Nor Cal Tow-Ins: Ruining the Surf, or Just the Attitude?

This past January, the Monterey Herald ran a story entitled “TOW-IN SURFING CREATES RIPPLES” ( Focusing on Moss Landing, which lies within the boundaries of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the article looked at the increasing popularity of tow-in surfing on small days at this well-known beachbreak. Among other points, the article says the following of Peter Mel: “Peter Mel, an internationally known big-wave surfer from Santa Cruz who also served on the working committee, said stories of [tow-surfers] harassing wildlife are the stuff of urban legend — stories that no one seems to have witnessed.” Mel, who has been tow-surfing at Maverick’s for eight years, said his experience is that marine mammals enjoy the interaction. He’s had dolphins “doing flips” with him at Moss Landing. Prior to this article, Doug Kasunich, a resident of Prunedale and a longtime surfer at Moss, had sent out a series of angry e-mails to the local and national heads of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Surfrider Foundation, California State Parks and various surf media. In the e-mails, he complained of both wildlife and paddle-surfer harassment by Jet Ski- or PWC-assisted surfers. Recently’s Video Section ( even featured “Santa Cruz Hellmen Storm Icy Beach,” a series of radical video clips. While the video obviously showed waves that were too big to paddle into, Kasunich, and several other Moss surfers who responded to the e-mails, said that Moss Landing has lately been inundated by PWCs, even on small days. As a result, said Kasunich, “There’s just no such thing as a perfect day anymore.” Is this legal? Will tow-surfing here continue and grow? We conducted a conference call with Kasunich and Sean Smith, executive director of the Blue Water Network, which has had a big hand in helping craft the pending updates to PWC and other regulations within the Monterey Bay Sanctuary. Next week, plans to have a similar call with some of those involved on the other side of the issue, and present their views and responses to what Kasunich and Smith had to say. – Chris Dixon. Doug, how long have you been surfing Moss Landing?

Doug Kasunich: I’m 52 and have been surfing the Central Coast for 39 years. What is your position, personally, related to tow-in surfing as relates to a place like Maverick's or other big-wave spots?

DK: My personal position is that I have no qualms about people tow-surfing in surf that is legitimate tow surf. As long as they’re not interfering with any other activities. Usually when the surf is 30 feet, there is little other activity with animals or whatnot. I feel that tow-surfing has a legitimate place in that it allows people to actually surf waves that cannot be paddled. Sean, the Blue Water Network — you guys have taken part in these Monterey Bay Sanctuary working groups with NOAA and other parties to come up with a position on tow-surfing in the sanctuary.

Sean: Exactly. There were four to five meetings we had over about a year’s time. That included a whole range of stakeholders, from industry to environmental groups to paddle-surfers to tow-surfers. We were looking at not just tow-in surfing, but Jet Ski-use throughout the whole sanctuary. Has a final set of rules been drafted yet?

Sean: No, nothing’s been finalized yet. NOAA is going through what’s called its Joint Management Plan Review for Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Banks. They have taken comments but I don’t think they’ve even come out with a plan for review yet. That’s going to include many other things — cruise ships, oil and gas development and things like that. But what was interesting from what I’ve heard is that the Jet Ski issue was the one that was the most contentious and got the most interest. What are the regulations regarding Jet Ski and PWC use in the sanctuary now, and what’s likely to come down and change when the new management plan is finalized?

Sean: As I understand it, the way the regulations are written now, Jet Ski use is prohibited in all but four special-use areas. They’re about a mile square.
DK: One is adjacent to each harbor: Monterey, Pillar Point, Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz.

Sean: When NOAA wrote the regulations, they put in a definition of Jet Ski use that basically limited the regulations to machines with only one or two seats. Industry quickly saw that loophole and made machines that have three or four seats, and those are exempted. NOAA has basically agreed with that and said larger machines are exempted from this regulation. So on paper, Jet Skis are prohibited, but in practice, three- and four-seat PWCs, which are the majority of machines out there, can basically go wherever they want. People have realized that the definition wasn’t broad enough and that we need to encompass these new machines. NOAA was also looking at what other agencies like the Park Service had done. They have prohibited Jet Skis from Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore. And that includes three- and four-seat models?

Sean: All of them. They learned from NOAA’s mistakes and made a definition that was broad enough and doesn’t focus on the actual seating capacity of the machine, but focuses on the use-characteristics and the fact that the person tends to kneel on the machine rather than ride in it. So where is this going in the Sanctuary?

Sean: Well, I get a feeling that NOAA recognizes that they have not only a current problem, but one with the potential to grow. As a result, I think the organization wants to revisit its definition — and at a minimum restrict PWC to the places where the current regulations keep them. But there is a possibility that even those four usage areas could be closed. During one of the first days of the PWC working group, NOAA made it basically clear — they said they are not considering opening up new areas to PWC, they’re considering the status quo or a complete closure or something in between. Where does Maverick's fall with that? They were going to consider allowing tow-surfing when the buoys reached a certain height.

Sean: It would be a kind of special-use permit. As I understood, and Doug basically encapsulated the environmentalists' and paddle-surfers' position — we recognize that Maverick's is a very special place and there are times that there are waves that are so big that there is no other way to catch them than behind a PWC. So we were willing to make some compromises — if the waves reach a certain condition and the weather is just so and if NOAA does give a use permit, then we’d be willing to live with that. Unfortunately, that compromise wasn’t good enough. There were three or four other places that tow-surfers wanted to be able to ride.

DK: The tow-in surfers wanted the Monterey Peninsula and Moss Landing kept open for tow-surfing and when they were told no, they didn’t participate in the final vote. The Monterey areas included Pescadero Point — that place that they now call Ghost Trees; and Asilomar State Beach in Point Pinos. So when those were pulled off the table, they basically balked.

Sean: Well, the way this group was set up, you had to reach consensus. The more contentious stuff, you couldn’t reach consensus. We obviously all agreed that if PWC were going to be allowed, they should be users of a certain age, they should be well-maintained, and there was no disagreement that they should be used for search-and-rescue, but when it came to "should they be allowed in this or that area," I think we were willing to move somewhat, but …

DK: I believe everyone also agreed, including the tow-surfers, that there should be a certification program.
Sean: So with the way the ground rules were written, we couldn’t put forward a position. Where does the Maverick's water patrol fit into this?

Sean: That came up at a meeting as well.
DK: You know, the analogy that was used was, "Do you need a helicopter standing by at Mount Everest?"
Sean: We also said, though, we’d be willing to entertain it as long as it’s not just a bunch of people sitting out there on their Jet Skis taking pictures and that type of thing. If it is a group specifically who is certified, has search-and-rescue training, they are out there on a regular basis and are expected to be there, they are identified by some flag or something. Their only job is to be out there and look out for the safety, and that there is some understanding for who is liable if something goes wrong — we don’t have a problem with that. But that didn’t, in my opinion, sit very well. That’s not at all what they wanted, so it kind of went away as well. When NOAA was alerted that there could be some liability issues, they basically said, "Well, we’re not going to be liable." You’d need basically a deputized organization out there, much like law enforcement or paramedics would be, right?

Sean: Exactly. The rationale behind that is obvious. If you’ve got people out there who are operating under the banner that they’re some search-and-rescue group, then you may get some people surfing who go out and are pushing themselves a little, thinking that there’s going to be a safety net. That may be illusory.

DK: The Jet Ski crew that was hassling me today, the two individuals could not surf. They were not even surfers.

Sean: And that’s another thing that came up, too, is that some of the paddle-surfers said, "We don’t want this safety net because there are going to be some surfers out here who are in way over their heads. It gives them a false sense of security." So in the end, there was just no consensus. So in terms of what Doug is seeing now at Moss Landing and has sent out several e-mails on his experiences out there, under the letter of the law, is this legal? Obviously guys can tow legally at Maverick's on these larger PWCs until a new ruling comes down, but is there any restriction on towing at Moss?

DK: It falls under the state regulations that concern boating and waterways — so yes, it is legal as long as the craft is permitted. They’re supposed to stay a hundred feet away from any swimmer. Within a hundred feet, they have to be going no faster than 3 miles per hour., a Web site in San Francisco, also has a PWC page where you can pull it up. Another portion of state statute says that at any swimming beach, they have to stay a certain distance away, but a swimming beach has to be designated by whatever power that controls it. In our case, it’s State Parks. They have been asked to designate Moss as a swimming beach and they’ve refused. They’ve also been asked by the Chief Lifeguard of Santa Cruz County State Beaches to impose a closure like the one in effect in Santa Cruz County. In Santa Cruz, they restrict access by motorized skis to any zone within a thousand feet of a state beach.