insides and some of the biggest Cortes Bank waves to ever be paddle-surfed. Healey got the biggest paddle-in wave ever ridden there.

"Sitting at the top of the reef, I kept seeing a pattern of waves, so it was a game of cat and mouse and taking a couple giant sets on the head," Healey said. "Finally, I got a ramp into one out on the bank and linked up with an inside section pulling into the barrel. It was a good one, for sure."

As quickly as the fog disappeared, it returned. Our day was over. We didn't get the 100-foot holy grail, but we did fulfill one of our goals of trying to be everywhere at once without getting hurt. Not sure how I feel about not sleeping for three days and being out in 60-foot surf, but that's a small price to pay for having some big-wave fun. Maybe we should go for the quinella?