Big-Wave Surfing Hitches a Ride

A noisy controversy roils the quest to catch the big one

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

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.