Wave Chasers Hope Surf Will Be Up

Climbers have their Mt. Everest, cryptozoologists their Missing Link and physicists their dream of cold fusion.

Now the world's best surfers are scouring the globe for their ultimate challenge: the 100-foot wave.

"It's not anything 99.9 percent of surfers would want to do, but it's intriguing," surfline.com surf forecaster Sean Collins said. It's almost a first-guy-on-the-moon kind of thing."

The lengths surfers will go to ride a wave became apparent just this past weekend, when six surfers were bitten by sharks off of the Florida coast. Some surfers had actually leapt over a swarm of sharks to get to the best waves.

Starting in October, the year-long Billabong Odyssey will begin, sending a team of some two dozen surfers to every corner of the Earth to mount a 10-story wall of water and make it back to tell the tale.

So far, the biggest wave ever surfed is the 66-foot monster that professional Mike Parsons rode last year at Cortez Bank, a reef about 100 miles west of the Southern California coast. But that wasn't big enough, and Parsons and his brahs say they're ready to tackle something larger.

"It's just feeling the power of the ocean and being able to sustain that for a couple seconds," Parsons said. "I'm pretty much ready to go at any time, anywhere in the world. If I get the call, I'll get my equipment and go."

The Odyssey is the brainchild of Bill Sharp, editor of Surf News, who sees it as the surfer version of the great Homeric epic.

"It's the long wandering, Homeric in scope and audacity," he said from his Newport Beach, Calif., office. "The 100-foot wave is a mythical figure, but it's not unthinkable.

"And 100's a nice round number," he added.

The search for The Mother of All Waves can be seen as a natural step in the evolution of the fledgling sport of tow surfing. Until recently, there was a limit to how big a wave a surfer could mount after all, a surfer uses his arms to catch a wave, and even the most seasoned waverider's arms can only pick up so much speed. So the biggest, fastest waves remained out of grasp.

The invention of the personal watercraft changed all that. Starting in the 1960s, surfers began hitching rides behind friends on Yamaha Waverunners, until they gained enough speed to ride a big wave.

Another big change came about five years ago, when surfers began using the Web to get weather information and post wave advisories. The effect on surfing has been profound.

"You had to go to the beach, look out and see if there were waves or there weren't," Sharp said. "Now you can get the information that a storm is likely to form seven to 10 days in advance."

"It was as if suddenly mountains bigger than Everest started sprouting around the world," Sharp said. "It was just the idea of, 'hey, let's go figure out where this one sprouted up and go surf it.' It was an adventure.

"Three years ago, if we told someone we'd ride a 66-foot wave, everyone would have everyone did laugh in our face," Sharp said. "By the time the Odyssey's done, there will be a few more shockers."

Although the technology's made it feasible to ride huge waves and come back alive, surfing swells of 60 feet or above isn't a cakewalk. Besides the possibilities of getting smashed against a reef or bitten by a shark, the sheer volume of water can be deadly.

Collins, himself a paddle surfer, estimated one in four surfers trying for the Big One might not make it back. "It's incredibly dangerous," he said. "I'd rather go run with the bulls."

Odyssey trekkers will wear inflatable life vests and will be watched over by the world's best lifeguards, but the danger will still be there.

"It's probably the heaviest thing you could do, period," Parsons said. "I don't think there's anything in the world as heavy or as dangerous."