Greg Long Dissects Hurricane Marie’s Waves at the Cortes Bank
by Chris Dixon
Cortes Bank’s Bishop Rock from the Air. August 27, 2014. Screen Grab image from Drew White.
On August 27, Hurricane Marie delivered one of the more epic south swells ever seen along the west coast of the United States. Spots from Cottons Point to Newport Point, Malibu and even Santa Barbara – which is usually blocked from all but the most extreme south swells by the Channel Islands – were on fire. Reports also came in of once-in-a-generation waves breaking off reefs of the Channel Islands themselves.
As the author of a book on the Cortes Bank, an obvious question I had was, well, the weather is calm and perfect and the swell is huge, so what’s happening 100 miles offshore at the grandaddy big wave spot of the west coast? It turns out that big wave surfer Greg Long, who is as obsessed with the Bank as anyone, was wondering the same thing.
Greg Long Paddled Into This Monster at Cortes Bank in 2011. Photo: Chris Dixon/Ghost Wave.
Well, it further turns out that a ballsy pilot named Drew White decided to find out for himself. White flew 100 miles offshore in a tiny, noisy, stick-controlled plane, circled Cortes’ shallow Bishop Rock for about seven minutes, and posted his video on YouTube. He filmed some big, beautiful waves. Not as big as the Bank can get, by any stretch, but pretty big and mighty clean. But the video left me with more questions than answers. How big was it? Would it have been worth going out there in a boat and a bunch of surfboards? Will Cortes become a new destination on big south swells? There was only one person to ask, and that was Greg Long. Greg’s ridden more giant waves at Cortes than any human being, and the spot has nearly killed him too. So I rang Greg up while he was driving to Northern California for the opening ceremony of the Titans of Mavericks invitational surf contest. He had in fact, just seen the video – and graciously offered to help dissect what we’re seeing in the below footage. (turn your volume down when you hit play – the plane is really loud.)
At about 00:45 seconds, we get a quick look at the Cortes Bank (CB1) buoy, which for orientation, lies about 1/3 mile southwest of Bishop Rock’s shallowest, surf-heavy peak. Normally, Cortes is surfed during a wintertime west or northwest swell, with waves spinning in from beneath the Aleutian Islands. If you’re in a boat sitting just off the buoy, these northwesterly waves will break towards you before rolling off into the deep water and continuing on to California. Hurricane Marie was a south-southeasterly swell, so in this video, the waves are coming from the opposite direction and breaking away from the buoy’s normal visual vantage spot. You can also see this at 03:39 in the video, where waves are breaking on the south side of Cortes’ amazing kelp forest. Usually waves break north of the kelp. “They’re breaking in the same spot on the reef that they normally do,” says Long. “But they’re peeling in a different way – and pushing back into the reef rather than peeling down it.”
At about 2:00 in, we see the first set of waves break over Bishop Rock. Rather than creating a short left and a long, peeling right, Marie turns Cortes into a right and left-breaking A-Frame, where the left actually appears to be the longer, better wave. “On the day I was out this past January there were some lefts too,” Long says. “But the problem with the lefts is that normally if you catch one, you might not be able to get away from the wave behind it. That’s not the case here. You could get away easily.”
Cortes Bank, 100 miles due west of San Diego. Click to enlarge. Chart: NOAA
At 5:00, we see a bigger, more proper set of Marie waves sweep over the bank. The results, Long says, are not particularly encouraging for future summertime exploration, but answer some important questions he’d had about what makes Cortes Bank work. First off, he says, hurricane Marie generated a shorter-interval swell with waves separated by around an 13-15 second period. These waves don’t extend into the ocean nearly as deep (or have nearly as much power) as long period waves from a distant North Pacific or big Southern Hemisphere storm – a concept illustrated in the very cool below graphic from Surfline.com. Marie’s wave energy runs down about 500 feet. Cortes Bank is at its best with waves in the 17-20 period range, when waves up to 1000 feet deep run up its 1000-fathom western flank and lurch up over the Bishop Rock to form gigantic righthanders. Thus, Long says, it’s evident that Cortes needs a really big, long period swell. “As big as Marie’s swell was, the waves in that video are 15 to 20 feet at best,” he says. “And they’re only breaking on the shallowest pinnacle, and they last only 15 seconds or so before they back off into deeper water.”
The below graphic from Surfline shows how much broader and deeper in the water a long-period wave runs through the ocean.
“Still, I’m surprised and glad that someone would have undertaken an effort like that to go out there and film in that little plane. If you’d gone out there to surf, you’d have spent a lot of money and effort to go out and surf a big mushball. Sure, it’d be a novelty to say you surfed Cortes on a south swell, but what does that mean in the end? You’ve spent thousands of dollars to get out there and ride a wave you could’ve found at a thousand places that day along the California coast.”
Watch Greg’s emotional return to Cortes Bank on episode 2 of Big Wave Hellmen.
Airing on ABC Sunday, November 2nd at 3 p.m. Eastern time.
(Episode 3 will air on ABC Sunday, November 9th at 5 p.m. Eastern time)
Below is a classic from Surfline – Expedition to Cortes Bank. Filmed in 2001. The other big boat out there holds filmmaker Dana Brown, who was shooting the same session for his film Step Into Liquid.