Bill Sharp And The 100 Foot Wave

Bill Sharp's guiding star leads him over the horizon again

stunet's picture
By Stu Nettle (stunet)
Photo: Justine Dupont by Rob Brown

Bill Sharp And The 100 Foot Wave

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Swellnet Dispatch

“During the 2001 trip to Cortes Bank, Mike Parsons caught a 66-foot wave,” recalls Bill Sharp. “In the aftermath, we all just looked at each other and said: Hey, if that day produced a 66-foot wave, then a really gigantic swell could produce a 100-foot wave’.”

“That was the first time anyone uttered the phrase.”

Since then, ‘100 foot wave’ has been the north star that guided the indefatigable Sharp. He’d already dealt himself into the big wave world, creating the K2 Big wave Challenge in 1997, but now he had a clearer purpose. Much as shortboarders sought ever more perfect waves, so too did Sharp set a goal for the heavy water crew.

In the late-eighties, Sharp worked alongside Larry ‘Flame’ Moore, the two ‘discovering’ an open ocean wave located 100 miles west of San Diego. I’ve wrapped discovering in ironic quote marks because the wave in question, Cortes Bank, has a long and storied history, one that’s best told in Chris Dixon’s highly recommended book, Ghost Wave.

Flame and Sharp first boated to Cortes in 1990 to get the lay of the land, so to speak. A few eight footers were ridden, including by Sharp, though they quickly realised the place could handle much, much more energy, though surfing it at size presented a number of hazards. Forecasting slack winds far from land was one - no land breezes out there - as was an open ocean crossing during a major storm, and then of course was the distance from help should things turn south.

When tow surfing arrived shortly before the turn of the century, Flame and Sharp knew they had the means to make a serious mission viable. Thus they planned Project Neptune, the codename for the aforementioned mission to Cortes in 2001, and which was the impetus for Sharp to create the Billabong Odyssey, a three-year hunt to find the mythical 100-foot wave.

Locations were sought around the globe: Chile, Hawaii, South Africa, Australia, Ireland, and when the Odyssey wound down, Sharp simply created the XXL Awards, which became a different way of seeking ever larger waves.

Further expeditions to Cortes followed: In 2004 a swell alert for Cortes was issued that saw twenty boats in the channel (“I called that the Cortes Wank,” says Sharp and never again was a swell alert issued for the place), in 2008 just one boat carted four surfers, including Greg Long, into the largest and gnarliest Cortes yet seen, while in 2012 Long almost met his maker when he went down for three waves at the Bank.

By this point, Cortes was just one wave - a notoriously expensive and hard to reach wave - on a map dotted with big waves. Yet as the big wave world expanded, Sharp’s interest in Cortes sharpened. “Imagine a surf spot where there's only been fifteen days that it's been surfed?” says Sharp incredulously. “We’ve seen what it’s capable of, but it’s hardly been surfed at all. We don’t know the nuances of it through all the different swell directions.”

“Cortes has, in a way, become a part of me,” admits Sharp. “It's been a part of me since the late-eighties, when Flame and I literally looked at a nautical chart and just wondered what was going on out there.”

“I’ve been through all the phases of obsession, the planning and then the discovery, I’ve paddled it, seen tow surfing take surfers to new parts of the wave. I've been completely obsessed with Cortes Bank for well over thirty years now.”

Recently, a new chapter was written in Sharp’s obsession with Cortes. With the organised side of big wave surfing - the XXL Awards and the Big Wave Tour - put on hiatus, Sharp found himself at a loose end. At the same time, he had an on screen role in the HBO series 100 Foot Wave. After the success of Series 1, the franchise was continued but with Sharp on board as a co-producer. He knew just the place to go.

On Sharp's most recent trip to Cortes Bank the crew awoke to extraordinary surface conditions (Donaldson)

“I began all this planning last year,” says Sharp, “and the goal was to go out to Cortes last winter; we were geared up, had done all the training, basically just locked and loaded, and that winter ended up being the worst winter of all time.”

Even this year wasn’t shaping up well with few storms prior to New Year’s Eve, “and then all of a sudden,” says Sharp with elation, “the Jet Stream dropped, we’re back in the firing line with storm after storm and every six hours I was watching the new GFS model come out.”

The swell that would take them out there appeared on a Sunday, and was due to strike Cortes on Friday, so Sharp took a seat on the wave model roller coaster.

“It looked amazing,” says Sharp getting noticeably excited just by the memory. “It looked like the day we'd been waiting for, but I knew full well what the odds were that it was going to just dissolve and fade into the ether. Yet it didn't, it just stuck. I mean, it was like the stickiest forecast of all time. It absolutely stayed.”

As seabirds wheel and dive - plus one drone - Andrew Cotton drives through an open ocean chamber. Going on the reaction of the PWC team at centre we can assume barrels of this magnitude were being ridden all day (Bala)

On Wednesday morning Sharp pulled the trigger, committing a healthy chunk of the show’s budget (“six figures plus”) to a Cortes mission come hell or high water. With him were surfers ‘Chumbo’ Chianca, Andrew Cotton, Nic von Rupp, Justine Dupont, Garrett Macnamara, plus a handful of videographers and water patrol running safety on their skis.

They motored out from San Diego overnight, unsure of what would greet them the next day. Improbably, they woke to a windless morning, and it stayed that way all day. “It was the cleanest surf I’ve ever surfed big waves in,” wrote Chumbo on Instagram.

“So was it 100 foot?” I ask Sharp, who replies with a laugh. “Even if it was, we'd call it 99 feet. I don’t want to put myself out of a job.”

“I mean, it wasn’t 100 footers,” says Sharp, taking a more serious tone, “but it was 70-foot perfection, and all day long. There were 60 to 70-foot tubes all over the place. I think Justine caught the two biggest waves, which is a victory for women's surfing.”

Garrett Macnamara, above, swinging in from deep on the reef, while below he drives through a shimmering inside barrel (Photos Bala)

Despite the excitement, some of Cortes’ nuance revealed itself this swell. “The direction was not the perfect direction for out there,” explains Sharp. “The swell had a lot of good elements in terms of the long-period energy, but the direction was a little more west than the reef prefers. When it’s more north, northwest, it comes down the reef and then there's a shallow spot that we call Larry's Bowl - that's for Flame - where there’s a refractive bend that makes the peak jack up.”

“This swell was more west so it didn't really have that. There were a few, but it was more kind of slabbing on the side of the reef.” 

Sharp has no doubts that it will make for incredible television when the episode comes out, and while he’s buzzing from another successful mission over the horizon, he’s far from satisfied. For him, Cortes Bank is the answer that creates more questions. Says Sharp: “If we had this exact swell with a little more north in it then it would've added 10, 15, 20 feet to it, no problem.”

And it’s that sort of wonderment - the possibility that it'll get bigger and better - that will keep Bill Sharp planning for future missions out to Cortes Bank.

"I couldn't stop thinking about if I tried," says Sharp.

// STU NETTLE

The second series of '100 Foot Wave' starts screening this autumn though the date for this episode is unknown. To tide us over till then here's a few waves from the session:

Comments

steeno's picture
steeno's picture
steeno Friday, 20 Jan 2023 at 3:20pm

Would love to see Bill tow in on his kneeboard out there, what a crazy mission. Hats off to them all

Gowsa's picture
Gowsa's picture
Gowsa Friday, 20 Jan 2023 at 3:40pm

What a spot - Jaws with no wind.
Kai Lenny ?

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno Friday, 20 Jan 2023 at 3:54pm

Dreamy surface conditions. Justine's first wave was just beautiful. How's the speed on these huge things.

Maybe the whole setup exists out there to see the biggest waves ever cleanly ridden, on a very special day sometime in the future.

Also loved their initial video on the bank, it's on YT

Supafreak's picture
Supafreak's picture
Supafreak Friday, 20 Jan 2023 at 3:56pm

Awesome, thanks, I was hoping you’d do a story on the recent cortes expedition, the photos are amazing .

bbbird's picture
bbbird's picture
bbbird Friday, 20 Jan 2023 at 6:47pm

Perfect conditions; that drop would feel incredible... & so makable.

frog's picture
frog's picture
frog Friday, 20 Jan 2023 at 8:51pm

The video has a couple of the most unscary looking huge waves ever.

... courtesy of amazing surface conditions and deep channel. Seen it look way more sinister and risky on the more random swells with north in them - as per the wave out the back to the right in the still shot of Justine headlining the story.

Written from the safety of my couch of course.

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 Friday, 20 Jan 2023 at 8:52pm

Series 2?

Anyone seen Series One?

Jono's picture
Jono's picture
Jono Friday, 20 Jan 2023 at 9:02pm

Some more info here, but not much:
https://www.hbo.com/100-foot-wave

Wong's picture
Wong's picture
Wong Saturday, 21 Jan 2023 at 12:55am

Doesn't even look real, looks like one of those RC toy surfer things. Just Incredible!!!

Wong's picture
Wong's picture
Wong Saturday, 21 Jan 2023 at 12:56am

Just imagine being Justine pp doing that look back on perfection!

skippywolfram's picture
skippywolfram's picture
skippywolfram Saturday, 21 Jan 2023 at 1:57am

Tow surfing is pathetic.

smokeydogg's picture
smokeydogg's picture
smokeydogg Tuesday, 24 Jan 2023 at 1:42pm

I agree, they definitely should have paddled it from the beach "old school"

dixoncj's picture
dixoncj's picture
dixoncj Saturday, 21 Jan 2023 at 5:00am

Nice article Stu. I was out there too - thanks to Bill - it was like a hallucination.

lives in hope's picture
lives in hope's picture
lives in hope Sunday, 22 Jan 2023 at 8:30pm

good work on the book, well researched to show the varied history of the place, really enjoyed it on audio

Elliedog's picture
Elliedog's picture
Elliedog Saturday, 21 Jan 2023 at 11:08am

I hope there’s more highlights than what’s shown here… sleepy fat perfection… compared to what’s going down at jaws this is not comparable

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben Saturday, 21 Jan 2023 at 11:16am

Are You Not Entertained?

skippywolfram's picture
skippywolfram's picture
skippywolfram Tuesday, 24 Jan 2023 at 1:56pm

Nope

Supafreak's picture
Supafreak's picture
Supafreak Saturday, 21 Jan 2023 at 1:41pm

Bit of a round up of different locations

andy-mac's picture
andy-mac's picture
andy-mac Saturday, 21 Jan 2023 at 2:27pm
dylred's picture
dylred's picture
dylred Saturday, 21 Jan 2023 at 6:51pm

Yeah, the shocking title makes it sound like it's bad, but its one of the better books written about surfing.

StayAtHome's picture
StayAtHome's picture
StayAtHome Sunday, 22 Jan 2023 at 8:35am

The book Ghost Wave by Chris Dixon cited by Stu is one of the best researched books I’ve ever come across. It spans the stories of maritime history, unbelievable human entrepreneurial shenanigans, abalone divers and surfers who were magnetically attracted to this biodiverse patch of ocean.

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam Tuesday, 24 Jan 2023 at 2:42pm

why wasn't Greg long and co paddling it ?
did Greg make the call to todos and missed cortes?