Ghost wave. It's a term that conjures up the stuff of seafaring legend: dark, foggy nights on the open ocean when eerie occurrences make the hair on the backs of countless seafarers' necks stand up, feeding the stories of sea monsters and treacherous singing mermaids.
And although much of Chris Dixon's excellent book is set in the light of day, the haunting promise of the title is liberally fulfilled. Ghost Wave: The Discovery of the Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth is an expansive history of a submerged island 100 miles off the southern coast of California, as well as an in-depth study of big wave surfing and some of its most extreme practitioners. Not surprisingly, the people — all men, it seems — who get their kicks by hurling themselves directly into the paths of 50-, 70-, and 90-foot waves make fascinating subjects for a book. No less interesting, however, is the history of Cortes Bank itself, which features ancient Californians, deliberate shipwrecks, and, of course, sightings of massive waves that have terrified hardened sailors and watermen from the 1700s up until today.
A ghost wave, as Dixon explains, is just as strange as its name makes it out to be. Ghost waves are mammoth waves that appear out of nowhere, rise "like a monster," and then disappear back into the open sea without leaving a trace. The Cortes Bank creates perfect conditions for these types of big waves in a place most surfers would never even think of trying to surf. A shipwreck on the Bank stabs rusted steel debris out at odd angles and is covered by just a few feet of water. Broken shell and coral add to the hazards, not to mention the fact that if you get hurt (as you probably will), or if the waves are too big or too fast (as they most definitely could be), there is no dragging yourself to shore. Instead, you must get back onto whatever boat got you out there and hope that it can handle the waves, which might send a craft tipping 60 feet down the back of a crest. In this spot of ocean that draws the most hardcore aquatic thrill seekers, death is always a possibility.
Dixon, a former editor at Surfer magazine now based in Charleston, writes about surfing expeditions to Cortes Bank, as well as other big wave spots throughout the world, with an immediacy and naturalness that shows his enthusiasm for the sport. He throws around complicated surfing jargon with such ease that you find yourself thinking, well, there's just no other word he could have used — even as you turn to Google for the umpteenth time. So never fear, those of you who, like me, don't know a late drop from a drop in: the countless technical terms and beach boy slang will not detract from your enjoyment of Dixon's storytelling.
Chapters devoted to the bizarre history of Cortes Bank, which include an arrogant rich boy's attempt to re-float the island and rule it as a constitutional monarchy, are meticulously researched and well narrated. An imagined journey of ancient native Californians, which Dixon constructed with the help of various scholars, is particularly intriguing.
Serious surfers will recognize many names, or at least legends, in these pages. But Ghost Wave offers much more to its readers. Through Dixon's stories, we get a glimpse of perhaps the most addictive element of surfing: that paradoxical combination of insane adrenaline rushes and long moments of Zen-like peace that the ocean dishes out generously to those who live to catch that perfect wave. For some, that wave just happens to be off the Cortes Bank.