Big-Wave Surfing Hitches a Ride

A noisy controversy roils the quest to catch the big one

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
Which is exactly the trouble. Some in the surfing community see tow-in surfing as the downfall of a once soulful, environmentally sound lifestyle. While companies such as Bombardier are developing cleaner and quieter jet-ski engines, the San Francisco­based environmental group Bluewater Network says that most machines still dump nearly 30 percent of their gas-oil mixture unburned into the water. "It's sad to see one of the last sports where humans are in harmony with the ocean environment turning into just another motorized recreational activity," says Bluewater Network director Russell Long.The Surfrider Foundation, a San Clemente, California­based environmental group that works to protect the cleanliness of coastal waters worldwide, is similarly dismayed by the trend. "We do have issues with personal watercraft," says Chad Nelsen, Surfrider's environmental program manager. "They are really polluting."

Then there are the safety issues. Though an unwritten code of conduct has emerged—complete with hand signals and basic rules ("Don't cross the path of a jet ski towing a surfer")—some fear that it's only a matter of time before a swimmer and a jet ski meet on a surf break with tragic consequences. Most tow-in evangelists are keenly aware of the dangers jet skis pose to paddle-in surfers and swimmers, though, and want to keep the three groups well apart. "I stand wholeheartedlybehind the federal law of no personalwatercraft within 200 feet of a surfer or swimmer," says Ken Bradshaw. (That same law makes tow-in technically illegal, though so far no one is enforcing it.)

Tow-in surfers say they are aware of the issues but see no other way to get to the big waves. Further, Bradshaw points out that the jet skis make big-wave surfing safer than its paddle-in counterpart. "If you are going to ride waves over 20 feet, tow-surfing is the safest forum. You have your designated lifeguard attached to you," he says.

Even some of the most guarded paddle-in surfers are finding it hard to resist the call of the two-stroke engine. "It's all the guys who swore that they would never tow-in that you see out there now," says Moore. "When the surf gets that big you really don't have a choice—you either tow or don't go." Indeed, the number of recognized tow-in surf breaks has increased quickly, particularly in Hawaii, where there are now more than two dozen such spots. It's the same situation in California, where the first tow-in crews began buzzing the big waves in the early 1990s. "Last year I went out to Mavericks three times and I tow-surfed it with only a few friends each time I went. Now, one year later, there are five tow-in surf teams there," says Bradshaw. "By next year, there are going to be tow-in competitions everywhere."

That's not necessarily a good thing. Because tow-in surfing is relatively easy to learn, the pioneers of big-wave chasing may unwittingly end up unleashing a herd of novices on the high seas. In 1998 a group of Hawaii lifeguards and surfers, including Bradshaw, urged the state to mandate a certification program to ensure that tow-in surfers got some chops before they hit the big stuff. That bill died last year, but the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources has since taken up the cause and is now putting together a set of rules. Educational coursework and certification may be required, according to Oahu lifeguard operations chief James Howe, as might some kind of on-water exam, the equivalent of a big-wave road test. To Bradshaw, this is only the beginning. Someday, he speculates, there could actually be reservation times for tow-in surf spots. "It could be like a tennis court where someone has only 45 minutes to use the space."

As always, Mother Nature remains the ultimate enforcer. "People lose their jet skis and have bad wipeouts, and they figure out that they don't belong out there," says Troy Alotis, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who tow-in surfs the North Shore. In fact, the success of Project Neptune—tow-in's prime-time debut—is an open question. This is, after all, a La Niña year, and as this issue went to press only a handful of big-wave swells had hit Mavericks."No one has seen it with a huge 310-degree swell," admits Marckx—though on October 29, the 16 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoys off the West Coast recorded the passing of a swell large enough to launch a 60-footer at Cortés.

Whether Project Neptune turns out to be a ripple or a record-breaker, tow-in is clearly taking surfing past its poetic roots toward points unknown—at breakneck speed. "Now that I have done tow-in surfing, it would be hard to go back in time and paddle in on the outer reefs," says Cortés Bank hopeful Alotis. "Tow-in surfing is pretty much here to stay."


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