Inside a super secret surf trip to California’s 70-foot-plus ‘ghost wave’

In the dark of night, two boats were loaded with safety gear, film crews and the world’s best big-wave surfers, the expedition setting out on a super secret strike mission to find a mysterious “ghost wave.”

Forecasts were showing a small break in the back-to-back bomb cyclones on Jan. 13, when the relentless rains should halt temporarily, the wild winds disappear and, most importantly, a massive swell could send 70-foot-plus waves to the middle of the ocean about 100 miles off the California coast.

Newport Beach big-wave guru Bill Sharp had been patiently waiting for this day to show up on the radar.

“There it was. This could be it,” he recalled thinking as he looked at the models for Cortes Bank, a shallow submerged island that brews up some of the world’s biggest waves. “Most of the time, these dream forecasts fall apart. That moment of arousal just dissipates.

“This one didn’t.”

Big waves, big obsession

Sharp is a well-known fixture in the big-wave world. He created the prestigious XXL Big Wave Awards, which have handed out big bucks for years to the small-yet-elite group of surfers who share a passion for tackling building-size waves.

His obsession with big waves dates back to 1990, when he was an editor at Surfing Magazine and a buzz was stirring about a mystery wave popping up on nautical charts.

Surfline founder Sean Collins had been analyzing the models and soon a trip was launched to about 100 miles from Newport Beach’s coastline with writer Sam George, photographer Larry “Flame” Moore and surfer George Hulse, now a pastor in San Clemente.

Newport Beach’s Bill Sharp throws a shaka up to the sky in honor of friend Larry “Flame” Moore, a photographer who he was alongside when they first discovered Cortes Bank in 1990. (Photo courtesy of Chris Dixon/@100footwave)

“So we got on a boat and holy hell, there were waves,” Sharp said.

The problem was, it was simply too radical to paddle into surf that big.

“We didn’t have safety, jet skies or anything. It was way too lethal,” he said. “We just filed it away.”

By a decade later, tow-in surfing had gained in popularity. That led to an top secret 2001 trip back to Cortes Bank, dubbed Project Neptune, that changed big-wave surfing forever.

On that trip, San Clemente’s Mike Parsons broke a world record with a 66-foot wave and the secret was out. Big-wave surfers took pilgrimages to Cortes Bank, sharing photos and videos of their feats.

A 2011 book, “Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth,” further shared the story of the mysterious wave with the world.

But in 2012, near tragedy shocked the surf world. San Clemente surfer Greg Long, one of the most accomplished in the big-wave realm, nearly died when he was sucked under the ocean’s surface after a brutal wipeout, unable to breathe and battling the sea as wave after wave relentlessly pounded him. He blacked out just as a safety team reached him.

“After Greg’s accident, it kind of put a dark cloud on the place,” Sharp said. “It immediately proved how dangerous it is out there, and how easily you could die and how hopeless you are against the ocean. As big and as amazing a challenge it is, it’s so, so risky.”

Long would go back for a couple of smaller trips, but “no one had been out there,” Sharp said.

And then the spotlight moved to another big-wave spot on the other side of the world.

Searching for a bigger wave

Across the Atlantic, a beast of a wave was gaining notoriety in the quaint fishing town of Nazaré, Portugal, a surf spot where a handful of big-wave riders were tackling waves inching closer to the elusive 100 feet.

Producer Joe Lewis and director Chris Smith were developing a 90-minute documentary around Garrett McNamerra, one of the most well-known big-wave surfers in the world who discovered the beastly spot, and Sharp was recruited to help tell the story of Nazaré because of his insight as the XXL Big Wave Awards creator.

The rough cut was six hours, so instead of hacking it down, the story morphed into a six-part series, “100 Foot Wave”, picked up by HBO Max, and released two years ago. Sharp was a co-producer.

Much of the footage focused on McNamara’s turbulent journey to Portugal and how word spread of the death-defying spot, surfers flocking to Nazaré and eventually transforming the entire town and the sport of big-wave surfing.

“It was incredibly well made for the mainstream viewer, yet hard-core surfers didn’t think it was lame,” Sharp said. “That sounds silly, but that’s the highest praise you can hope for.”

It was one of the first surf films to earn nods in Hollywood. It earned two Emmy award nominations last year, and won the award for best cinematography.

“The thing about big-wave surfing, you don’t have to explain it,” Sharp said. “Biggest wave wins; wave can kill dude or dudette.”

HBO signed on for another season and more footage was shot through last year in Portugal. But Sharp kept thinking back to the place he and a handful of others discovered three decades earlier.

“I know where the 100-foot wave is, it’s not actually Nazaré,” he said. “It’s off the coast of California.”

Bombers on the radar

To film it, Sharp would have to put together his “dream trip:” who would surf, how safety would work, the logistics of getting out there. And how exactly does insurance work for this sort of venture?

Last year, Sharp spent the entire winter on the West Coast, waiting for the right conditions to launch.

Big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara drops into a massive, building-size barrel at Cortes Bank, a big-wave spot 100 miles off the California coast. (Photo courtesy of Pedro Bala/@100footwave)

Newport Beach surfer Bill Sharp, left, with big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara during a strike mission to Cortes Bank 100 miles off the California coast. (Photo courtesy of Robert Brown/@100footwave)

Andrew Cotton tucked into a deep, massive barrel at Cortes Bank on Jan. 13, 2023 during a surf trip to film for the HBO Max series 100 Foot Wave. (Photo courtesy of Pedro Bala/@100footwave)

Justine DuPont, one of the best big-wave surfers in the world, drops into a possible record breaking wave at Cortes Bank during a surf trip to film for the HBO Max series 100 Foot Wave. (Photo courtesy of Rob Brown/@100footwave)

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“Last winter was the worst winter in the history of winters,” he said. “I just set everything up, and spent months and months, and trained with all the safety and protocols and logistics, and had everything ready, but Mother Nature did not deliver.”

But this month, bomb cyclone storms started hitting the California coast. And with storms, comes waves. And with just a small sliver of a one-day window, the super secret surf trip was a go.

Within 48 hours, the plan unfolded: 41 people – from surfers to safety to filmmakers – flew in from around the world and departed on Jan. 12, just after sunset.

A 104-foot boat carrying nine personal watercrafts and six big-wave surfers left from San Diego, while the Boardroom fishing boat captained by Todd Mansur of Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching headed out from Dana Point, carrying a portion of the film crew.

As a fisherman, Mansur knows the spot just 47 miles off San Clemente Island well; he called the place an “incredible ecosystem” that draws big game such as swordfish.

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Leading up to the departure, he was emotional thinking about what he was about to witness, he said. “We are going to chase potentially some of the largest waves ever recorded. And we don’t know how unpredictable the ocean will be out there.”

He enlisted two experienced Dana Wharf captains to join the adventure, Mike Meyers and Daniel LaBarbera, and after all the safety measures were in place “it was a big sigh of relief and we were on our way.”

Looking at the boat’s radars before sunrise, Mansur said blips the size of big vessels would appear and then vanish.

“They were just bombers,” he said. “Big waves.”

The sight at first light, as the wicked waves rose from the sea, will be something he said he’ll never forget.

“I would just say it was probably one of the most incredible moments on the ocean that I’ll ever see. Amazing is just not the right word,” said Mansur, a boat captain of 44 years. “I’m at a loss for words for how incredible it was – the energy we see in places like the Cortes Bank kind of leaves us speechless. I felt honored in my career to have been a part of something so few people will ever see.”

Records broken?

The six surfers came from around the planet for the under-the-radar surf trip.

McNamara was teamed with Andrew Cotton, a plumber-turned-big-wave surfer who broke his back in Portugal during the first season of the “100 Foot Wave.” Lucas Chianca, of Brazil, was teamed up with Justine DuPont, one of the best female big-wave riders from France. Nic von Rupp flew from Portugal to be teamed with Will Skudin, of Long Beach, New York, for the adventure.

As expected, the waves were massive, bigger and better than Sharp said he has ever witnessed in his years traveling to Cortes Bank.

“People were getting 70-foot barrels like never before in history,” he said.

One of the highlights was a huge bomb DuPont dropped into, her arms spread out wide as she conquered the watery mountain.

“I think it’s pretty reasonable to suggest that Justine broke the women’s world record,” Sharp said, comparing it to a Guinness World Record set for a 73-footer Maya Gabriela caught in 2020.

Looking back at his 40-year career showcasing the world’s big waves, Sharp said this day off the California coast was the “absolute pinnacle.”

“I’ve done a lot of outrageous crap over time,” he said. “But this takes the cake.”

While many of the photos and videos from the day have been shared online and have already created a huge buzz in the surf world, Sharp said he couldn’t divulge when the footage will air, only saying it will be seen on future episodes of “100 Foot Wave.”

And when it does, Sharp assures audiences will be captivated.

“You don’t have to care anything about surfing,” he said. “It’s just telling the inside story of something that is just really an incredibly fascinating pursuit, with incredibly fascinating individuals involved.”