Billabong Odyssey Offers $500K For 100-Foot Wave

Rumors finally became fact today when Billabong International announced its plan to host a three-year global expedition to find and ride the biggest waves in the world.

Named the “Billabong Odyssey,” the unprecedented project will combine the world’s best big wave surfers, jet-powered watercraft tow vehicles, and cutting-edge weather tracking technology to chase down the biggest swells the earth’s oceans have to offer.

The new series of events — adventures really — also highlights the growing importance of specialty events to the surf industry.

The Billabong Odyssey is an outgrowth of January’s Project Neptune expedition to the Cortes Bank, a legendary mid-ocean sea mount 100 miles west of San Diego, California. Billabong team rider Mike Parsons’ successful ride of a 66-foot monster at the never-before-surfed break not only won the Swell XXL 60,000-dollar prize for the year’s biggest wave, but proved that publicized breaks like Maui’s Peahi (or Jaws) and Northern California’s Maverick’s are only the tip of the high-seas iceberg.

“So far, the history of big wave surfing has been written at a handful of spots around the world that are convenient,” says Billabong Odyssey organizer Bill Sharp. “But we’re now realizing that the oceans are filled with breaks that regularly have bigger waves which no one has ever surfed before. Going after them is the ultimate man-against-the-sea adventure.”

Since surfers began using personal watercraft to tow each other into giant waves in the 1990s, size limits have virtually evaporated. While traditional paddle-in surfers continue to struggle to catch waves with 40-foot faces, top tow-in surfers (using short, narrow surfboards with sailboard-style footstraps) are not only regularly riding waves with faces over 60 feet, they are pushing high-performance boundaries forward at a pace never before seen in the sport.

“After Cortes Bank, everyone is convinced that there’s a 100-foot wave out there somewhere,” says top tow surfer Ken “Skindog” Collins of Santa Cruz, California. “If we can find it, I know it can be ridden. I know I want to give it a try.”

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Billabong Odyssey plans call for three expeditions each year, two in the Northern Hemisphere between October and March and one to the Southern Hemisphere during its winter June-August.

Project organizers have invited an elite group of renowned big-wave surfers to participate on various legs of the Odyssey, including Californians Peter Mel, Ken Collins, Brad Gerlach and Darryl Virostko, Hawaiians Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, Ken Bradshaw, Brock Little and Brian Keaulana, and Australians Tony Ray and Ross Clarke-Jones. Even current world surfing tour stars are anxious to take part; Australia’s Luke Egan has confirmed as has Hawaii’s Shane Dorian, who has recruited six-time World Champion Kelly Slater as his tow-surfing partner.

Although specific Odyssey targets will remain secret, the maiden expedition will take to the seas in October, 2001 and will focus on some key locations in the Pacific Northwest between San Francisco and Canada’s Vancouver Island. Preparations are under way for future excursions to other coastlines rich with high-surf potential including the Hawaiian Chain, Chile, South Africa, Ireland, Tasmania, New Zealand, and the South Pacific Isles.

Although these are expeditions in the true sense of the word, the Billabong Odyssey will reward the surfer who rides the biggest wave of each year with a cash bonus of 1,000 dollars per foot of face height. There will also be a substantial prize for any surfer successfully riding the legendary 100-footer.

“This isn’t about the prizes,” said Mike Parsons. “Most of the surfers would probably pay to come along on something like this. The Billabong Odyssey is about going where no one has ever gone before. A thousand people have climbed to the top of Mt. Everest, but how many people have ridden an eighty-foot wave? This is something special.”

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TnsWorld SURF Business tracked down event founder/organizer Bill Sharp for the scoop on what might be the most imaginative series of events the surf industry has seen in years.

TransWorld SURF Business: When did the idea for the Odyssey come about?

Bill Sharp: After the K2 Big Wave Challenge, the Swell XXL, and Project Neptune, I’ve really developed a good understanding of how to create both media attention and sponsor value. After the Cortes Bank adventure, I just went, “Well, how can I take the key elements from what I’ve already done and just keep running with it?”

I put on three events in the last three years K2 Challenge, Cortes Bank, Swell XXL, and I think it would be pretty easy to argue that those are the three most successful events in surfing history in terms of mainstream impressions.

The goal for each expedition — and that’s exactly what they’ll be, an expedition — will be to go and explore these new gigantic breaks and do it in a safe and sane manner. We’re not hyping it up, but whoever rides the 100-foot wave will get half-a-million dollars. I think he would deserve it.

TransWorld SURF Business: Why do you think specialty events like the Odyssey are becoming so popular?

Bill Sharp: If you look at the ASP rule book, the judging criteria is this arcane hundred-word proclamation. With the Odyssey, it’s super easy for someone to understand. To really nail it down, a lot of pro surfing is about trying to make surfing into a jock-strap sport. Let’s let it be what it is.

The Odyssey is Jacques Cousteau meets Evel Knievel meets Crocodile Hunter meets MTV Jackass. It’s not nearly as contrived as having a guy put on a hot pink jersey and try to do 47 turns on a two-foot wave.

TransWorld SURF Business: So are people understanding your vision for the event?

Bill Sharp: Definitely. I thought it was going to be months and months just to get people to understand the concept, but it’s immediately clicked with everyone I’ve talked to.

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TransWorld SURF Business: What kind of resources will you need to pull something like this off?

Bill Sharp: If you added it up, the Cortes Bank adventure had a budget of maybe 10,000 dollars. When you consider the event production, logistics, television and video production, The Billabong Odyssey will have a budget of well over a million dollars a year. I can imagine a huge warehouse stocked with jet skis and gear and supplies that’s ready to roll at a moment’s notice.

I was planning to go out of the industry to come up with the money, because it’s relatively large chunk for an endemic sponsor. But for Billabong, it’s not all that big of a jump, because they already run three ASP events at what must be at least 700,000 to 800,000 dollars a pop. And it’s not hard to get someone to believe that this concept will likely get a lot more mainstream attention than your run-of-the-mill surf contest.

TransWorld SURF Business: Why three years? That seems like an awfully long time to maintain interest.

Bill Sharp: Most people, when they’re looking at building equity for an event, think in terms of three years. It’s a reasonable window as far as budgeting long-term investments, and it’s a long enough period where the sponsor is going to get a good sponsorship value.

I think the other real key notion is that people are spending a ton of money on surfing events that are over almost before they begin. They have a final at 2:00 p.m., they blow the horn, and it’s over. That’s only going to get you one day in the newspaper and in one issue of the surf mag and then it’s done.

With the K2 and the Swell events — where it’s prolonged over the course of four months — every time there is a new storm it brings interest to the event. That creates so much more value for a sponsor when people will continually return to your Web site or turn on your television show to find out what’s going on.

TransWorld SURF Business: Who are the surfers involved, and how many expeditions will there be during the three-year window?

Bill Sharp: We will probably have four to six surfers on each expedition, with about eight expeditions over the three years. At this point, it’s all subject to adjustment. We’ll plan two expeditions in the winter and then one to the Southern Hemisphere during our summer.

Not everyone would go on every single event. The process of selecting the surfers is yet to be determined; I’ve got a list of the guys who are capable and interesting. Certainly the guys I’ve talked to are pretty fired up about it. You’d also get pretty sick if the same four guys went and did all these things, so we’ll rotate the teams.

TransWorld SURF Business: Is it biggest wave wins, winner take all?

Bill Sharp: If by the end of this thing, if two guys or three guys have all ridden a 100-foot wave, then we’ll dice up the reward.

TransWorld SURF Business: Are only the invited surfers eligible for the 500,000 dollars?

Bill Sharp: Only surfers on the expeditions will be eligible for the big awards. Simply from a safety standpoint that the way it has to be. Someone can gripe that it’s not democratic — that we’re excluding people from coming. But you know what, they have things like million-dollar hole-in-one bonuses at PGA tournaments and the average schmo doesn’t get to jump onto the tee box and take a swing at that, either.

TransWorld SURF Business: Big-wave surfing has rejuvenated a lot of careers. Are these the type of people we can expect to be invited?

Bill Sharp: The people who are emerging as top guys in the big-wave tow-in arena, a lot of them are guys who did that pro tour route ten or twenty years ago. It’s something where it’s really hard to speed up the timeline of gaining the experience it takes to know what you’re doing in 50-foot and larger surf. It’s a pretty elite group. And yes, it’s a great way for these guys to have a whole second career.

Plus, the best thing is all the top tow-in guys are brilliant in handling the media. You can’t get Sunny Garcia or Shane Beschen or Shea Lopez or most of these guys who are suppose to be the hottest things going in American surfing to sit down and give a brilliant interview to Dateline NBC. They’re not even going to show up. But the types of surfers on The Billabong Odyssey already have all these great little stories to tell — and the Cortes Bank expedition proved that the media will be eating out of the palm of their hand.

They realize that’s part of what they do. Getting pulled into a giant wave and successfully riding it is what they do for the buzz of it. What they get paid for — and where they earn the money they receive from their sponsors — is during the interview and media relations process back on land and after the event.

TransWorld SURF Business: So will you guys be going back to Cortes Bank and Mavericks or will you look for new locations?

Bill Sharp: The adventure inherent in the discovery of a new spot was the best element of the Cortes Bank expedition, and I just know there are dozens and dozens of those types of spots all over the world — just huge waves that no one has ever surfed.

TransWorld SURF Business: Dozens? Don’t you think surfers would have discovered those types of places already?

Bill Sharp: One of the reasons I’m confident is that most people don’t know what they’re looking at when they see a 50-foot wave. We proved that with Cortes. People were constantly telling us there weren’t surfable waves there. I just went, “We need to go and search out those types of spots.”

I’ve learned not to depend on the testimony of old fishermen or even surfers who don’t live for big waves, because you can’t trust their eyes to do your job. They don’t know what they’re looking for.

Even guys who are serious surfers, local heroes whog on.

TransWorld SURF Business: Who are the surfers involved, and how many expeditions will there be during the three-year window?

Bill Sharp: We will probably have four to six surfers on each expedition, with about eight expeditions over the three years. At this point, it’s all subject to adjustment. We’ll plan two expeditions in the winter and then one to the Southern Hemisphere during our summer.

Not everyone would go on every single event. The process of selecting the surfers is yet to be determined; I’ve got a list of the guys who are capable and interesting. Certainly the guys I’ve talked to are pretty fired up about it. You’d also get pretty sick if the same four guys went and did all these things, so we’ll rotate the teams.

TransWorld SURF Business: Is it biggest wave wins, winner take all?

Bill Sharp: If by the end of this thing, if two guys or three guys have all ridden a 100-foot wave, then we’ll dice up the reward.

TransWorld SURF Business: Are only the invited surfers eligible for the 500,000 dollars?

Bill Sharp: Only surfers on the expeditions will be eligible for the big awards. Simply from a safety standpoint that the way it has to be. Someone can gripe that it’s not democratic — that we’re excluding people from coming. But you know what, they have things like million-dollar hole-in-one bonuses at PGA tournaments and the average schmo doesn’t get to jump onto the tee box and take a swing at that, either.

TransWorld SURF Business: Big-wave surfing has rejuvenated a lot of careers. Are these the type of people we can expect to be invited?

Bill Sharp: The people who are emerging as top guys in the big-wave tow-in arena, a lot of them are guys who did that pro tour route ten or twenty years ago. It’s something where it’s really hard to speed up the timeline of gaining the experience it takes to know what you’re doing in 50-foot and larger surf. It’s a pretty elite group. And yes, it’s a great way for these guys to have a whole second career.

Plus, the best thing is all the top tow-in guys are brilliant in handling the media. You can’t get Sunny Garcia or Shane Beschen or Shea Lopez or most of these guys who are suppose to be the hottest things going in American surfing to sit down and give a brilliant interview to Dateline NBC. They’re not even going to show up. But the types of surfers on The Billabong Odyssey already have all these great little stories to tell — and the Cortes Bank expedition proved that the media will be eating out of the palm of their hand.

They realize that’s part of what they do. Getting pulled into a giant wave and successfully riding it is what they do for the buzz of it. What they get paid for — and where they earn the money they receive from their sponsors — is during the interview and media relations process back on land and after the event.

TransWorld SURF Business: So will you guys be going back to Cortes Bank and Mavericks or will you look for new locations?

Bill Sharp: The adventure inherent in the discovery of a new spot was the best element of the Cortes Bank expedition, and I just know there are dozens and dozens of those types of spots all over the world — just huge waves that no one has ever surfed.

TransWorld SURF Business: Dozens? Don’t you think surfers would have discovered those types of places already?

Bill Sharp: One of the reasons I’m confident is that most people don’t know what they’re looking at when they see a 50-foot wave. We proved that with Cortes. People were constantly telling us there weren’t surfable waves there. I just went, “We need to go and search out those types of spots.”

I’ve learned not to depend on the testimony of old fishermen or even surfers who don’t live for big waves, because you can’t trust their eyes to do your job. They don’t know what they’re looking for.

Even guys who are serious surfers, local heroes who go out at triple-overhead waves, wouldn’t know what to look for. I can safely say that there’s probably no mysto surfer towing into 60-foot waves with nobody knowing about it.

TransWorld SURF Business: So all new locations?

Bill Sharp: Yes. Instead of going to Tavarua for the 4,000th time to ride perfect head-high waves, we’ll be exploring all new territory. It’s a key way to increase awareness of the event beyond the surf media. There’s a real problem there. Even if you have perfect waves in Tavarua or all these other places that the ASP has staked their life to, it’s not news worthy to the mainstream media.

TransWorld SURF Business: It sounds pretty grim for the ASP.

Bill Sharp: I think the ASP has pinned themselves into a corner just by their ownership structure. It’s controlled by the surfers who have a self interest in making sure they stay in the group of 44 and that they get paid as much money as they can. They’ve had no forward vision and now they’re going to pay the price for it.

TransWorld SURF Business: How do you go about finding perfect 100-foot waves?

Bill Sharp: I have a list of the places that when I look at a map I know there’re big waves there. Places like the Pacific Northwest, the Northwest Hawai’ian Islands, Midway — that’s my personal favorite, South Africa, Western Australia, Tasmania, and Chile.

It’s a little bit of basic oceanography. You look at a chart of Cortes, and you know there will be big waves there, and lo and behold, there were. We can recognize some basics — the less continental shelf the better and the winds have got to be right — and start our search at these places.

It will be a combination of where we think the highest probability of finding these waves is combined with the logistical reality. This certainly will be where Billabong will help — they have offices or are operating in many of the places I’ve mentioned.

I’ve already been studying the charts of these areas. But some are going to hit a jackpot and others are just going to be kind of duds, but hey that’s Mother Nature. Quiksilver couldn’t find one day all winter long where Mavericks was good enough for what they wanted.

It’s going to be difficult, and we’re not going to hit a home run every time — that’s part of the reason we’re going to do eight of them. But I think with the advances in technology and with our ability to process information we’ll maximize our chances. The weather information available on the Internet is just unbelievable.

TransWorld SURF Business: It does sound like a monster logistical undertaking.

Bill Sharp: We’re going to go and do a dry run and hit a lot of spots on the Northern Hemisphere and then we’ll just lay and wait. We’ll have a container or warehouse wherever we’re going packed full of all of our shit. Then, when the surf hits, we’ll call everyone up and say, “Day after tomorrow, meet me at the mouth of the Colombia River.” Boom. We’re off and buying some two-thousand-dollar air tickets.

TransWorld SURF Business: What about television production?

Bill Sharp: We’ll invest in the television production to make sure that when the 100-foot wave goes down, it’s shot perfectly from every angle. With the Cortes expedition, thank god Dana Brown showed up. They shot high-speed super-sixteen film for their movie Liquid and killed it — but then it turned out to be a nightmare getting access to footage to really do the right things with it. They’re holding ten hours of incredible footage for their movie, but Dana Brown and J.P. Beegley own it, not Flame or Swell or Surfing or SurfNews or Bill Sharp or anyone else who had a ten-year stake in the project. So that was certainly part of the learning process.

We’ve yet to decide on a TV partner, and thanks to the way Billabong is underwriting the project, we don’t have to. We may just film the first expedition ourselves and then see if any big players find iit attractive.

I want to make sure whatever footage is shot, that it comes to one central location. We need to be able to peel off whatever we need and get it over to CNN that day and not have to bicker with people — just to have the control to make sure that it’s done right.

TransWorld SURF Business: Okay, it all sounds good. But you’re asking these surfers to take huge risks for our titillation. Have you given much thought to safety?

Bill Sharp: That’s going to be a really important theme for us. Tow surfing and the use of a personal watercraft is vastly safer than attempting to paddle in. It’s safer to ride a 60-foot wave by towing than it is to paddle into a 35-foot wave.

All the surfers are wearing flotation devices that will make sure they float to the surface no matter what happens to them. The surfers also have their assigned partner who’s doing nothing but looking out for them. These partners have the equipment to where they can go and get the surfer out of trouble.

We’re also looking at little miniature air tanks, GPS locators, or whatever it’s going to be. We’re going to be delving heavily into the James Bond gadget arena. Maybe there’ll be a mad scientist like “Q” in the back of the Billabong warehouse creating secret gizmos.

Most importantly, when you look at these guys who are on the various giant days riding the biggest wave of the day at Mavericks or Cortes or wherever it is — no one is backing down. No one has chickened out at the end of the day. We don’t know where the limit is — and that’s an amazing thing.

For 40 years surfers have experienced at least one wave that made them say, “Geez, I don’t want that one!” Now it’s like, “Bring it on!” It’s time to see how far we can keep going with this. out at triple-overhead waves, wouldn’t know what to look for. I can safely say that there’s probably no mysto surfer towing into 60-foot waves with nobody knowing about it.

TransWorld SURF Business: So all new locations?

Bill Sharp: Yes. Instead of going to Tavarua for the 4,000th time to ride perfect head-high waves, we’ll be exploring all new territory. It’s a key way to increase awareness of the event beyond the surf media. There’s a real problem there. Even if you have perfect waves in Tavarua or all these other places that the ASP has staked their life to, it’s not news worthy to the mainstream media.

TransWorld SURF Business: It sounds pretty grim for the ASP.

Bill Sharp: I think the ASP has pinned themselves into a corner just by their ownership structure. It’s controlled by the surfers who have a self interest in making sure they stay in the group of 44 and that they get paid as much money as they can. They’ve had no forward vision and now they’re going to pay the price for it.

TransWorld SURF Business: How do you go about finding perfect 100-foot waves?

Bill Sharp: I have a list of the places that when I look at a map I know there’re big waves there. Places like the Pacific Northwest, the Northwest Hawai’ian Islands, Midway — that’s my personal favorite, South Africa, Western Australia, Tasmania, and Chile.

It’s a little bit of basic oceanography. You look at a chart of Cortes, and you know there will be big waves there, and lo and behold, there were. We can recognize some basics — the less continental shelf the better and the winds have got to be right — and start our search at these places.

It will be a combination of where we think the highest probability of finding these waves is combined with the logistical reality. This certainly will be where Billabong will help — they have offices or are operating in many of the places I’ve mentioned.

I’ve already been studying the charts of these areas. But some are going to hit a jackpot and others are just going to be kind of duds, but hey that’s Mother Nature. Quiksilver couldn’t find one day all winter long where Mavericks was good enough for what they wanted.

It’s going to be difficult, and we’re not going to hit a home run every time — that’s part of the reason we’re going to do eight of them. But I think with the advances in technology and with our ability to process information we’ll maximize our chances. The weather information available on the Internet is just unbelievable.

TransWorld SURF Business: It does sound like a monster logistical undertaking.

Bill Sharp: We’re going to go and do a dry run and hit a lot of spots on the Northern Hemisphere and then we’ll just lay and wait. We’ll have a container or warehouse wherever we’re going packed full of all of our shit. Then, when the surf hits, we’ll call everyone up and say, “Day after tomorrow, meet me at the mouth of the Colombia River.” Boom. We’re off and buying some two-thousand-dollar air tickets.

TransWorld SURF Business: What about television production?

Bill Sharp: We’ll invest in the television production to make sure that when the 100-foot wave goes down, it’s shot perfectly from every angle. With the Cortes expedition, thank god Dana Brown showed up. They shot high-speed super-sixteen film for their movie Liquid and killed it — but then it turned out to be a nightmare getting access to footage to really do the right things with it. They’re holding ten hours of incredible footage for their movie, but Dana Brown and J.P. Beegley own it, not Flame or Swell or Surfing or SurfNews or Bill Sharp or anyone else who had a ten-year stake in the project. So that was certainly part of the learning process.

We’ve yet to decide on a TV partner, and thanks to the way Billabong is underwriting the project, we don’t have to. We may just film the first expedition ourselves and then see if any big players find it attractive.

I want to make sure whatever footage is shot, that it comes to one central location. We need to be able to peel off whatever we need and get it over to CNN that day and not have to bicker with people — just to have the control to make sure that it’s done right.

TransWorld SURF Business: Okay, it all sounds good. But you’re asking these surfers to take huge risks for our titillation. Have you given much thought to safety?

Bill Sharp: That’s going to be a really important theme for us. Tow surfing and the use of a personal watercraft is vastly safer than attempting to paddle in. It’s safer to ride a 60-foot wave by towing than it is to paddle into a 35-foot wave.

All the surfers are wearing flotation devices that will make sure they float to the surface no matter what happens to them. The surfers also have their assigned partner who’s doing nothing but looking out for them. These partners have the equipment to where they can go and get the surfer out of trouble.

We’re also looking at little miniature air tanks, GPS locators, or whatever it’s going to be. We’re going to be delving heavily into the James Bond gadget arena. Maybe there’ll be a mad scientist like “Q” in the back of the Billabong warehouse creating secret gizmos.

Most importantly, when you look at these guys who are on the various giant days riding the biggest wave of the day at Mavericks or Cortes or wherever it is — no one is backing down. No one has chickened out at the end of the day. We don’t know where the limit is — and that’s an amazing thing.

For 40 years surfers have experienced at least one wave that made them say, “Geez, I don’t want that one!” Now it’s like, “Bring it on!” It’s time to see how far we can keep going with this.s find it attractive.

I want to make sure whatever footage is shot, that it comes to one central location. We need to be able to peel off whatever we need and get it over to CNN that day and not have to bicker with people — just to have the control to make sure that it’s done right.

TransWorld SURF Business: Okay, it all sounds good. But you’re asking these surfers to take huge risks for our titillation. Have you given much thought to safety?

Bill Sharp: That’s going to be a really important theme for us. Tow surfing and the use of a personal watercraft is vastly safer than attempting to paddle in. It’s safer to ride a 60-foot wave by towing than it is to paddle into a 35-foot wave.

All the surfers are wearing flotation devices that will make sure they float to the surface no matter what happens to them. The surfers also have their assigned partner who’s doing nothing but looking out for them. These partners have the equipment to where they can go and get the surfer out of trouble.

We’re also looking at little miniature air tanks, GPS locators, or whatever it’s going to be. We’re going to be delving heavily into the James Bond gadget arena. Maybe there’ll be a mad scientist like “Q” in the back of the Billabong warehouse creating secret gizmos.

Most importantly, when you look at these guys who are on the various giant days riding the biggest wave of the day at Mavericks or Cortes or wherever it is — no one is backing down. No one has chickened out at the end of the day. We don’t know where the limit is — and that’s an amazing thing.

For 40 years surfers have experienced at least one wave that made them say, “Geez, I don’t want that one!” Now it’s like, “Bring it on!” It’s time to see how far we can keep going with this.