Tow-In Surfing. A Mavericks Opinion

by Chris Dixon

NYT Gets in on the Act.

Last February,
I wrote an article for the New York Times on the tow-in surfing controversy
at Mavericks. With the first northwest swells of the season reaching California,
I figured I’d step out my role as an unbiased observer and throw an
opinion or two in on the issue and where it might be going.

First of
all, let me say that I’ve never surfed Mavericks. I’ve never
driven up the PCH in the middle of the night amping on Minor Threat and
shitty Circle K coffee with the very real thought in my head that I might die if things don’t go right. The biggest wave I’ve probably
ever surfed was double-overhead Cottons or maybe a wintertime session
at Honolua Bay when I certainly rode several waves far, far taller than
me and gaped in wonder as the locals put themselves into places that had
my heart in my throat. I don’t really have any big wave credentials,
and I’m happy with that. I surf reasonably well, and a big day here
in Southern Cal is enough to typically satisfy any jones I might have
for a long drop-in.

I have been
up-close to two big-wave contests in my life though. I once sat out in
the boat at a Reef event at medium sized Todos Santos. A few weeks later,
I watched a jaw-dropping Quiksilver event at Mavericks that was won by
Flea Virostko.

The thing
that struck me the most about being so close to waves like that was just
how much more immeasurably powerful and fast they were than normal
waves and how unbelievably ballsy anyone was who would try to catch them.
Unless you’ve actually seen a wave like that in person, no magazine or
video will ever do it justice. At the Quik event, I watched Grant
Washburn put every bit of energy his huge windmill arms could generate
into a macker that he barely caught – and wished he hadn’t.
This was around the time that people first started tow-surfing at Mavs,
and I remember saying to Rob Gilley, ‘damn, Washburn’s wave was perfect,
but there was no way he could ever have gotten the speed to make it past
that bowl.’

How wrong
I was.

Parsons where no man has paddled before.

And that
of course, is the gist of the whole tow-in thing. The physics of a little
big man trying to get into a wave that’s just too damned big and
fast. When I think of mild-mannered Evan Slater out there in the middle
of the Pacific getting ragdolled by that monster he tried to paddle for
at Cortez Banks, it still makes me shudder. Why the hell would he want
to do that? I’m sure his beautiful wife wonders the same damned thing
every day. Evan wanted to paddle for one of those Cortez waves, and paid
dearly. Cleary, he found the forbidden zone for paddling, and just as
clearly, the guys on jetskis blew that zone into oblivion.

There is
no doubt that the jetski or personal watercraft has exploded every barrier
we thought existed when it comes to getting into hairball waves. There’s
also no doubt that in the last few years, Mavericks has become a prime
tow-in arena. But as you probably know, towing at Mavericks has come under
serious scrutiny.

When I interviewed
Mark Renneker on the subject, he likened tow-in surfing to the heinous
old west practice of shooting Buffalo from a train. Jeff Clark likened
it to looking back at the earth from the moon. Clark spent an hour with
me railing against the hypocrites who have a problem with tow-surfing,
but let their cars leak oil onto their driveways. “That’s a far worse
source of ocean pollution than a jetski will ever be,” he said. The eloquent
Renneker went on for an equally long time on how tow-in surfing was
an oxymoron: “You don’t have to paddle, you don’t’ have
to catch the wave. More to the point – and what big wave surfing
is all about — you don’t deal with the drop. And the drop is where
people fall, and get crushed, hurt and everything else. So when you eliminate
those variables, it fundamentally is not really surfing. It’s
some other water activity. It isn’t surfing as we understand it.”

the size of this paddle wave.

also claimed that the entire surf media has been co-opted by tow-in, citing
in particular an infamous Indonesia article by my buddy Steve Barilotti
that was attended by Peter Mel, Dave Kalama and Kelly Slater. The entire
article revolved around towing – not into big waves, but medium-sized
performance Indo waves. “That article was a phase shift,” said Renneker.

I remember
that there was a great deal of discussion about that article. I’m
not going to point fingers or lay blame, but in my opinion, that piece
crossed the line and gave credibility to tow-surfing in an essential wilderness,
where the pursuit is completely inappropriate. Kind of like motocrossing
in Yosemite.

Not long
after that Indo article came out, I watched an idiot show up and tow a
buddy into perfect, head-high waves at the pumphouse in Palm Beach, Florida.
The water and air were full of blue chainsaw smoke, and the three or four
guys out paddle-surfing were clearly pissed to have their session ruined.
I asked a buddy of the skier taking pictures on the beach what gave him
the right to blow the session for the three or four other guys out in
the water, and he said, “that’s the future dude, didn’t you
see that Indo article in Surfer?”

not making this shit up.

Consider the Size of this Tow-In Wave. Which Issue of Surfer Would
You Be More Likely to Buy?

Today, whether
you realize it or not, a great many of the photos you see in modern surf
magazines were taken after the surfer was towed into them. Even ones where
he or she was made to look like he paddled for the wave. Is it wrong?
Is it right? I don’t know, but it certainly creates a false impression,
and turns surfing into skiing with a chairlift. It makes the photographer
very happy too. He doesn’t have to wait for surfers to paddle back
out anymore and gives him way more shots at the perfect photo.

But what
the hell does Florida or Indo have to do with towing in at Mavericks?
Well, I’ll parallel it to a comment Grant Washburn made. “The jetski
is a guilty pleasure and I don’t like to be responsible for making
a mess out here. We were out last night, it was a beautiful sunset, an
amazing view. You could see the whales and the other animals, but at the
same time, there’s this Daytona 500 mentality. I love it, but I hate

I think most
of us feel the same way. When I see a jet-skier hovering outside of the
lineup at Trestles, I fantasize about having a shoulder launched missile
and blowing him sky-high. I’m sure the dolphins who were just frolicking
outside the lineup feel the same way. When I see Flea, Pete Mel, Laird
or Kalama carve a big, open faced turn on a macker, I’m just amazed.

But here’s
the point where Mavericks is concerned. It doesn’t really matter
how you or I feel. It doesn’t much matter if Jeff Clark loves it
and Doc Renneker hates it. What will matter to the National Marine Fisheries
Service, ultimately, is not passion, but science. And on that front, things
don’t look too good for the tow-in crew.

Late Great Jay Moriarty. How Big Would he have Gone in the New Millenium?

the rub. Personal watercraft are dirty. I may get bullshit emails from
a few people saying that the new four-stroke models burn cleaner and blah-blah-blah.
In October of 2002, that matters very little. Thanks to the boneheads
in the PWC industry, who could have designed clean burning machines from
the get-go, but put profit before responsibility, well over 90% of PWC’s
in the water are horrendously polluting. Studies conducted on PWC’s
built in the mid 1990’s found that the exhaust created by a two-stroke
PWC running for seven hours was roughly equivalent to that created by
100,000 miles of driving in an average modern automobile with a
four stroke engine.

Think about
that for a second.

As of 2002,
all PWC manufacturers have been legally mandated to switch to far cleaner
four stroke engines, but it will be a long, long time before the hundreds
of thousands of two-stroke PWC’s currently in use are gone.

I think it
was Peter Mel who told me that his PWC used a four-stroke engine, and
I’m sure that many towheads will be switching to them in the near
future. But even if they burn more cleanly, that’s not the end of
the problem. See, a whole lot of the coast up around here, Mavericks included,
is a National Marine Sanctuary. This means that the ocean in these parts
gets some of the highest protection in the country because it is full
of whales, otters, dolphins, big sharks and scores of local and migratory
birds – many of them endangered. When working on the NYT article,
I spoke at length to officials with Surfrider and area Marine Sanctuaries,
and they definitely feel that the science is behind a PWC ban.

Repogle Discovering New Frontiers in His Own Backyard. Photo: Trefz.

So while
exhaust pollution is a major concern, it’s not the only concern.,
All it takes is one kook to drive his PWC at high speed through a group
of otters, to harass a flock of birds or to separate a mother seal from
her pup. When this sort of thing happens, and someone on the shore or
in the water sees or videotapes it, all PWC users suffer. Last January,
a crew of guys towed in at Mitchell’s Cove in Santa Cruz while the water
was filled with paddle surfers. One of the tow-in surfers collided with
a paddling surfer named Marc Thomas. This one incident subjected tow-in
surfers to scrutiny like never before, and gave a great deal of ammunition
to those who would shut PWC’s down.

The National
Marine Fisheries Service has reams of such incidents and scientific data
to support a decision to ban PWC’s. They used such data two years
ago to outlaw the machines in the vast Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary
North of San Francisco. PWC’s are up for review along the 275 miles
of coast in the Monterrey Bay Marine Sanctuary this year, an now is the
time for those who ride the machines to get their shit together and come
up with more than passion to boost their arguments.

Angels Fear to Tread, Hellmen Happily Go.
Peter Mel, Photo: Trefz

In interviews,
both Jeff Clark and Peter Mel made great arguments about the tiny percentage
of the Monterrey Sanctuary they occupy when they tow-surf. They also made
strong points about their own feelings as stewards of Mavericks and the
negligible environmental impact they feel they have in that relatively
small corner of the ocean – particularly compared to all the oily
runoff from millions of Bay Area cars, and from dirty fishing boats in
Half Moon Bay Harbor. Water rescue wonder woman Shawn Alladio and the
Half Moon Bay Harbor folks also made great points about the safety factor
of having jet skis in the water during code red conditions.

Among the
several solutions discussed was a licensing system for tow-surfers. The
liability issues with licensing are many, but it’s a solution that
should be given serious consideration, and might go a long way toward
creating a responsible image. The possibility of limiting PWC’s to only
to Mavericks only under certain conditions was discussed as well. While
tow-in surfers may bristle at the thought of being restricted, they’ll
need to consider real regulation like this in the future.

the Sanctuary Closes, Where Will We Find
The Next Big Thing?

It seems
to me that the bottom line is that someone in the Mavericks tow-surf community
needs to step up and put their facts and some potential solutions together
for the folks at the NMFS. Then they need to work for some sort of a compromise.
Whether it’s Frank Quirarte, Shawn Alladio, Jeff Clark, Pete Mel
the surf magazines or the companies like Quiksilver that benefit so enormously
from the images they sell of Mavericks; someone needs to take the leadership
role as the representative for tow-surfing. That representative will need
to defend the tow crew’s point of view with facts and real-world
proposals that will address the serious concerns paddle surfers and environmental
groups have and allow you to keep towing. If emotion figures into your
argument, you’re probably going to lose.

There are
a lot of powerful and intelligent people out there who don’t like
what you’re doing, and it’s up to you, the tow-in surfers to
prove to those people that you can tow responsibly and within guidelines
or limits. It’s not up to the regulators to come to you, it’s
up to you to go to the regulators. You should also think twice about heckling
speakers who disagree with your points of view, or threatening people
over the Internet or elsewhere. The people who have a say in your surfing
future are watching, and bad behavior counts.

I say all
of these things at the risk of being heckled from both sides. But the
bottom line is that in researching the story I wrote for the NYT, I found
areas for compromise. The burden of proof, and the search for solutions
however, lies on the shoulders of the tow-in surfers, because the most
obvious solution is an outright ban. So it’s time for you guys to
step up. If you don’t, then you and the very magazine that pays some
of my bills will have to start looking elsewhere in the north Pacific
for the Next Big Thing.

What do
you think? Click
here to post an opinion on the Bulletin Board.