They have never seen it. Still, the surfers are in search of it:
a monster wave that dwarfs anything ever ridden, a wave that
measures 100 feet high, a massive apartment building of a wave,
so black and terrifying and unknowable that guys puke at the idea
of it. It occupies their dreams, their nightmares, their plans.
Where the wave will appear, they do not know. Maybe a hundred
miles off the San Diego coast. Maybe off some other continent.
There might be 30 men in the world capable of surfing such a
brute. A 100foot wave could topple with no warning, with the
surfer somewhere inside it. ¬∂ The search for this wave has been
organized by Billabong. The surfwear maker will pay $250,000 to
the first surfer who can find a wave measuring at least 100 feet,
ride it, document it and survive. ¬∂ The contest is called The
Billabong Odyssey. From time to time, the company sponsors
trips--"missions," it calls them--to big-surf spots. Everything
is in place to make this one happen: computer forecasts, boats,
helicopters, skilled surfers. Still the chances of somebody
actually surfing a wave that measures at least 100 feet anytime
soon are about as good as Dick Cheney's chances of completing
this year's Boston Marathon. The biggest wave ever ridden is
believed to have been a 66footer, by Mike Parsons in 2001, at a
then newly discovered surf spot called Cortes Bank, a reef break
105 miles off San Diego. According to surfline.com, a surf
forecasting company, 66 feet at Cortes Bank represents about two
thirds the size of the reef's biggest waves. But the surfer has
to be there when the 100footers are and stop vomiting long
enough to surf.
Parsons is 37 and has no plans to quit chasing waves. Most of the
surfers in the Odyssey are in their 30s; many with kids, none
with much body fat; all with something to prove, mostly to
themselves. There's Ken (Skindog) Collins, Josh Loya, Darryl
(Flea) Virostko, all of Santa Cruz, Calif.; Parsons, the pro's
pro, a waterman. They believe bigger is better. They don't worry
about form. They surf on short, heavy boards with their feet
strapped into place. They wear life jackets. They train by
carrying boulders along the ocean floor. The number of surfers in
the contest is growing, but slowly. (Only those certified by
Billabong are invited on the missions, but anybody can enter the
competition.) The Billabong people are looking for surfers with
experience on big, potentially lethal waves; a paramedic's
attitude about preparation; and an astronaut's view on
Cortes Bank is a new frontier. "I know there's unfinished
business out there," says Parsons. "Someday, somebody will ride a
100footer. If I did it, I'd be back the next day, looking for
The founder of the contest, Bill Sharp, the former editor of
Surfing magazine, is assisting on a movie about the search, also
called The Billabong Odyssey. If the movie succeeds, it will
reveal the vastness of a monster wave, the thundering noise it
makes, how airless it is for the surfer trapped within it. What
makes the surfers take on a wave like that is trickier to
explain. "I get sick, I get nervous, I get worried the day
before," Parsons said recently, describing his state on a
Billabong mission. "Once I'm in the water, I'm calm. That's where
I know what I'm doing." The movie can only be the opposite of the
surf classic The Endless Summer. That 1966 film followed a couple
of kids, happy and broke, as they hauled nine-foot noseriders
around the globe, searching for the perfect wave: mellow, warm,
beautifully shaped, long. It is a charming movie. The Billabong
Odyssey, the movie and the contest, reflect a brave new surfing
world in which technology, nature and outsized desire converge in
a wave that is nothing but ferocious.
The competition began in October 2001, and Billabong is committed
to it through at least July 2004. Sharp is himself an
accomplished surfer, but this contest goes beyond his limits. It
goes beyond all known limits. For years Maverick's, a big-wave,
cold-water surf spot south of San Francisco, was a secret. Jaws,
off the Maui coast, was a secret. Now those places are known, and
so are their limits. Short of some freak natural event, it's
unlikely those two spots will produce surf bigger than 70 feet.
Cortes is one potential Everest. There could be others, maybe off
Chile or Western Australia or somewhere in the South Pacific.
Parsons says the point of the contest is not merely to find a
100foot wave and see if somebody can surf it. Maybe that will
happen, maybe it won't. The point, he says, is also to explore
the world's oceans in ways they've never been explored before.
Along the way the minds and bodies of the world's best big-wave
surfers will be pushed along too, to places they've never been.
It's athletes getting better, is what it is.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BERNIE BAKER SEA MONSTER Modern science, old-fashioned ambition and a $250,000reward are aiding the hunt for surfing's first 100-footer.