October 10, 2001 “Damn, you guys got all kinds of killer shit. What’s it all for?”
The Washington gas station attendant couldn’t help but gasp. Lined up at his Texaco island were no less than seven vehicles armed with eight Wave Runners, an arsenal of tow boards, a dozen big-wave legends and a Yamaha Jet Boat. Santa Cruz’s Ken “Skindog” Collins, who was closest to the kid, gave it to him straight: “It’s not as intimidating as it looks — we’re just going surfing.”
But Collins wasn’t talking about an average session at the Lane. In fact, he had every right to claim that he was a part of perhaps the most ambitious big-wave mission ever.
The Billabong Odyssey, a three-year search for that elusive 100-foot wave, was first announced this past summer and received a cleanup set of mainstream publicity. But announcing your plans and actually going out executing them are two entirely different things, which is why Odyssey chief of operations Bill Sharp has been very busy since July, retracing the Lewis and Clark trail and marking potential big-wave discoveries on the map.
On Tuesday, that treasure map was revealed to the expedition’s first crew as they converged at Stop One, the Pacific Northwest, for the event’s opening ceremonies and training camp.
Four tow teams, including Shane Dorian/Ken Bradshaw, Ken Collins/Josh Loya, Darryl “Flea” Virostko/Shawn “Barney” Barron and Mike Parsons/Brad Gerlach, along with a Hawaiian water safety team of Brock Litte/Brian Keaulana and crew, Tahitian Raimana Van Bastolaer, a handful of photographers and a major TV production squad all bunked up in this month’s official Billabong Odyssey headquarters at an undisclosed location on the Washington border.
As soon as the surfers took one look at all the brand-new skis, the bathymetric maps plastered across the walls and the sheer scale of production that is the Billabong Odyssey, they couldn’t help but show their excitement. “I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” said Collins. “To actually be invited to this and to be paid to participate made it a no-brainer.”
“I’m so pumped,” added Parsons. “You can just feel the electricity of the whole thing.”
The idea was to come up early, get the logistics ironed out, go through Brian Keaulana’s training course and be totally prepared for when the Big One actually arrives. But when the surfers started filtering in late Monday night, a 17-feet-at-14-second buoy reading indicated that they might get more than just their feet wet.
A drop in swell the next morning meant that Plan A resumed. Like we said, this initial trip is about preparation, not big, blue behemoths, and there’s no better place to get your sea legs than the Washington border. Known as “The Graveyard of the Pacific,” this San Francisco Bay on steroids has caused hundreds of shipwrecks since it was first discovered in 1792. As vast as the horizon itself, the region is dotted with estuaries, three-mile long jetties, bridges and, most importantly for us, the Cape Disappointment Coast Guard station.
Nobody knows the ocean troubles the crew at Cape Disappointment has seen, which is why Sharp thought it a good idea for Team Odyssey to get a debriefing from the real war vets. These guys have watch on one of the deadliest stretches of coastline in the world; if anyone can at least give some helpful hints on tackling a 100-foot wave, it’s the Cape Disappointment Coast Guard.
Aside from the fact that they called a set of waves a “series,” the Coast Guard officers’ had just as much passion for hazardous surf. “It’s what it’s all about,” said Officer Kyle Betts. “We live for those days.”
They escorted us out to their “spot” on a 47-foot, virtually unsinkable motor life boat and proceeded to take 30-minutes-worth of 10-foot storm surf on the bow. It was a good ploy to turn the world’s heaviest big-wave riders into queasy, green landlubbers, but everyone passed with a full stomach.
With the Coast Guard’s initiation out of the way, the Odyssey crew will now sit through two days in the classroom and in the field with legendary waterman Brian Keaulana. And while the surfers’ attentions still turn to the handful of potential giant waves in the area (the outside of Cape Disappointment itself looks particularly impressive), they can’t help but wonder what Keaulana has in store for them. Will they be jogging for miles along the endless beaches of southern Washington? Will they be forced to take grueling exams on a PWC’s internal cooling system as Skindog guessed, or carry anchors underwater?
If they were in Makaha, maybe. But in the frigid, cruel waters of the Pacific Northwest, even Keaulana knows where to draw the limits. “Running underwater?” he said today while shivering in his 6 mil. “Hey, the only running I’ll be doing is to the nearest warm shower.” — Evan Slater