A Maverick Decision

After a three day trip to Santa Cruz, for a meeting of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, I was surprised to find Surfline and Surfermag.com claim victory for tow-in surfers by citing a Monterey Herald article: “personal watercraft, commonly called jet-skis, may receive a little more room to operate in the Sanctuary.” The bottom line in the Sanctuary Advisory Council’s ruling is that if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration accepts the council’s draft plan and recommendations, Mavericks is the ONLY place in the 270 miles from Cambria to San Francisco where it will be legal to tow-in with personal watercraft. One tow-in contest will be allowed per year, and under the language accepted by NOAA, towing would currently be permitted only on the very rare days that the Half Moon Bay buoy 46012 reaches 20 feet or more, and then only from sunrise to 9AM. Additionally, tow-surfers will require a to-be-defined legal certification.

Is that a victory? Considering the fact that many were expecting tow-surfing to be completely shut down, perhaps it is.

Here’s how this fine example of democracy in action worked, or didn’t work, depending on your point of view: The action plan for personal watercraft should have came from the Sanctuary Advisory Council, which we’ll call the SAC. This is a volunteer coalition made up of interest group representatives from harbors, research, fishing, recreational, environmental and legal interests. Each SAC member takes a huge amount of his or her time and personal resources to represent what is called a working group. In a working group, a number of folks with interests from each respective community come together to form a plan that the single representative can present to the SAC. The SAC then acts on that plan, and then gives the results of that plan to NOAA. NOAA oversees the whole Sanctuary, and if the SAC reaches consensus on a plan, then NOAA will very strongly consider its recommendations when drafting its final rules for the Sanctuary.

With regards to PWC’s, no consensus was reached by the SAC. The recreational interests and environmental interests could not bridge the gap of difference. They talked productively at three separate meetings, and by all accounts, Peter Mel made a brilliant case for allowing tow-in surfing at Mavericks in particular. But it was to little avail. To some, the enviro-side, knowing the ruling could force a stalemate, basically filibustered the whole affair by demanding a PWC definition before talking about the prospect of tow-ins at Mavs. To others, the PWC users created the stalemate by demanding that they be able to utilize more of the Sanctuary than just Mavericks for tow-ins. In either case, it was impossible to reach a consensus and so when the plan for PWC’s was written, several options were listed for the SAC to hash out at last week’s meeting.

To a person, the term PWC needed an actual definition. As it stands now, it reads like this: “any watercraft, less than 16 feet in length, propelled by a water jet pump, fan, or turbine, that it designed to be operated by standing, sitting or kneeling on, astride or behind the Surface vessel, in contrast to a conventional boat, where the operator stands or sits inside the vessel.”

Some wanted the definition to apply to “behavior” exhibited by a craft pilot, arguing instead that a PWC was a boat, and should simply have to follow the rules of boats in the Sanctuary. With the Sanctuary and this whole coast woefully under-patrolled, enforcing “behavior” of highly mobile PWC users was argued to be nearly impossible. And the problem is, under current boating rules, you’re not supposed to ride anywhere near a swimmer in a boat, or in a surf zone — thus making the whole concept of using PWC’s for surfing completely illegal anyway.

The definition is critical, because under current rules, one-or two-person PWC’s are ONLY allowed in four small offshore areas of the entire 5300 square mile Sanctuary. Tow-surfers have gotten around this for years by simply using larger machines. The PWC zones were created because they have no surf and the smallest risk of wildlife impact. Should the definition be broadened to existing craft and those foreseeable in the future, , it would essentially shut down tow-in surfing behind PWC’s in the Sanctuary. Will it be tough to make such a definition stick with the advent of all manner of jet-propelled boats appearing on the market? You bet. Will NOAA do its best to craft a broad PWC definition? You bet.

On Wednesday night, there was a Sanctuary publc-comment meeting in downtown Santa Cruz. Here over 400 people showed up, interested in everything from cruise ship discharge to no-fishing zones to personal watercraft. The turnout of the tow-in surf contingent, particularly those with the most to lose, was sadly lacking. This was partly because of the premier of Step Into Liquid, but also because a major surf competition and accompanying parties were going on a few hundred miles to the south in Huntington Beach. Still, considering what was on the line, you’d think more folks would have shown up.

The Billabong Odyssey’s Bill Sharp showed up at the meeting, along with Mavsurfer.com’s Frank Quirarte. Also present were Shawn Alladio, a hellwoman who has trained many of the world’s lifeguards in PWC use and rescue, and John Donaldson, a PWC industry spokesman. They were joined by local lifeguards and Don Curry, a fitness club owner who has been discovering and towing into some pretty insane waves along the coast of the Sanctuary. Of course, Jeff Clark was present, as was Eric Akiskalian, who runs Towsurfer.com.

At the meeting, Frank Quirarte commented that perhaps the lack of surfers there was at least a partial representation of the fact that the real impact of tow-in surfers is pretty low. While this may be partially true, far more at the meeting spoke out against tow-in surfing than for it. Among them were Surfrider San Mateo’s Mike Kimsey. Kimsey delivered a stack of 600 anti-PWC emails, the bulk of which he claimed, had been received within a few hours of Surfrider’s first posting of an Action Alert on the topic.

Kimsey made points about PWC impacts on otters and other sea animals and he pointed to rescent research that’s shown that the most modern PWC’s can actually be the most dangerous due to “auditory masking” or the fact that the engines are so quiet, that they can run down a creature who didn’t hear the machine approaching. He also pointed to behavior modification caused by PWC’s that can include a startled group of harbor seals deciding they’ve been too flustered by a speeding watercraft to reproduce. “This means,” said Kimsey, “that you don’t have to hit a sea otter on the head to get his attention.”

A number of other speakers rose to condemn PWC’s for their impacts on the Sanctuary, ranging from wildlife disturbances to conflicts with paddle surfers. Though he chose to compare PWC’s to waterborne motorcycles during his three-minute speech, Moss Landing surfer Doug Kasunich raged before the meeting. Kasunich claimed to have watched an inattentive jetski pilot twice run over a seal that he didn’t notice because he was looking over his shoulder at a tow partner. But his main complaint was that tow-in surfing has rapidly expanded beyond the borders of Mavericks and into the lineups of spots like Moss Landing — increasingly on smaller days when they have no business being in the water. He said that this winter in particular, things “went crazy” with six to ten tow crews operating at Moss Landing, mixing it up with the paddle surfers and ruining the waves with the wake from their skis. “They’re hurtling through dips and valleys 12 to 15 feet high at 50 miles an hour,” he said, “With surfers sitting out there, there’s no time to get out of the way. I once complained to two guys that their wake was ruining the surf, and in unison, they said, ‘call 9-11’.”

Kasunich, who was heavily applauded, also privately related an incident where a surfer whom we’ll call “Snips” was towing on a six foot day at Moss Landing, and was actually pursued to the Marina, by an enraged paddle surfer. “Snips” reportedly had to lock himself in the harbor restroom to avoid a fight.

In the pro-PWC camp, Shawn Alladio and John Donaldson both argued that personal watercraft were little different than boats and that were existing boating laws enforced relating to PWC’s, then there would be little problem — particularly since existing laws require boats to remain 500 yards offshore.