The End of the Machine?

Paddle vs. Tow Debate Surfaces in the XXL Nominations

Shane Dorian takes the elevator drop after scratching in the old fashioned way. Photo: Shimi

When the surf community turns its collective attention toward the Billabong XXL Awards later this month, we’ll be doing so with renewed standards. Tow-surfing is now being overshadowed by a big-wave paddling renaissance. Although the XXL’s Biggest Wave category—a chapter of the awards marked by tow-ins—yields a slew of harrowing rides, it can’t be denied that the waves that have drawn the most attention are all from the paddle-in category.

“I’d say we’ve definitely seen a shift toward big-wave paddle surfing in the last few years,” said XXL Contest Director Bill Sharp. “And I think this year’s XXL Awards is a pretty good indicator of that. We really try and act as a mirror to what’s going on in big-wave surfing and I think that shift is really reflected in this year’s paddle nominees.”

As a reaction, the XXL Awards have moved the Monster Paddle category later in the show to the second-to-last position, placing it into the slot once held by the Biggest Wave award and adding even more esteem to the movement.

Although the shift away from the ski has been inching along for years with groundbreaking paddle days at Maverick’s and along the North Shore’s outer reefs, the session that seemed to solidify the schism between brawn and machine occurred this past March when Shane Dorian, Danilo Couto, Ian Walsh, and others opted to leave their Jet Skis at home and paddle into 25-foot-plus wind-ravaged Jaws. Their exploits quickly went viral.

“I really can’t speak for anyone else but myself, but to me it seems like there’s definitely a shift toward paddling into waves that we once thought you could only tow into,” said Ian Walsh. “That day Shane and I paddled into Jaws, it wasn’t like we went out there trying to do something really special. We just thought it would be fun to try and paddle if we could line up a set. It’s not easy, but the feeling you get when you paddle into one is amazing. I can tow into 10 or 12 waves that are all a huge rush, but the feeling I get when I paddle into just one or two is completely different. You might ride way less waves but I would gladly sit out there for eight hours to get just one chance to go. I’m not saying I won’t ever tow again, because there might be a limit, but I really want to find out exactly where that limit is.”

As the XXL Awards formally move to certify big-wave paddle surfing as our most distant frontier, we’re left with the revelation that the pinnacle moments in the sport are no longer judged solely by the size of a wave alone, but by the method we use to get into it. If we’ve learned anything from the nominees in this year’s awards, it’s that the evolution of big-wave surfing won’t be dragged along by a tow rope.