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Cortes Bank: Great waves, near tragedy [SURFING]

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“I got a call from Garrett McNamara the afternoon of December 19 saying we needed to find a way out to Cortes Bank. The maps were showing a swell that was going to hit that location perfectly on the 21st and no where else on the California coast” Body Glove Entertainment Director Greg Browning recalled.


Photo by Mike Balzer/Body Glove

“His plan was to organize a boat, a film crew, and a safety crew to be 100 miles out at Cortes Bank and surfing in two days. Five minutes after I got off the phone with Garrett, Alex Gray and Dave Wassel called wanting to do the same thing”.

The crew, which included McNamara, his nephew Landon, Browning, fellow Body Glove photographer Mike Balzer and an EMT certified safety team. They  arrived in Point Loma Harbor at 2 in the morning and jumped aboard the Condor. The trip to Cortes Bank took 11 hours. The crew awoke to see massive walls of white water breaking in the middle of the ocean. Two other boats had also arrived. Their surfers included well known big wave riders Greg Long, Mark Healy, Peter Mel, Shane Dorian, and Ian Walsh.

That afternoon 15 surfers paddled out on their 11-foot boards and began working their way over to the break, using a lobster trap float to help them line up. The set waves were 55 feet and looked even more ominous because of the dark clouds.

Shawn Dollar was the first to catch a big wave. An hour into the session the guys were all starting to figure out the break and catch waves.

“It was the biggest I have surfed at Cortes Bank and to watch my 16-year-old nephew Landon catch a bomb was amazing” McNamara said.

Landon McNamara surfing

16-year-old Landon McNamara. Photo by Mike Balzer/Body Glove

But McNamara’s elation that afternoon would later turn to horror.

Several hours into the session, McNamara took off on a 25-foot wave in front of Long. Both fell. McNamara quickly came to the surface and swam to safety. Long was held down for several waves and lost consciousness.

Rescue team member DK Walsh grabbed Long’s body and helped get him onto a jet-ski. On the way back to the boat, Long regained consciousness. He was coughing up blood capillaries that burst in his lungs, a result of holding his breath for so long.

The day ended with Long being helicoptered out under a magnificent sunset.

Day 2 began with cloudy skies and a little texture on the water. But after a few cups of coffee, the sky cleared and the wind turned.

Conditions were as good as it gets. But, that didn’t make it any less challenging. Guys who didn’t complete their rides received the worst hold downs of their lives,” Gray said. ‘Really, I’m just glad everyone on our boat made it back home safe with a few great rides,” Gray added.

Alex Gray surfing

Alex Gray dropping in. Photo by Mike Balzer/Body Glove

McNamara looks back

Following the trip, in a statement released by Surfer magazine, McNamara recalled what happened on the wave he rode with Long. The statement read, in part:

“A set was coming and as it got closer it started to swing wide. I paddled as fast as I could toward the channel because the wave was running away from the pack… I took off not seeing or hearing Greg … I got to the bottom started my turn and saw the white water about to land on me so I jumped off my board and got ready for the under water ride. Because of all the floatation in the Body Glove Survival Suit I came up before the next wave. Even with all that floatation the beating was so bad that I also pulled the Patagonia vest.

“It wasn’t until I was already on the inside after several waves that I saw Rusty rescuing Greg. Even then I thought he had gone on the wave after me. I saw the Red Bull ski with no one on it so Shawn dropped me off and I drove it over to Greg’s boat. At this point, Greg had already regained consciousness. I sped over to my boat to get our #1 EMT DK Walsh, took him and our backboard to Greg’s boat…

“It wasn’t until I was back on my boat that I saw the footage of Greg behind me on that wave. .. When I apologized to Greg … he said, “I enjoyed sharing that wave with you. Don’t for one second think this is your fault.”

Young also issued a statement through Surfer, which read in part:

“I have no hard feelings towards Garrett, nor do I blame him for what happened to me that day at Cortes. I have seen the video of our wave, and acknowledge that neither or us were going to successfully make it…It was my choice to be out there that day, and in doing so, I assumed full responsibility for anything that could have happened.”


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