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Surfers catch monster waves off California

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Just after dawn Friday, a veteran group of surfers put on their wetsuits, jumped in the cold ocean and set out to ride some of the Earth's largest waves--more than 100 miles off the Southern California shore.

Long known to abalone divers and commercial fishermen, this spot called Cortes Bank is an underwater mountain that rises to within several feet of the water's surface, yet far out of sight of any land.

The four well-known surfers caught waves with up to 50-foot faces--as big as any seen at standout spots in Hawaii or Northern California.

"This was like going to the moon for us," said Peter Mel, 31, a big-wave rider from Santa Cruz who has charged the heaviest breaks around. "These were the fastest waves I've ever ridden."

The shoal, southwest of Dana Point and far past Santa Catalina Island, may now be the newest frontier in extreme surfing.

Wave-riders have been speculating for more than a decade about the spot's ability to produce giant surf. A few have ridden it, but never at its full potential. Last week's expedition was the first documented attempt to ride the big winter swells that break there.

Sponsored by Surfing Magazine and the Internet site Swell.com, the two-day journey west from San Diego harbor required a 54-foot fishing boat, another boat for a film crew, three jet-powered skis and a small airplane for aerial photography.

The four professional surfers who took part are known worldwide for their big-wave bravado, having pioneered such spots as Todos Santos Island in Baja California and Maverick's north of Santa Cruz.

Besides Mel, participating were Mike Parsons of San Clemente, Brad Gerlach of San Diego County and Ken "Skindog" Collins of Santa Cruz. Called Project Neptune, the effort was canceled last year when strong winds ruined the waves.

"It's hard to get good because you have to have the right confluence of conditions, the big one being no wind," said Steve Hawk, executive editor at Swell and former longtime editor of Surfer Magazine.

Hawk and others say there is little chance that the spot will become as crowded as other big-wave spots because it is so difficult to get to. But its exploration is another milestone in a sport where top athletes keep testing the limits of what nature can hurl at them, he said.

In recent years, surfers have ridden waves that were never thought possible.

Mel, who was one of the first to paddle out at Mavericks, said the isolation of Cortes added both an extra sense of danger and awe.

"It was just amazing," he said. "You're sitting out there and there's no land in sight. You see nothing but waves."

To keep properly situated in the shifting currents, with nothing but blue on the horizon for a reference, Mel gauged his distance from a few scattered lobster traps. The only other objects in the area were a red warning buoy and Bishop Rock a ways to the south, where an aircraft carrier ripped a 40-foot gash out of its hull in 1985.

"Bishop Rock has been the nemesis of seamen for generations," said Larry "Flame" Moore, the photographer who conceived and organized the surfing venture more than 10 years ago.

Because Cortes Bank, with Bishop Rock as its peak, sits all alone in the open ocean, it catches massive mid-sea swells that are usually cut down in size and speed before they reach the coastline. The swells hit the bank, jack up, pitch over and produce a thunder of white water that can be seen on the radar screens of nearby boats.

Unfortunately, aside from the danger, such surf poses something of a technical problem: Surfers can't paddle fast enough to catch the waves.

On Friday, the riders were towed behind jet-powered skis to gain the speed to catch the momentum of the swell. Once the wave's energy picked them up, the men dropped the tow-rope and rode the towering green faces on their own.

Tow-in surfing has allowed an elite cadre of surfers in California and Hawaii to take on waves that could never be ridden before. But it has become controversial when traditional surfers are around because the jet-powered skis pollute the air with noise and fuel exhaust.

Evan Slater, an editor at Swell and surfer from Carlsbad, put down his note pad and tried to paddle the old-fashioned way into the waves. He quickly learned the error of his ways.

He stroked hard to catch one wave, only to miss it, and then turn around to see another, bigger wall of water welling up. He ditched his board and dove deep as the breaking wave rolled over him.

The turbulence grabbed him, spun him around and dragged him 30 yards underwater.

Slater was a little shaken up and was towed out of the surf zone. At Cortes, there's one ominous thought at the back of everyone's mind: "If something would have happened to us out there, it would have taken 45 minutes for a helicopter to get out there," he said.

Still, the group decided not to bring a medic to keep the excursion low-key.

Moore had flown over Cortes Bank many times since he first caught glimpse of the nautical anomaly 10 years ago. He had been planning a sail trip when he saw a shoal on a chart that was only three-feet deep at low tide.

In 1990 he sailed out with some friends, who surfed the spot, but it was relatively small that day.

Steve Pezman, the publisher of the magazine Surfer's Journal, said he had heard rumors of abalone fisherman surfing the bank.

The advent of tow-in surfing made big wave surfing there more feasible.

"There could be 100-foot waves out here," he said. "But no one is out there most of the time to witness it. It's like this big El Capitan that people don't know about and only a few people climb it."

Last Thursday night, the four professional riders along with Slater and some photographers loaded up their gear for the 10-hour journey.

Although the mood was more on the giddy side rather than nervous, they went over their rescue plans.

When Slater woke before dawn, the captain showed him the radar screen, where little explosions of light denoted the waves that were a few miles away.

They eventually pulled up next to the break, dropped the skis and began their surf session. The conditions were perfect--no wind, big swell and water like glass.

Parsons caught the two largest waves about 10 a.m. "If it wasn't the biggest, it was one of the biggest I've seen," said Slater, who has also spent a lot of time surfing at Maverick's and Todos Santos.

It's notoriously hard to gauge wave height.

The crew that surfed all day Friday and was back to the mainland by Saturday will only say the waves were some of the biggest ever, maybe comparable to the tow-in spot called Jaws, off Maui. But they were faster than anything they had seen, keeping up with the skis at 30 mph, and long, about 400 yards.

For Mel, it was the adrenaline rush he is forever seeking.

"You chase that feeling your whole life," he said. "You keep upping and upping the ante, and this is kind of the pinnacle. Now I'm wondering what's next."

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