The Billabong Odyssey, the three year quest to seek and ride the world’s largest waves, has just completed a surprise eight-day expedition to the European Continent to intercept a pair of potent North Atlantic swells. For the first time in the short history of watercraft-assisted “tow” surfing, a group of big-wave specialists flew 8000 miles to another ocean at a moment’s notice in pursuit of the biggest breakers available on the globe that week.
The project had been focusing on the North Pacific Ocean since October and Odyssey surfers have encountered several days with waves from 30 to 60 feet on the face at venues such as Northern California’s Mavericks, Mexico’s Isla de Todos Santos and Maui’s Jaws.
But when a large high-pressure system set up over the entire Pacific in late January, all significant swell generation came to an abrupt halt. Conversely, US Navy weather forecasts indicated that the Atlantic Ocean would host a string of intense low pressure systems moving off the East Coast and generating extremely high seas aimed toward much of the European coastline.
When Billabong’s European division suggested a voyage to the continent, Odyssey organizers seized the moment to test the team’s rapid-deployment readiness. Given the lightning-strike nature of the mission, a Billabong Odyssey squad was quickly dispatched, including California-based surfers Mike ‘Snips’ Parsons, Brad ‘Ger’ Gerlach, Darryl “Flea” Virostko and Shawn “Barney” Barron, along with support staff, photographers, documentary crew and mechanics.
Within hours, participants were sailing through the skies toward Paris and then onto the storied surfing landscape where France and Spain meet along the Atlantic. The first target was the legendary and mysterious right which breaks off the rugged island of Izaro deep in Spain’s Basque country. After an afternoon warm-up in building swell, the Odyssey team prepared their equipment for the foray across the channel to the island, once the site of a reclusive monastery.
But the European mission would continue to be a true test of the Odyssey team’s adaptability. A first-light inspection of the Izaro wave indicated the big incoming swell was from too westerly a direction to accommodate the reef, and a new quest was suddenly under way. In a matter of minutes, the Odyssey crew transfered eight jet skis to trailers, and moved back the caravan toward France to catch the swell from a better angle as it moved ever deeper into the Bay of Biscay.
After assessing the potential of an assortment of outer reefs and swirling storm-borne winds, the biggest possible surf was eventually located in the local beach breaks, where the deep offshore canyon allows the full fury of incoming groundswells to be unleashed quite close to the shore.
And while many big-wave reef breaks with deep, safe channels are commonly surfed by traditional paddle-surfers, the intense danger of the endless “impact zone” of huge beach breaks has historically put them off-limits to wave riding on days like these. Which makes it perfect Billabong Odyssey territory.
“It was the biggest beach break surf I’ve ever seen,” said Parsons, who gained global acclaim with his 66-foot wave at Cortes Bank last year.
“Riding the waves was easy enough. It was what you did on the inside that was heavy. Without a safe channel, trying to pick up your partner after his ride was at least five times more challenging than it is at a place like Todos Santos or Mavericks.”
The biggest day featured a swell height of 15-18 feet with the occasional 20 footer producing face heights approaching 40 feet—totally deadly without the help of jet ski rescue craft. And even then, the expert watercraft drivers were pushed to the very edge of their considerable abilities.
“It was gnarly out there,” said Flea, the two-time Mavericks contest winner, “When you are driving, you have zero margin for error. You have to constantly make decisions and make them all correctly. One slip-up and it could be real bad.”
Unsuccessful rides were especially demanding physically for all the surfers. A few huge inescapable tube rides took their toll on the Santa Cruz surfer’s neck and back. “I was taxed,” said Virostko. “Totally beat.”
Despite the treacherous conditions, mishaps proved rare. One rented watercraft was temporarily swamped in the shore break, and at the peak of the swell Parsons was briefly “lost” in the churning whitewater for several minutes awaiting the arrival of a jet ski to extract him from the violent froth.
Yet for the surfers on this Billabong Odyssey expedition, the drama of the high surf was often overshadowed by the immense beauty and rich history of the region, deep a cultural shift from previous sorties along the Pacific coast.
Brad Gerlach, a veteran of over a dozen European surf trips, found this excursion to be an off-season eye-opener. “It was the first time I’ve been there in winter and I’m so glad I had this opportunity. This is the right way to go after finding the biggest waves possible—being able to jump on a plane at the last minute and make it somewhere ahead of the swell.”
“But it’s being able to tie in with the local crew at places like this that makes it possible to do these trips,” said Gerlach. “A lot of times when foreign surfers roll into a town they just sort of pillage and plunder and leave without really meeting anyone. To be able to get to know some of the best surfers and key locals means you’re sharing something more. This was great.”
It won’t be the last the Odyssey sees of Europe—a more extensive exploration of the region is scheduled for the Fall. “The big-wave potential of Europe is world-class” said Project Director Bill Sharp. “The North Atlantic regularly holds storms far more intense than those in the Pacific. It’s just a matter of continuing to analyze which reefs can hold the big swells while maintaining favorable winds.
The number of options is staggering. From Ireland and the New Hebrides, to France’s Brittany coast all the way to Gibraltar and on to Madeira and the Azores…the truth is out there. We’ll be back to find it.”
As the crew packed up to leave the French coast and celebrate the adventure with a night out during Fashion Week in Paris, Santa Cruz’s Barney Barron was not afraid to offer his philosophy on the Billabong Odyssey’s basic appeal.
“Every time we go out somewhere we’re not always going to find a hundred-foot wave, but we do find great adventure,” said Barron. “We may not find the Loch Ness Monster, but we will see some really big fish.”