Cortes Bank is one of the most remote surf spots on the planet, a shallow seamount located 100 miles west of San Diego. It was first conquered by a group of tow-in surfers less than three years ago. Yet when a big swell hit early last week, it might as well have been down the road.
At least 18 tow-surfing teams arrived before or just after dawn to greet a swell that had been predicted almost a week earlier.
Most were big-wave veterans who came with jet-powered personal watercraft, safety equipment and even physicians. Some were novices who lacked even such basics as life jackets.
"In just less than three years it went from ... like taking the first steps on the moon to being the Barnum & Bailey Circus," said Billabong Odyssey director Bill Sharp, who organized the first tow-in expedition at Cortes Bank on Jan. 19, 2001.
Billabong surfers Mike Parsons, Brad Gerlach, Shane Dorian and Noah Johnson added to the circus atmosphere when they arrived at the break via helicopter to meet their support vessel.
Cortes' suddden popularity raises the question of safety on remote waves that averaged 25-35 feet during the session. The closest hospital is an eight-hour boat ride away for most vessels.
There were no serious injuries, but there were reportedly some close calls. Condor Express Capt. Ron Hart was accused by the Billabong crew of putting his vessel in harm's way by maneuvering too close to the impact zone for the benefit of a film
crew that had chartered the vessel.
Hart denied the charge, saying, "My responsibility as a captain is the safety of our passengers."
Sharp said he intended to turn video and photographs over to the Coast Guard.
-- Pete Thomas