Surf & Destroy

Can a monster swell be tracked down and hunted like some great beast? That's the mad mission of the $3 million Billabong Odyssey, surfing's rapid-response quest to find and ride the biggest wave in history?

Don't look back: Billabong Odyssey surfer Ian Walsh in Maui, riding a 60-foot-plus wave at Jaws, January 10, 2004     Photo: Tony Harrington

RODENT IS TWITCHING. A new swell has finally arrived—the pulsing residue of a storm that spun off the Antarctic ice a few days ago and is now dumping snow in the southern Andes. We're a thousand miles above the bad weather, in Arica, Chile's northernmost coastal town, where the rain never comes. At a deepwater surf spot called El Buey ("the Ox"), the sets are triple-overhead, smooth and beckoning. The waves aren't quite the towering monsters that our ten-man "strike team" had hoped to find, but they're still big enough to make most surfers pucker.

Jiggling his knee impatiently, Rodent (a.k.a. Adam Replogle) is down at the waterline waiting for his tow-in surfing partner, a wiry guy named Ken "Skindog" Collins, who squirms into a wetsuit as he hustles from his seaside bungalow. Replogle has hooked an 800-pound Yamaha XLT1200 WaveRunner to the back of a truck and simply dragged it across the sand to the water. Forget the trailer: Swell's here, wind's calm, let's go.

By 9:37 a.m., Replogle and Collins have secured the rescue sled, basically an oversize boogie board, to the back of the jet ski. For this session, Replogle will do the towing, so he guns the 155-horsepower machine and the two surfers rocket out to El Buey's main reef, a half-mile offshore. At 9:44, Replogle is tugging Collins into his first wave, a clean and speedy 15-foot face. The shoulder races northward with alluring precision, and Collins takes full advantage of his whiplash entry, drawing long, powerful arcs off the bottom, then toying with the lip as he sweeps across the top. The barrel reels for 200 yards; as soon as Collins kicks out, Replogle is there in the WaveRunner, ready to pick him up and go again.

I'd surfed El Buey by myself two days earlier, when the swell was smaller but still big enough to make me pucker. Without the motorized assist, it took 45 minutes to triangulate into my first wave. I paddled 90 minutes and rode a grand total of four times.

Today, standing on the shore and enviously logging Skindog's rides—four waves in nine minutes—I think, What a dick.

REPLOGLE AND COLLINS are California-based big-wave specialists, and they're among the 20 or so surfers who have been recruited to join the Billabong Odyssey, a three-year, $3 million mission to seek out and ride, with the help of motorized watercraft, the biggest waves the planet has to offer. It's natural to feel jealous of guys with a job like that. And judging by the mixed reviews the Odyssey has gotten in the surfing world since its 2001 launch, it's also natural to find the whole concept, and its nonstop barrage of self-promotion, a little annoying.

Once upon a time, surf exploration was a minimalist pursuit. You needed only a board, a passport, a few bucks, and a hand-drawn map of doubtful reliability. But the Odyssey represents something new: a massively funded attempt to apply expedition tactics to the business of finding huge new surf. Because the Odyssey owes its existence to the marketing gods—it was paid for by Billabong, the $450-million-a-year Australia-based surfwear manufacturer—some observers have dismissed it as more pseudo-adventure than the real thing.

Grousing about the Odyssey peaked earlier this year in the aftermath of a one-day invasion of the Cortes Bank, a seamount about 100 miles west of San Diego. Cortes was tow-in surfed for the first time on January 19, 2001, a day that saw historic 60-foot-plus waves. (Calibrating wave size is an inexact science, done after the fact by examining photographs.) On January 12, 2004, word went out on the Web- and cell-phone-powered surfer hotline that a major North Pacific storm would again produce monster waves at the site. Tow-in surfers, most with no connection to the Odyssey, swarmed the break—a mass assault that spoke volumes about the booming popularity of big-wave hunting.

All told, roughly 100 people showed up that day, including 20 tow-in teams. The Odyssey entourage added to the mess with four surfers, two boats, four cameramen, two lifeguards, an emergency-room doctor, and a plane equipped with a gyro-stabilized Betacam. The Odyssey's surfers—big-water icons Mike Parsons, Brad Gerlach, Shane Dorian, and Noah Johnson-flew out in an A-Star helicopter and jumped into the water from on high, like Navy SEALs.

As it turned out, the waves were only half as big as predicted, but they were still hefty—with a few faces in the 35-foot range. After the session, the Odyssey team pissed off a lot of surfers by issuing a snooty press release that called the scene a "circus" and identified two types of surfers who showed up: "the class acts who knew what they were doing...and the people who had no clue."

THE MASTERMIND OF THE ODYSSEY is a 43-year-old surf journalist turned surfwear CEO turned promoter named Bill Sharp, who says he's paid "six figures a year" by Billabong to run the project. Sharp earned a reputation as big-wave surfing's leading PR man back in 1998, when he dreamed up a marketing idea of brilliant simplicity: Every year, give $50,000 to whoever rides the biggest bomb of the season. (The award, which totaled $66,000 last year, is now fronted by Billabong.) Sharp also helped organize the epic 2001 trip to the Cortes Bank.

When Sharp took the Odyssey public, in the summer of 2001, he hyped it as "the Search for the 100-Foot Wave" and amplified interest by offering $250,000 to anyone who actually rode a wave that large. While many people scoffed at the cash incentive, surprisingly few surfers laughed at the idea that someone might actually ride a ten-story wave someday. Instead, they argued about where it could happen. Well-trampled spots such as Jaws (at Maui) and Maverick's (Northern California) probably don't have the underwater topography to handle that size. (In 2001, a wave in the 80- to 90-foot range was filmed at Maverick's, but it broke a half-mile outside the normal takeoff area and, thanks to choppy conditions, didn't look surfable.) Many believe that the Cortes Bank, a 25-mile-long underwater mountain range that surges from a depth of 5,000 feet to within six feet of the surface, is the most likely place. It's ideally situated to groom open-ocean swells of any size into rideable peaks.

But even if the Odyssey never lives up to Sharp's 100-foot conceit, his timing has been perfect, coinciding with a mainstream big-wave explosion that started with Dana Brown's 2003 movie Step Into Liquid, a wide-ranging surf flick that featured tow-in pioneer Laird Hamilton and climaxed with footage from the Cortes Bank, and will continue with Stacy Peralta's documentary Riding Giants, a smash at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival that's slated for nationwide release this summer.

Sharp's plan was to train and equip a rapid-response squad that could scramble on short notice to chase down giant swells at obscure surf spots worldwide. It quickly became clear, however, that stalking the mythical 100-footer led to unrealistic expectations, especially when the crew was encumbered by more equipment than airlines were willing to carry.

Sharp didn't miss a beat; he simplified his focus to finding great new tow-in spots in faraway places, even if they didn't always shock the world with sheer size. In the 21 months preceding our July 2003 trip to Chile, Sharp had taken teams to the Pacific Northwest, Australia, Hawaii, Mexico, Tahiti, and Europe, but the Odyssey hadn't found anything close to a legitimate 100-footer. The prize for the biggest rides over the past two winters—both in the 60-foot range—have gone to Brazil's Carlos Burle and Hawaii's Makua Rothman, neither of whom had any connection to the Odyssey.

Even so, the Odyssey has retained core credibility in the surf media, mainly because it involves two things that will forever intrigue surfers: big waves and, better yet, newly discovered big waves. One of their best discoveries, made in 2002, is a ghastly, heaving break in southern Australia, off the coast of an island they're keeping secret. Sticking with the Homeric theme, they've named it Cyclops.

"In any given year, the biggest wave might not be ridden on our program," Sharp acknowledged to me early on. "We hope it will, but there's no guarantee. The Odyssey is really just about expanding our toolbox of waves. It's about the adventure."

However you spin it, the Odyssey surfers are gutsy. Greg Noll, the fearless bull who helped pioneer big-wave surfing in Hawaii in the fifties and sixties, says that taking on waves this big, whoever you are, requires remarkable physical courage. "Anytime somebody has the balls to step up to the edge of the horizon and take a peek over the side where nobody's looked before, they deserve all the respect that they can get," says Noll, now 67 and living in Northern California. "Anybody wants to call bullshit on it, put them behind a fuckin' jet ski and see how it works out."

THE IDEA OF A SPONSORED global search for big surf came to Sharp in January 2001, just a few days after the first successful Cortes Bank tow-in trip. As Sharp and photographer Larry Moore—who discovered the site's surfing potential during a 1990 flyover—circled overhead in a Cessna 172-RG, teams made up of Parsons, Gerlach, Collins, and Peter Mel charged some of the biggest surf ever tackled. Parsons would go on to win $60,000 (which he split with Gerlach) for a 66-foot Cortes wave he rode that winter—widely considered one of the largest ever surfed.

"It was as if we'd discovered Mount Everest in the Los Angeles foothills," Sharp recalled. "I thought, 'You know what? That ain't the last one out there.' It was almost a spiritual thing. I thought, 'I want to look for them. And if I can have a job doing it, then, God, that's the best thing ever.' "

After Billabong bought in, Sharp spent a few weeks that winter driving the coast between San Francisco and Vancouver Island during sizable North Pacific swells, scanning the horizon for surfable reefs. The most promising spot he found was a mile-long sandbar near Cape Disappointment, at the ship-eating mouth of the Columbia River, which separates Oregon from Washington.

In October 2001, Sharp invited a dozen famously cocky surfers to attend a tow-in boot camp at the U.S. Coast Guard station at Cape Disappointment. Many of America's best-known big-wave riders enlisted, including four of the six surfers who would later join us in Chile-Parsons, Gerlach, Collins, and Dorian-along with several members of the lawless Santa Cruz brigade, most notably Darryl "Flea" Virostko, whose suicidal tendencies had won him two consecutive first-place checks at the annual Men Who Ride Mountains contest, at Maverick's.

Gathered in a Coast Guard classroom, the Odyssey trainees took in a barrage of paramilitary jargon: "safety risk management," "incident command systems," and an eight-section "emergency action flowchart." It helped that the instructor was Oahu-based Brian Keaulana, 42, surfing's premier big-water safety expert. It also helped that each of the pupils knew from experience what it's like to take a gigantic wave on the head. If they ventured into the 100-foot realm, they knew, teamwork would be paramount. Many surfers have survived thrashings by waves in the 50-foot range. But a 100-foot wave is not just twice as tall; it's thicker, faster, and packs more than twice the firepower. Until somebody rides one, it's impossible to know what a wave like that would do to a surfer who digs a rail, lands flat, and gets sucked over the falls.

"You would have to be really precise on a 100-foot wave," says Ken Collins. "Because if you ate shit and got mopped by a wave that size, I'd have to think there's a high, high risk of dying."

Sharp learned a lesson himself during that first trip. One was to avoid areas populated by territorial locals. During the Cape Disappointment camp, the Odyssey crew rented a house about 30 minutes south, near Seaside, Oregon. Seaside is home to one of the most fiercely guarded breaks on the West Coast, a long left-hander that the tow-in trainees hadn't even planned to ride.

Nonetheless, local surfers were not happy. First, they slashed the tires on five of the invaders' vehicles. Then one morning a mob of about 25 angry surfers showed up before dawn and called out the Odyssey crew, tossing threats but no punches. To punctuate the message, someone later left a freshly severed deer head on the front lawn.

"It was nerve-racking," Parsons remembered. "I'd never experienced anything like that anywhere."

SHARP WASN'T EXAGGERATING much when he promoted the Chile trip as "the first expedition to what could be the most important big-wave coastline in the world." Surfers have long regarded Chile as the promised land of undiscovered mackers. Look at a map: The country has 4,000 miles of coast, all of it hammered by the South Pacific swell parade. Only about half of that has been surveyed by surfers; the rest lacks road access.

"You can't tell me there isn't another Jaws down there," Sharp said before we left. "Chile, to me, is the end of the rainbow."

Articulate and salty, Sharp has the wizened red face of a lifelong sailor and the enthusiasm of a grom. He will work until midnight packaging his latest big-wave promotion, then paddle out before light the next morning when a ten-foot south swell lights up the sandbars near his home in Newport Beach. "He's confident, arrogant, cocky, and shrewd," says Parsons, the Odyssey's marquee surfer. "But at the same time, he does an insane job."

Sharp's Chile expedition started several weeks ahead of time, at the MapCargo freight depot in Redondo Beach, California. There he packed a shipping container full of tow-in gear (four WaveRunners, two trailers) and a manifest that ran long with items Moondoggie never stashed in his woody: life vests, waterproof radios, anchors, cables, carabiners, spark plugs, and tools. It took more than four weeks for the container to reach Iquique, a Chilean port about 150 miles south of Arica.

Leading the team was Sharp's most reliable twosome, Parsons, 39, and Gerlach, 37, both former World Tour workhorses who've rejuvenated their careers with big-wave feats. Barracuda-thin, Parsons is more technician than artist, while the muscular Gerlach has the grace of a ballet dancer.

Parsons and Gerlach were the centerpiece surfers when the Odyssey assaulted Cyclops, its most memorable discovery. The wave broke beside an uninhabited island along Australia's southern coast. Sharp found it while surveying the region by plane. The swell wasn't giant on the day the Odyssey was there, but the spot broke with such mesmerizing power and in such shallow water that two of the four surfers on hand—Ken Bradshaw, the 51-year-old Sgt. Rock of big-wave surfing, and six-time women's world champ Layne Beachley, 31—refused to ride it. "There are really very few waves in the world where a wipeout is guaranteed to fuck you up," Sharp says. "This was one of them."

That day at Cyclops, Parsons and Gerlach rode only a few waves each, starting away from the bone-crushing tube and venturing closer to the kill zone with each ride. In the end, they backed off. In Arica, more than a year later, both told me they were still angry at themselves for not jabbing the beast in the eye.

The two other tow teams who'd come to Chile were also first-rate. Collins, 36, and Replogle, 32, are Santa Cruz hecklers who learned to tow-surf the hard way—at Maverick's. Collins is one of those rare surfers who looks more comfortable riding 50-footers than five-footers. Replogle was good to have around in several ways: He's an accomplished watercraft pilot, a powerful surfer given to long carves, and a gearhead who knows how to unclog an impeller. The final pair—Hawaiian Shane Dorian and Australian Brenden Margieson, both 31—were on a blind date, having never towed together. Dorian was still a World Tour regular and probably the best all-around surfer on the trip. Margieson, unflappably mellow, had only recently learned to tow-surf, but his easy, big-boned style was well suited to high-speed, motor-assisted arcs.

Add to that team two cameramen, Sharp, a Billabong rep, me, and a half-dozen Chilean journalists and gofers—and you had one long caravan anytime the surfers set out to look for waves.

Sharp's initial plan was to establish a beachhead on the desolate Mejillones Peninsula and motor the WaveRunners up and down the coast looking for new spots. But shortly after he arrived in Chile, he hooked up with Matias Lopez, publisher of Chile's lone surf magazine, Marejada ("Swell"). Lopez and other locals told him about the consistent and reliable El Buey, so he diverted the troops north to Arica and waited.

It wasn't what you'd call a grueling bivouac. The crew stayed at the upscale Hotel Arica Panamericana for ten days straight after Sharp decided there was no need to go exploring. El Buey broke directly in front of the hotel pool. The surfers could hit the local casino at night, eat a buffet breakfast, and zoom from the beach to the lineup in three minutes flat.

"We were prepared to camp at the edge of the abyss," Sharp said near the end of the trip, almost apologetically. "It just wasn't necessary. Besides, knowing there's a hot shower 200 yards away doesn't dull the pain when you're being beaten by a 20-foot set."

THE SURFERS GOT THEIR first real taste of Chilean power at a spot called El Gringo, just across the bay from El Buey. El Gringo has been described as Chile's answer to Oahu's Pipeline—a wobbly, hard-breaking tube that transforms from a shallow northbound left into a shallow southbound right when the swell comes up. El Buey was next. It had been ridden before, but not on a truly giant day, and not by tow-in surfers of the Odyssey's caliber.

When the first swell hit El Buey, about a week into the trip, it was apparent the pros had a world-class spot at their disposal. The lines would march in from the south-southwest and the reef would forge them into long, rushing walls that would have mowed down most paddle surfers but proved perfect for towing. At 15 feet, El Buey scares away Arica's handful of local surfers, which meant the tow teams had it to themselves.

As it happened, the swell that had looked promising on the hotel's Internet connection never served up anything bigger than 20- to 25-foot faces—not bad, but not what the Odyssey team was hoping for. Still, the waves were nearly perfect, so the surfers focused on improving their tow-in technique.

Although the surf never got super-sized on that trip, Chile is still marked with a big red X on the Odyssey map. Sharp left two WaveRunners down there; if he catches wind of a big swell, he'll just send another sortie south. "The fantasy is to have a stash of gear in every major big-wave destination around the world," he says, "and then just fly in with the crew."

Billabong likes that idea, too. In February, the company extended its partnership with Sharp to keep the Odyssey going for the next two years, with an emphasis on sponsoring fewer trips but staying longer in each place. The change recognizes a fact of life in big-wave hunting, one underscored by the Odyssey experience so far: You have to move fast, but you also might have to roost a while once you get there.

SIX MONTHS AFTER THE CHILE TRIP, on his way home from that crowded January day at Cortes Bank, Mike Parsons looked back at the hectic session—and the avalanching mania for big waves in general—with ambivalence. He'd ridden some beautiful surf, but he was also appalled by the mob scene. "I'd never seen more than one other jet ski out there before, and then all of a sudden there were 20," he says. "It was chaotic."

Of course, the Odyssey crew knew they had only themselves to blame for the zoo. Sharp had done a magnificent job of publicizing Cortes, and now his hype had come back to snake him. "You know what I'd compare it to?" Sharp asked me. "You meet the most unbelievable chick in the world. You wine her, dine her, have a few incredible dates. And then you go to pick her up at her house one night and there's a crack-house gang bang going on."

I asked Sharp if he sometimes wished he'd kept quiet about Cortes, which sits a relatively brief boat ride away from the world's most crowded surf zone. He shrugged the question off as unrealistic. "I suppose we could have kept the thing totally secret, and it might have been decades before someone would have figured it out," he said. "But there's a cost to this stuff. For us, it's paid for by going out and gaining publicity. To do it the other way, you'd have to have a real job."

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