The growing mob at surfing's premier big wave has tow-in veterans fearing for their lives
“SOMEONE IS GOING TO DIE,” says Eric Akiskalian, 45, president of the Santa Barbara, California–based Association of Professional Towsurfers. “It’s unbelievable that it hasn’t happened yet.”
Akiskalian is not alone in thinking that the crowds at Peahi (a.k.a. Jaws), the massive break off Maui’s north shore that has become the icon of big-wave surfing, have gotten dangerously out of control. Since the early nineties, when Laird Hamilton, now 41, Dave Kalama, 40, Darrick Doerner, 48, and Buzzy Kerbox, 48—members of what came to be known as the Strapped Crew—first began using jet skis to tow each other into the otherwise uncatchable waves at Jaws, the spot has become surfing’s Everest. That comparison, popularized in Hamilton’s “my Sherpa” American Express ads, was a nod to Peahi’s mythic pull and the raw force of its sometimes 60-foot faces. But the break has increasingly come to parallel Everest in another way, as rampant overcrowding has transformed it into a circus of jet skis, tow ropes, cameras, and competing interests that tow-in surfing’s founders, including Hamilton, see as a recipe for disaster.
Much like professional guides and bottled oxygen can get inexperienced climbers to the top of Everest, tow ropes and jet skis have opened Peahi to surfers who might be unable to paddle into even 20-foot waves on their own. “It has turned into the most embarrassing sport in the world,” says Doerner. “All they do is grab a ski, take a rope, and they’re out.”
The situation peaked last December 15, when at least 30 two-man tow-in teams—more than twice the number veterans say Peahi can safely handle—plus photographers and observers in boats and aboard jet skis, descended on the spot during an epic winter swell, jockeying for position among crushing walls of water moving at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Just after Archie Kalepa, the 42-year-old operations chief of Maui County Ocean Safety and a Peahi regular, dropped his rope to catch a wave, his tow partner, Kerbox, collided with another driver, Kaleo Roberson, 30. Roberson suffered broken ribs and internal injuries and had to be airlifted out. “When you drive a jet ski,” says Kalepa, “it’s a loaded weapon.”
The crowds come for many reasons. In addition to the sheer glory of surfing Peahi, there is also the lure of film spots, magazine spreads, sponsorship, and even prize money. The Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards pays $1,000 per foot of height to the surfer photographed on the year’s biggest wave. The past three winning waves all came from Peahi, including a world-record 70-footer in 2004, ridden by Pete Cabrinha, whose $70,000 bounty focused even more attention on the break.
Hamilton (see “Getting in Line,” right), executive producer and star of 2004’s hugely popular big-wave documentary Riding Giants, turns his gaze on the growing dangers at Peahi in his about-to-be-released DVD, All Aboard the Crazy Train. And while he and the rest of the Strapped Crew are quick to accept their part in the popularization of tow-in surfing, they have also been among the most vocal in calling for change. “There is going to have to be some regulation on how many people are going to be out there when the surf is over 35 feet,” says Hamilton. “You just have to have that.”
Hawaiian legislators have begun taking steps to rein in the chaos, beginning with a requirement that tow surfers and drivers complete a ten-hour ocean-safety course. But with certification requiring only classroom work, Dave Kalama says it may just add to the problem. “People think they are just as qualified as Laird or me because they have this certificate,” he says. “It’s a bit of a joke.”
Among some of the newer names in the Peahi lineup, though, such criticism smacks of old-school protectionism. “All the leaders out there are a bunch of rich old kooks who just want to make their money and suppress everyone else,” says Kaleo Roberson.
With the swells of winter only a few months away, expect the debate to heat up. Among suggestions from both surfers and authorities are fees, sign-up times, or even a lottery system for permits. But those would require legislation and enforcement—solutions that run counter to the spirit of surfing—and all would take time to implement, something Peahi may not grant.
“The place has a way of taking care of itself,” says Dan Moore, a 48-year-old tow veteran who won this year’s Billabong award with a 68-foot Peahi beast on December 15—and shattered his ankle in the process. “For good or bad.”