Cortes Bank – San Diego, CA
Cortes Bank is an incredible break located 100 miles off the San Diego, California coast. This spot is capable of producing some amazing waves due to its location. Because it is located so far off the coast, there is really no limit to the amount of swell that can pass by this spot. The actual bank is a 25-mile-long island (roughly the size of neighboring island Catalina) that sits just below the surface of the water; in fact, the highest underwater peak, Bishop Rock, sometimes sits as little as three feet below the surface. This gigantic right has everything you could ever want from a big wave: size, power, and even an unforgettable barrel section. With unlimited possibility for the largest swells the ocean has to offer to hit this exposed spot and an ideal underwater island perfecting the ocean floor, it is no wonder that Cortes Bank produces some of the biggest waves in the world.
Mike Parsons’s winning wave in the 2001 XXL Big Wave Contest:
Cortes Bank is located in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Point Loma, San Diego. It sits about 100 miles off the mainland United States coast and about 50 miles southwest of San Clemente Island. Seeing as this spot is basically in the middle of the ocean, getting to the break is no easy task. A boat is necessary, and so is a skilled skipper to get you out there. You can most likely leave from any harbor between San Diego and Los Angeles, but the famous “Project Neptune” adventure to the spot in the winter of 2001 began out of Dana Point Harbor. Once out there, you can look for the two buoys that indicate the location of the bank, or when the conditions are right (with a low tide), nature does a good job marking the spot with enormous waves and large boils by Bishop Rock.
Swell & Weather Conditions
Just as with any surf spot, you need perfect conditions for the wave to break just right. Cortes Bank requires light winds, low tides, and big storm swells from the northwest in order to reach its full potential. This open ocean surf spot is also subject to rough sea storms that will often leave as quickly as they unexpectedly arrive. Beware when venturing out to the break; seas are usually rough.
This break is a tow-in-only spot due to the size and speed of the waves. With this in mind, all surf equipment is related to tow-in surfing. Surfers need a jet ski, rope, driver, life vest, and tow-in board. In recent years, tow-in boards have changed from longer bulky boards (about seven feet tall) to shorter boards ranging from 5’8” to 6’2”. Although shorter, these boards have not gotten any lighter. Tow-in boards are equipped with plugs in the middle of the board that allow the surfer to add small weights to the surfboard ranging anywhere from 5-15 lbs. This not only means heavier tow-in boards, but also allows each surfer to customize their board to each break and each wave condition.
Cortes Bank was first spotted as a surfing location in the late 1960s by Walter and Flippy Hoffman, big wave pioneers of their time. In 1990, photographer Larry Moore and pilot Mike Castillo explored the spot by air before Moore and three other surfers boated their way out to the eight-foot waves. Cortes Bank got its real debut in 2001 with coverage of the one-day adventure to the bank known as “Project Neptune.” This excursion, planned by Larry Moore and Surfing editor Bill Sharp, involved two boats, a single-engine plane, three jet skis, and two tow-in teams which consisted of several well known big wave surfers including Mike Parsons. On this trip, Parsons got the 65-foot wave that made him the Swell XXL Big-Wave Contest winner for that year. Since then, Cortes Bank has welcomed many other big wave surfers, who would all have to agree that this special spot is capable of producing some of the biggest waves off the coast of the mainland United States.
A good Cortes Bank day in 2008:
Although Cortes Banks produced the wave that allowed Mike Parsons to win the Swell XXL Big-Wave Contest in 2001, there are no contests held at this amazing big wave surf spot.
Brief Travel Info
Obviously, Cortes Bank is not exactly a travel destination, due to the fact that it is in the middle of the ocean, but there are plenty of surrounding areas worth taking a look at or visiting if you ever decide to give Cortes Bank a shot. Between San Diego and Los Angeles, there are plenty of world-renowned beaches, including Blacks, Trestles, and Malibu. If you are planning on making the trip out to Cortes Bank, I would recommend staying closer to Trestles in either San Clemente or Dana Point (where the harbor is). For more information on traveling in this area, check out the San Clemente Surf Travel Guide on The Surfing Blog.