In Honor of the Premier of ABC’s Big Wave Hellmen, Some Home Video from the Cortes Bank

by Chris Dixon

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A Perfect Peak Lunges up Above the Cortes Bank. Photo: Chris Dixon

Late last January, I sat on a jetski a few feet above a sea mount 100 miles off the coast of California with my heart in my throat. About a hundred yards to the north, a set of glassy smooth westerly swells were focusing and bending onto Bishop Rock, the pinnacle of a six-foot deep seamount known as the Cortes Bank. A surfer named Greg Long was sitting out there, completely alone, waiting for just the right wave. When it lurched in from waters a mile deep at around 25 feet, he paddled like a madman, leapt to his feet, and charged down it.

The bizarre bathymetry of the Cortes Bank gives it the ability to spawn some of the biggest waves on the planet. It’s a wild and dangerous spot whose waves have sunk plenty of vessels. The biggest, a 300-foot-long concrete-hulled freighter, lies in pieces beneath the surf zone. A year earlier, Greg, arguably the most prepared and athletic big wave surfer alive had nearly died out here during a much bigger, meaner swell. In fact, after being obliterated by a monster wave, he had died. Buried for so long beneath five stories of billowing whitewater, that he lost consciousness. That his friends were able to find him amidst a square mile of aerated foam, then recover and resuscitate him is the very definition of a miracle.

And there Greg was, just over a year later, doing his damndest to purge the demons.

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Greg Long takes a long drop. Surfing Solo 100 Miles Out. Photo: Chris Dixon

I’d traveled out to Cortes as part of a film crew for an upcoming ABC/ESPN produced documentary show called Big Wave Hellmen. The show is produced by George and Paul Taublieb, the team behind ESPN’s Emmy winning 30 for 30 documentary Hawaiian – The Legend of Eddie Aikau. It follows five of the best big wave surfers alive; Greg Long, Shane Dorian, Mark Healey, Grant “Twiggy” Baker and Ryan Hipwood as they live their lives and travel halfway around the world at a moment’s notice into some of the most dangerous natural conditions imaginable.

The conditions we found at Cortes Bank on January 25, 2014 were utterly pristine, surreal and seductively dangerous. The chilly water and crystal sky were about a billion different shades of blue. Ski driver and rescuer/photographer Frank Quirarte and I marveled at the schools of fish, waving kelp and the frolicking sea lions. Between spooky sets of waves,  Quirarte dipped his GoPro down into the freezing, aquarium-clear ocean to capture one particular sea lion who was having no limits of fun twirling and rocketing through the kelp forest off Bishop Rock’s western edge, then charging from 30 feet down on the seafloor straight up towards us before looping away at the last instant.

While the pro’s did their thing with the high dollar cameras, I had the occasional chance to post up on top of the Early Bird II alongside producer Sam George and pull out my trusty Nikon. Below, you’ll see a short clip of some perfect, empty waves, and one of the Cortes Bank’s posse of sea mount sea lions.

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This Sunday, ESPN will show the first Big Wave Hellmen episode. The show will be a sort of preview for the main event, BWH’s three-episode “World of X Games” series on ABC.  Somehow, I ended up being invited to take a place alongside legendary big wave surfers Greg Noll and Mike Parsons, as a Big Wave Hellmen judge (with the words, “I’m not worthy,” flashing through my mind). At the end of the series, we’ll render a verdict on the heaviest wave ridden during the filming of the show. The footage we saw was jaw dropping, the decision was not easy, and I really hope y’all think the show kicks ass.

Here’s a mini-feature on the making of the show.

And here’s the schedule (All times ET)
Sunday, September 21 at 4 p.m.    ABC                  Big Wave Hellman – Preview Show
Monday, September 22 at 8 p.m.  ESPN2             Big Wave Hellmen – Episode 1 (Premiere)
Monday, September 29 at 8 p.m.  ESPN2             Big Wave Hellmen – Episode 2
Monday, October 6 at 8 p.m.          ESPN2            Big Wave Hellmen – Episode 3
Sunday, October 12 at 1 p.m.          ESPN               Big Wave Hellmen – Episodes 1-3 (Three-hour special)
Sunday, October 26 at 5 p.m.         ABC                 Big Wave Hellmen – Episode 1
Sunday, November 2 at 3 p.m.       ABC                 Big Wave Hellmen – Episode 2
Sunday, November 9 at 5 p.m.       ABC                 Big Wave Hellmen – Episode 3

 

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