Big-Wave Surfing Hitches a Ride

A noisy controversy roils the quest to catch the big one

 
 

 
 
It begins, as waves do, with wind. Pushed by a storm off Japan, the surge travels across the Pacific, undulating toward coastal California at a heading of 310 degrees. Some 16 days later, still 100 miles from the beaches of San Diego, it strikes an undersea mountain called the Cortés Bank—a backstop where the ocean floor rises abruptly from 5,000 feet to a depth of only six feet.

And...wham. A monster looms up, as high as 100 feet from trough to peak—taller than the infamous break at Mavericks, just south of San Francisco. "We were screaming at the top of our lungs for 15 minutes," says surfer and veteran Cortés Bank photographer Larry Moore, recalling the first time he saw the crest in 1989.

So far, no one has ridden the wave at anything approaching its estimated full height. Protected by its remoteness, the liquid mountain usually rises up and spins out precision barrels without applause. But sometime this spring, conditions willing, it will be greeted by a 75-foot catamaran, a 57-foot fishing boat, a helicopter, a medical team, a mob of reporters, and at least eight personal watercraft—what most folks call jet skis—towing at least eight wild-ass surfers.

It's Project Neptune, a surfing spectacle that organizer Michael Marckx breathlessly bills as an "unprecedented expedition to ride possibly the biggest waves ever." With old-school stars like Ken Bradshaw and Brock Little and younger big-wave standouts like Taylor Knox signed up, Marckx expects to outshine such competitions as the Men Who Ride Mountains contest at Mavericks and the Todos Santos Big Wave World Championship in Baja California. If the conditions are right (see "Project Neptune, Deconstructed," page 30), the waves will be huge. So, too, the hype. But Marckx's event may prove a pivotal moment in the surfing scene for other reasons: Project Neptune will likely mark a watershed in the popularity and commercialization of tow-in surfing—a noisy, fast-growing, and controversial wrinkle on the ancient sport.

Tow-in surfing's raison d'être is simple. As waves crest beyond the 50-foot mark, they begin to roll so quickly that even the strongest surfer cannot paddle fast enough to catch them. But once braced onto his board with foot-straps and towed behind a jet ski on a 25-foot rope, a surfer can drop in on waves large enough to hide a frigate. When the monster finally spits him out the other end, his jet-ski partner zooms in to pluck him out of harm's way.

Though covered in surfing 'zines in the early 1990s, towing-in didn't reach wider audiences until pro-surfer Laird Hamilton tied a rope to the back of a jet ski for Bruce Brown's 1996 film Endless Summer II.Now the sport attracts an estimated 500 serious participants worldwide. "Tow-in is opening up so many doors, it's a whole new realm," says Jay Moriarity, who first surfed Mavericks at age 16. "The stuff people are riding right now is unbelievable." Surfers now tow-in on the big breaks of Hawaii, California, Brazil, Mexico, and Australia.Sponsors are salivating, and the jet-ski industry—grappling with regulatory opposition to the craft in California, Washington, and other states—is thrilled to be associated with such a noble and athletic pursuit.


   
   
 
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."


 

Commuting with Nature

An adventure-travel outfitter spawns a new trend

   

After stuffing my appendages into a neoprene wetsuit tight enough to defeat Houdini, I cinch up my mask, bite down on my snorkel, and belly flop into the icy current of Vancouver Island's Campbell River. I'm here with 11 other customers who have each shelled out $47 for the chance to float facedown through rapids and bounce off rocks among hundreds of bronze-sided, migrating coho headed the other way. The schools part and then close behind us in the murk, hardly noticing our frogman flotilla. Forget swimming with sharks—here, on the only fish-watching adventure tour of its kind in North America, I've become one with the salmon.

Snorkeling among the Campbell's salmon runs first started in the 1950s when Canadian nature writer Roderick Haig-Brown wrote Measure of the Year, which described his own experience swimming with the fish. But in the past two years, guided trips have proven especially popular. "By my second year, business jumped 300 percent," says Catherine Temple of Paradise Sound Adventure Tours, which started the salmon excursions in 1997. "Last year it went up another 300 percent. And this year it will be even bigger."

From July through October, Temple runs two trips a day, packing her clients into a van and whisking them three miles upriver, providing mini-seminars on marine biology along the way. At different times of the year, the Campbell hosts all five species of Pacific salmon: chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, pink—and even the odd Atlantic salmon escaped from a nearby fish farm. Chinooks can get as big as 60 pounds, which up close can be "kind of scary," says Temple, since many of her clients are seeing these fish in situ for the first time. "A lot of people are surprised to find out there's more than one species," she says. "Most of them have only ever seen a salmon on their plate."

July will be rush hour on the Campbell, as the river swells with some 165,000 pinks. But this kind of tourism is harmless to the fish, maintains Dave Ewart, a manager for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. "As long as we don't have hundreds of people floating down the river every day, we'll be fine," he says. As for the clients, despite low water temperatures, brisk currents, and occasionally dangerous rapids, little has gone wrong—except for a 1999 mishap when a startled fish smacked a guide in the face. "Yeah," says Temple, winding up for the inevitable fish joke. "He got socked in the eye by a sockeye."


 

Winds Calm, Temperature Fair, Polymers Moist

Japan's Snova Corporation perfects pseudo-snow and launches an indoor empire

   
"Watch closely, please!" with the flair of a Vegas magician, Japanese entrepreneur Masahisa Otsuka pours a small packet of granules into a cup of water. Instantly, the beaker overflows with fluffy, white, superabsorbent polymers. "Freeze it, and you get Hokkaido-quality synthetic snow," he gushes, referring to northern Japan's primo powder.

Once a Sanyo refrigeration engineer with a dream, Otsuka, 53, coinvented faux snow in 1987, believing it could revolutionize the ski industry. He couldn't sell the fake flakes to his employer, so he got the Japanese government to back him. Today he's president of the Snova Corporation, an empire of indoor snowboarding stadia, where for $53 (including equipment rental) per 90-minute session, visitors can shred polymers on a swath of mock-Nagano.

At the unveiling of Snova Yokohama last fall, Otsuka's eighth such facility in Japan, baggy-clothed riders carved down the 108-foot-wide slope as techno music pumped through the air. "Unlike traditional artificial snow," the proud inventor shouted, "Snova snow won't melt or ice up." Otsuka's designer powder also costs half as much to maintain, feels surprisingly like the real thing, and keeps boarders dry when they fall. "The Japanese are so enamored of their technology that if man can make better snow than God can, so much the better," says Ski Japan! author T. R. Reid.

Despite Japan's saturated ski market (many of the nation's approximately 600 resorts were built in the last decade), business is booming for Snova. The firm's indoor slope in Kobe, which opened in 1997, attracts about 500 visitors a day and has already recouped its $8.5 million construction cost. By the end of the year, Snova plans to open its first snowboard arena in Singapore.

Opportunities might also beckon in the packaged food industry. "It's a coated resin molecule that has no taste and no harmful effects on the body or the environment," Otsuka says of his product, which has the texture of microscopic roe. "It's similar to the material used in diapers and sanitary napkins, but with the right flavoring, I could market it as imitation caviar!" With that, the Snovaboarding evangelist shoves off to practice his fakey backside 360-indy.


   

Forget the Marshmallows, Just Run!

Northern Minnesota rangers patrol a tinder-dry disaster area

   

 
"There will be fires," says Tom Westby, a timber and fire coordinator with Superior National Forest's Gunflint Ranger District. "It's just a matter of how big." If that sounds ominous, it's meant to. Up in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, rangers like Westby aren't just predicting a long, hot summer; they're getting positively biblical. The prophecy? An inferno will sweep through a 200-square-mile area, creating downdrafts of up to 40 mph, scattering burning refuse for miles, and sending smoke billowing 50,000 feet into the atmosphere.

That scenario sounds like hyperbolic doomsaying, but according to a November 1999 U.S. Forest Service report called "Fuels Risk Assessment of Blowdown in the BWCA and Adjacent Lands," it's not. The rate of fuel loading—that is, the accumulation of dry, dead wood on the forest floor—quadrupled from a typical five to 20 tons per acre to 60 to 80 tons last July, after a gale-force wind ripped through a 30-mile-long-by-eight-mile-wide swath of the conservation area, turning an estimated 25 million trees into tinder.

 
So why hasn't this gargantuan pile of firewood been cleaned up? Call it the Catch-22 clause of the Wilderness Act. In its aim to keep vast tracts of America's woodlands pristine, the Wilderness Act forbids controlled burns and heavy machinery within designated wilderness areas. Firefighters have to apply for a special federal permit if they want to circumvent the rules—and in this case, the requisite studies and public hearings could drag on until the fall of 2001. But even if rangers somehow manage to jump-start the process, the response from environmental purists will likely be loud. "With the Forest Service's rationale, they should just cut down the whole Superior National Forest because it might burn," says Ray Fenner, executive director of the Minnesota-based Superior Wilderness Action Network.

Locals who rely on the tourist economy and proprietors of resorts lining the 63-mile Gunflint Trail road, the area hardest hit by last year's storm, add yet another level of controversy. Wary that increased media attention will turn away many of the 200,000 canoeists and outdoorsmen who visit the area each year, they're pressuring the Forest Service not to overplay the risk. "This isn't an atomic bomb that will spread over ten to 20 miles in a couple of seconds," insists Dick Smith, owner of Gunflint Pines Resort and Campgrounds.

The conflicting agendas place the Forest Service in "a very hard place," says Superior National Forest spokeswoman Kris Reichenbach. Unfortunately, the stopgap solutions—setting up evacuation routes, discussing fire bans, and distributing reams of fire-prevention literature to visitors—are likely to be ineffectual in a place one expert judges to be the most flammable area of its size in the United States. Perhaps Tom Westby best sums up the situation: "If we have a dry spring, we're going to be in a world of hurt."


   

Catch-and-Release Hunting Proves a Sleeper Hit

If elephants need tranquilizing once in a while, why not charge tourists to pull the trigger?

   

Frank Molteno wants to take you hunting. You'll slink around the South African bush until you are face-to-flank with 5,000 pounds of white rhinoceros; then you'll shoulder a .32-caliber Palmer gun and squeeze the trigger. But instead of a bullet and a bloody kill, a straw-size tranquilizer dart will puncture the beast's behind, resulting in nothing more than a long nap and a nasty hangover.

"Nothing like sticking a rhino in the butt from about 20 feet," gushes satisfied Molteno client Steve Camp. Darting safaris, like the one Camp and his wife took last year, are the latest rage out on the veld. For the past two years, professional hunters like Molteno, head of Darting Safaris, a South African nonprofit, have charged clients $5,000 to $10,000 (about half the cost of a shoot-to-kill safari) to dart big-five game on private reserves in Botswana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Paying clients bring the animals down, and wildlife managers use the nap time to collect genetic samples or affix radio collars. This year, there will be several dozen shoot-and-release expeditions throughout Africa, and supporters of the continent's newest conservation practice are quick to brag that not only do the fees support nonprofits, but, as Molteno points out, "The hunt is a peripheral component of management procedures."

Those heading to Africa this month for the cool fall season, when darting is the least taxing to the animals, can choose from a plethora of safaris. Elephant hunters will be grinning like bwana wanna-bes while a vet with the Zimbabwe-based nonprofit group Save the Elephants fits snoozing pachyderms with GPS collars. And the aforementioned Darting Safaris specializes in collecting DNA samples from various species as a safeguard against population depletion.

Though this marriage of hunting and management appears to be a hit, not all tours, alas, are ecologically motivated. South African vets and above-board outfitters worry that profiteering reserve managers are allowing animals to be darted more than once a season, for sport. "My colleagues advise that yes, there are a few fly-by-nights," confirms Michelle Booysan, vice-president of Pretoria-based dart-safari outfitter Deepgreen.

Traditional hunters scoff, but dart hunting is no peashooter game. Given that the projectile will descend one foot for every 25 yards traveled, it's easy to miss. "When you stalk an animal and put a round in him with a rifle, you're impeding his ability to defend himself at the same moment you're making him aware of you," says Molteno. "With a dart gun, it's somewhat more anxious."


   

Body by Gastropod

Marine science may yield the next generation of super-strong gear

   

University of California molecular biologist Daniel Morse worked for five years to crack one of nature's enigmas. "An abalone can withstand assaults from a hungry sea otter pounding on its shell with a rock," he says. "Such tremendous strength made us realize that nature has already solved many of our engineering problems."

Then, in December 1999, the pieces fell into place. He and his team at UC Santa Barbara's Marine Biotechnology Center figured out how an abalone molecule called lustrin increases the shell's strength by a factor of 3,000.

His findings have outdoor-equipment manufacturersdreaming of fail-safe climbing ropes, unbendable ski poles, and rip-proof tents and clothing. "For kayaks and paddles, this stuff would most definitely be of interest," says Steve Scarborough, vice-president of design at Dagger Canoe and Kayak. "If the synthetic actually measures up in terms of stiffness, tensile strength, and weight, it could make an awesome boat. The Olympic committee will probably outlaw it right away."

To understand the strength of a lustrin molecule, visualize a microscopic bight of thick rope bound by a thin rope. Pull hard enough on the ends of the thick rope and eventually the thinner strand breaks—but the larger one stays intact. Each lustrin fiber incorporates thousands of such sacrificial bonds, and because just one bond breaks at a time, only a tremendously intense, sustained force can rip all of the molecules apart and shatter the mollusk's shell. In safety equipment like helmets, says Galen Stucky, a UCSB professor who helped Morse lead the research, this new breed of material could offer incomparable protection.

Though researchers have isolated lustrin and deciphered its molecular structure, lustrin-based outdoor products aren't expected for at least three to five years, according to Stucky. In the meantime, eager R&D geeks will have to fantasize about ersatz-abalone equipment. "I'd love to announce that we're coming out with new, armored mountain-biking pants—'Soon to be on your shelves! Weighing 13 ounces and offering bullet-resistance!'" says Patagonia's environmental assessment director Eric Wilmanns. "But we aren't quite there yet."



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