Dispatches, March 1997
"It feels like four or five WWF wrestlers pulling on your arms and legs," says professional big-wave surfer Dave Kalama of the torture inflicted by Jaws, a monstrous wave-break (arguably the most feared in the world) that crescendos off the northern coast of Maui. "They're shaking you like a dirty carpet, and then a big, fat sumo jumps on your stomach to finish you off."
Such unpleasant conditions are precisely why Kalama and an elite coterie of surfers, including the reigning kahuna of extra-large waves, Laird Hamilton, don't want this month's Jaws Invitational to come off as planned. The event, the first of its kind, will showcase the radical sport of "tow-in" surfing, invented by Hamilton and company on Oahu about five years ago. Despite the exposure it could provide both themselves and their sport, Hamilton, Kalama, and friends are spurning the contest--not simply because it is an invasion of their turf, they say, but because of the disastrous consequences that could be awaiting the event's competitors.
Tow-in surfing is similar to the conventional variety, except that instead of paddling out to the break with his or her hands, the surfer is trawled behind a high-horsepower Jet Ski; the surfer then stands up and plummets down a thundering, 40-foot-high wall of water. Until now the sport has remained decidedly "for locals only." But that, thanks to the Jaws event's high profile, is certain to change this month. The field assembled includes such big-name veterans of surfing's professional circuit as Brock Little and Cheyne Horan. They'll compete for $100,000 in prize money, not to mention face-time with an international television audience. "Thanks to helicopter-mounted cameras, you'll practically be able to feel the wave through your TV," boasts Joe Tomlinson, a Rhode Island-based sports marketer handling the event.
The stuff of gripping TV perhaps, says Kalama, but that doesn't necessarily make the event, and its accompanying marketing bonanza, a wise idea. "It's like starting a climbing contest," he says, "and choosing Mount Everest as the site."
Of course, Kalama's concern for his fellow wave-riders isn't entirely altruistic. He's worried about the fallout. If somebody gets seriously hurt on Jaws, it might put a crimp in the renegade pastime. "It'll provide a wake-up call for the government to start regulating what we do," he laments. "That would suck."