Like many surfers, Chris Dixon first heard about Cortes Bank, an underwater mountain range that’s about 100 miles off the San Diego coastline, about a decade ago. A passing interest in the newly discovered big-wave spot became full-blown fascination more than three years ago when he began writing articles for various publications about massive storms that sent waves as large as 80 feet to Cortes Bank.
In this Q&A, Dixon discusses the dedicated pack of surfers who chase waves at the phantom spot, the location's storied history and why everyone—whether they’re a surfer or a ship captain—who comes into contact with Cortes Bank can’t help but be obsessed.
Dixon will discuss and sign copies of his book Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth about this legendary locale at in La Jolla at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13.
Patch: You compare the surfers who ride Cortes Bank to the crew of whale hunters in Moby Dick. What about this spot makes it surfing’s white whale?
Chris Dixon: The bank is incredibly elusive and it’s incredibly dangerous. You only get calm conditions a few times a year to where it’s viable. It’s not only elusive for surfers, but also for divers.
It’s also a place of complete obsession. That’s one think that really struck with me. Greg [Long] and Mike [Parsons] of course want to surf big waves at Mavericks and Ghost Tree when the winter swell season rolls around. But the real place they want to go is Cortes—that’s their white whale. These guys want to get out there as often as they can. Maybe their surfboards are their harpoons [laughs].
Patch: Is the book mainly about the surfers who ride Cortes Bank or is it more about Cortes Bank itself?
Dixon: It’s a little of both. I thought it was going to be more a story about the surfers and surfing at the bank, but it turned into more than that. I wanted it to be a real maritime history. So I wanted to talk about more than just surfing. The USS Enterprise, for example, ran into trouble out there and could have easily been sunk. I talked to the captain of the ship about it and a number of divers who have just gone through crazy experiences out there.
It's largely a surfing-related book, though. The thing that was really interesting to me in regards to the surfers is what drives them? Why would they risk everything on a wave like that? I’ve been out there, but there’s no way I would ever surf it. Neither would 99 percent of surfers in the world. I was interested into getting to the bottom of what makes them tick.
Mike Parsons, in particular, strikes me as someone who always flew under the radar. He has the most watched surfing video on YouTube—the clip of him surfing at Jaws. Actually the wave he rode at Cortes a while back was about 20 feet bigger than that if you can believe it. Yet he doesn’t receive the kind of publicity that a Laird Hamilton has. He’s an amazingly devoted guy. And the guys he calls friends are just interesting studies in humanity.
Patch: It sounds like you hadn’t actually been to Cortes Bank before you started writing the book. How much actual time did you spend out there?
Dixon: I went on two missions and I’m hoping to go soon if we get a calm window of weather. The first time I went was in December of 2009. It was this paddle surfing mission that was put together by Greg Long.
We went out and it was so calm, like a lake. You couldn’t even see a ripple in the ocean. The waves were probably 25 feet high. I was hoping to free dive out there, but there was a sea lion carcass floating around in the water. I’m a dad, so I didn’t go because I think putting myself out there was a bit much.
I did go out on a ski to watch the surfers and spent some time near the impact zone [where the surf breaks]. I not only got to see the waves break up close, but I really spent a lot of time gazing through the sea floor at the kelp forest. And you can really see this island down there; the water was clear. It was huge and gorgeous. The sea life down there … it was so astonishing; it was one of the top experiences of my life. And of course we nearly got run down by a huge wave.
I went back out in November of 2010. It was much, much bigger. The waves were probably pushing 60 feet. I’ve seen big waves at Todos Santos and Mavericks, but I’ve never seen anything like that.
A fogbank rolled in during the early afternoon, but cleared up and the swell dropped a bit. These guys were towing [using a Jet Ski to get] into waves in the morning, but they were paddling into them later in the day even then when the swell was still 35 to 45 feet. Sensory overload. That’s the only real way I can describe it. It’s mind boggling guys would get on surfboards and go down waves like that in the middle of the ocean.
Patch: I heard that one of the reasons Cortes Bank is popular with divers is because of the shipwrecks at the bottom.
Dixon: There was a fairly famous shipwreck that happened in 1966 and there were rumors there was a ship down there. There were articles in the Long Beach Press Telegram and LA Times I found. I pulled my hair out trying to find anyone associated with it.
The story is that there was this crazy plot to resurrect Cortes as an island. I came to realize one of the main engineers behind the project lived in Laguna Beach, and I tracked him down. He gave me this unbelievable interview of what actually happened out there.
His partner in this was a B-movie actor name Joe Kirkwood. Kirkwood just got this wild—I don’t even know—Howard Hughesian idea to refloat Cortes. He was damned if he was going to be stopped. He hired the guy from Laguna. They bought a huge ship, but all nearly died when a huge swell swept in literally out of nowhere and almost killed all of them. The ship is still down there.
Patch: How long did it take you to write the book? Was it difficult to research at any point?
Dixon: It was really difficult to research. The book took me three years to write from when I really started diving into things. It was like I would turn over one rock and there would be five rocks underneath that rock and then there would be five rocks underneath each of those rocks.
There were a lot of surf missions out there [at Cortes Bank] that I really wanted to cover. There was the history of Cortes. It was really hard to know when to stop. I also really wanted to really verify everything I was saying. Not just the surf missions, but the historical records. I had to go to the National Archives and verify, for example, ships’ logs and things like that. The short answer: There was an unbelievable amount of research.
Patch: What are some other interesting stones, or rocks, you turned over?
Dixon: I got really interested in who the people who would have visited Cortes when it was an island 10,000 years ago were. Who were they? Who were they descended from? What kind of boats would they have taken? What kind of lives would they have led? I talked to anthropologists. I talked to several divers that nearly died out there.
The other thing I looked at in a really interesting way is how does a 100-foot wave form at Cortes Bank and what kind of storms send waves like that? For an example of that and an interesting way of describing it, I looked at an account of Sebastian Junger describing going over a 112-foot wave in the USS Ramapo on the way to San Diego in 1933. It turns out this storm that they encountered broke every record book. 1933 was as wild as a year as you’re ever likely to find in U.S. history. And I actually found the daughter of the captain of the USS Ramapo living in Hawaii. I was able to talk about how waves form over the bank and also who this guy was and what he was thinking about during the middle of this huge storm by talking to his daughter. It started out with how the waves break at Cortes Bank, and turned into a really interesting aside. That seemed to happen at every turn.
Patch: I guess with so many side streets you could go down, how did you decide what made the book?
Dixon: That was one of the hardest things. Honestly, finding a coherent storyline that weaved everything together. I think I did, but it was a challenge to do so—to go from this maritime history to the surf history. What I found as a common thread among all the people, and we touched on this earlier, was the idea that everyone who’s been out there has become obsessed with the place. So in a way, it’s a story that explores obsession.
In a weird way it’s a story that kind of parallels the American experience. I know that sounds like a grandiose thing to say, but you have this place that was first inhabited by natives thousands of years ago. And then you have these white explorers who eventually colonize and discovered it [Cortes Bank] during the period of Manifest Destiny. And any people who have tried to hoard it or make it theirs, whether it’s for abalone, treasure or waves. All the people out there, they want a piece of that rock.
Patch: Interesting. It sounds like you did find a way to connect everything.
Dixon: Yeah, and in a way, I’m obsessed with it too. I can’t wait to get back out there. I can’t even tell you—it’s just like nothing anywhere else that I’ve ever seen. It’s such an incongruity being out there in the middle of the ocean. It’s such a mesmerizing place that shouldn’t be a place at all.
Patch: Do you have any future books in the works, about Cortes Bank or anything else?
Dixon: I don’t know. I would honestly like to see about making a documentary film. Something around this book. There’s been so much arresting stuff that’s been shot out there already that I would like to be able to weave that into something. ...
I’ve come into two other potential book projects out of this story—two of the characters that I discovered in this book, Archibald MacRae who killed himself after discovering the rock [at Cortes Bank] and the other is this guy, captain R.P. Whitemarsh. They both led just incredible lives. And nobody really knows much about them.