Extreme Games: A Break Too Large?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, March 1997

Extreme Games: A Break Too Large?

The Jaws Invitational boasts an all-star lineup and $100,000 in prize money. And that, say some top big-wave surfers, is why it shouldn't take place at all.
By Brad Wetzler

For The Record

Mary Leakey, 1913-1996
The best thing geologist Richard Hay ever did for the study of human evolution was to get Mary Leakey hooked on small Dutch cigars. "She was smoking cigarettes, and she got emphysema and was having trouble climbing hills," recalls Hay. "She switched over, her condition cleared up, and she was back at it full steam." Leakey, whose fieldwork in Africa produced a string of amazing archaeological discoveries, died last December at the age of 83. Her commitment to science was intertwined with a deep love of African landscape and wildlife, particularly around her field sites near Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge. Leakey, who was married to the late anthropologist Louis Leakey, was known for surrounding herself with pet wildebeests, dogs, ravens, and according to Alan Walker, an anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University,"a horrible monkey named Simon that was always fighting everyone." Robert Blumenschine, who is now codirector of research at Olduvai, says Leakey's spirit will forever guide researchers who work there. "She was part of the place," he says. "She had a deep desire to understand what this area was telling us about human evolution."

--Todd Balf and Paul Kvinta

"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."

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