Ghost Wave

Bookshelf: Ghost Wave

Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth – Chris Dixon

Ghost Wave
Ghost Wave

Chris Dixon is a surf journalist and author, with strong connections to the big wave surfing community. Nominally concerned with Cortes Bank, a submerged mountain in the deep Pacific ocean that rises nearly to the surface and generates massive waves under the right conditions, Ghost Wave is also a cultural history of big wave surfing.

Cortes Bank is located nearly 170 kilometres west of San Diego, California. It is a seamount that rises from nearly two kilometres’ depth, with a flattish top about 30 kilometres long. Its shallowest point is called Bishop Rock and is very close (1-2 metres at times) to the surface. When swells arrive from the right direction, with a long period, they are pushed up by the sudden depth change, creating waves up to 30 metres high. The wave moves so fast that surfers sometimes need to be towed into it on jet skis (igniting a whole other debate), and being held down on the reef is a potentially fatal experienceThis video purports to explain how the wave works, but may require more than one viewing as the graphics whizz by a bit fast. Dixon says that the waves at Cortes Bank may have no theoretical upper limit.

Dixon also describes the known history of Cortes Bank, which has long been known as a navigational hazard to shipping – because of its shallowness at Bishop Rock, and also because sometimes a wave tens of metres high is standing up  unexpectedly in the middle of the ocean! The first attempt to surf the wave may have been in the 1960s, but Dixon describes the first “recent” attempts, beginning in 1995.

Big wave surfers are a closed, almost secretive group, privy to experiences more terrifying and incredible than most ordinary people will ever face. Part of this secrecy, I suspect, is a deliberate and unnecessary attempt to add mystique to the sport. Dixon’s insight into one part of the developing big wave culture, and his descriptions of other big waves (Jaws, Mavericks, etc) add welcome colour to this – to me at least – mysterious pastime. It is entirely different to ordinary surfing. For some other perspectives on big wave surfing, from characters mentioned only in passing in Ghost Wave, check out The Wave (all about Laird Hamilton), and this article about Ken Bradshaw.

Here’s what Cortes Bank looks like:

Cortes Bank, 2001 from ENCYCLOPEDIA of SURFING videos on Vimeo

You can get the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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