Ghost Tree R.I.P

We all saw this coming sooner or later. But as of February 2009, it's official: the days of snagging 60-foot XXL contenders at {{{Ghost}}} Tree or whipping into the tube of your life at Moss Landing are over. In a decision to be announced later this week, officials at the {{{Monterey}}} Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have closed a loophole in the laws governing the use of personalized watercraft in the Sanctuary. Translation: Jet Ski dudes are now barred everywhere from Monterey to Half Moon Bay. This means that under no circumstances or swell conditions can a surfer use a PWC to ride the waves at Ghost Tree – the site of a number of Billabong XXL contenders in the past few years.

In the same token, NOAA and officials at the MBNMS realize the importance of PWCs in XXL surf, which is why they have created a seasonal fifth "MPWC" operating zone at Maverick's. When there is a NOAA-issued high-surf advisory, surfers will be allowed to use PWCs at the world-renowned big wave. The Surfrider Foundation, who has been involved in this ongoing debate for nearly a decade, feels this is the best compromise possible considering the passionate viewpoints from all parties. "This wasn't a, 'We'll give you Ghost Tree if you give us Maverick's thing,'" says Surfrider's Matt McClain. "It was more about looking at where the breaks were located and what leaves the lightest footprint."

Surfrider realizes this is one of the few issues where it might not be advocating for all surfers. But it's an environmental organization first and foremost – and it feels this is perfect example of a little give and take in the interest of preserving our oceans. "We realize this isn't going to go over well with everyone," says McClain. "But there are legitimate arguments on both sides and we feel this is a great first step."

Peter Mel, one of the best big-wave surfers of all time and one of the more vocal surfers involved in this decision, still isn't sure how he feels about it. "Is it surprising? Not at all," he says. "From our very first discussions, the writing was on the wall that NOAA wanted to go this direction. We knew they were going to probably give us Maverick's and we knew Moss Landing and Ghost Tree were probably going to be shut down. I understand the environmental arguments, but there's also a real safety concern. And trust me, when Ghost Tree is going off, guys will find ways to tow it. It might not be the safest way, but they'll be out there on whatever works. Zodiacs, George Greenough boats, you name it. I'm definitely not going that route, but it will happen."

Both Mel and McClain like the idea of this being an ongoing process. Where perhaps, in time, a permitting system is implemented where limited Skis can be used within the sanctuary on high-surf advisory days. But that, according to McClain, will be up to the tow-in community. Mel thought they were going in that direction a couple of years ago, but felt the tow community wasn't organized and persistent enough to make it happen. As the sport grows, that could change in time. "My only concern now, though," says Mel. "Is that up here at least, the only time you can learn to tow surf is when the surf is 20 feet. That could be a problem."

Regardless, it's yet another step in the ongoing evolution of surfers and their PWCs. As always, the best will find a way to adapt and the pretenders will find another stretch of coast to rev their engines or take up wakeboarding. "To be honest," says Mel, "I've been focusing most of my effort on the paddle realm anyway. We've reached the limits of tow surfing – now it's just up to the ocean to keep pushing that sport along. But paddle surfing? Watching guys like Kohl Christenson and Nathan Fletcher last year at Maverick's inspired me. That's where there are still some serious barriers to be broken."