A Farewell to Arms

A long time ago, in a decade far, far away, guys who rode Jet Skis through the surf zone were dorks. Surfers thought so, anyway. Surfers and Jet Skiers were natural enemies, enemies in nature. Surfers mocked Jet Skiers as inland gear heads who disrespected and despoiled the ocean by blasting their personal stinkpots through […]

A long time ago, in a decade far, far away, guys who rode Jet Skis through the surf zone were dorks. Surfers thought so, anyway. Surfers and Jet Skiers were natural enemies, enemies in nature. Surfers mocked Jet Skiers as inland gear heads who disrespected and despoiled the ocean by blasting their personal stinkpots through the sacred ground of the surf zone. To a Jet Skier, waves were just liquid berms to slide, moving whoop-de-dos for jumping, and surfers were self-righteous, lotus-eating, skinny-legged wimps who bobbed around listlessly on the ocean for hours on end, accomplishing very little. The more aggressive Jet Skiers used surfers as slalom flags, something to be aimed for, missed and laugh at. There were threats and occasional fights, but mostly there were pissed off surfers screaming obscenities and shaking their fists as the cackling Jet Skiers drove off at 40 mph to refuel, leaving smelly fumes, fouled water and bad vibes in their wake.

But that was the 20th century. Here we are in the 21st, and times have changed. Surfers who once hurled epithets at Jet Skis are now hurling themselves into giant waves using personal watercraft — the proper, politically correct name for Jet Skis. Towing behind the PWCs like water-skiers, a handful of tow-in surfers today ride unimaginably huge waves — waves that through most of the 20th century were considered too big to ride, waves that defied puny human strength.

The progression of tow surfing has been long and slow, beginning in the early ’70s and only gaining widespread acceptance in the mid-’90s. The controversy and conflict haven’t entirely ended, however, and not all surfers are sold on the idea of two-stroke, 155hp engines infesting the lineup with their noise and stink. Local authorities in Hawaii and California are considering taking action against tow surfers. Dogs and cats are living together, and surfers have turned against surfers, as the purists look askance at their motorized brethren and wonder if nothing is sacred.

Father Fletcher
In the beginning, there was Herbie Fletcher. Imagine a young, skinny 17-year-old Fletcher daydreaming on the rocks at Honolua Bay. This was 1967, and according to Fletcher, there were about eight guys regularly surfing on Maui and lots and lots and lots of waves going by unridden at Honolua Bay. (Stop sobbing.) On the giant days, Fletcher watched perfect, 12- to 15-foot waves rolling through, big and beautiful and uncatchable. He fantasized about some kind of machine that would allow him to frolic with those waves: “I would dream about having my own hydrofoil,” Fletcher said. “I just wanted to go catch those beautiful waves without paddling.”

In the early ’70s, Fletcher’s daydreams began to take shape when Kawasaki came out with the very first Jet Ski, a stand-up version that cost around $1,000. He demoed prototypes, in more ways than one. “We took them out and destroyed them,” Fletcher said. “We broke them all. But when I saw that ski, I knew my dream was answered.”

Fletcher got his first Jet Ski in 1975 and made a nuisance of himself down at Trestles, jumping waves and going over the heads of Rabbit Bartholomew and Owl Chapman. He was a traitor, a surfer turned gearhead: “I murdered waves,” Fletcher boasted. “I didn’t surf them, I murdered them. I would rip them up and tear holes in them.”

In the early ’80s, Fletcher extended his nuisance to the Hawaiian Islands. Beginning in 1981, he probed his poor, defenseless Jet Ski into the outer reaches of the North Shore and Maui, riding perfect waves at Maalaea and giant waves at Waimea, Outside Pipeline and the Outer Reefs. “I was ahead of my time,” Fletcher said, immodestly but accurately. “I was the only one out there on a ski, riding giant waves at Outside Log Cabins and Second Reef Pipe. I would come in to the Lopez house when Laird and all those guys were hanging out, watching football or whatever. I’d say, ‘Let’s go ride some waves!’ and they’d say, ‘Are you crazy? It’s closed out there.’ I’d say, ‘I just rode a hundred waves at Logs,’ and they wouldn’t believe me. They caught on later.”

In 1986, Fletcher convinced Australian pros Martin Potter, Tom Carroll and Gary Elkerton to take up the rope. He towed them into some waves at Second Reef Pipe and gave the world a glimpse of the future.

“Those guys were into it,” said Fletcher, “especially Tom Carroll. He was like a little kid out there, all eager. Those guys got some big waves at Pipe. A lot of people saw it and other people began getting ideas.”
The Unridden Realm: 1950 to 1991

In the mid-’80s, surfers were still riding big waves the old-fashioned way, by paddling into them with big surfboards. Waimea was still the center of the big-wave surfing universe, as it had been since first being ridden in the ’50s. Big-wave surfing hadn’t changed much since guys like Woody Brown, Buzzy Trent, Wally Froiseth, Greg Noll and Pat Curren first began riding giant waves in Hawaii. Over the next several decades, the equipment became more refined, but the act remained essentially the same. It was all about human strength, courage and wit overcoming the massive forces of the ocean.

On January 15, 1985, Ken Bradshaw, Alec Cooke, J.P. Patterson, James Jones and Mark Foo were out challenging a giant day at Waimea Bay the old-fashioned way. Bradshaw surfed through midday by himself before losing his board and barely making it to shore. He watched from land as Foo, Jones, Cooke and Patterson were overwhelmed by a tremendous wave that was nearly twice as big as anything else seen that day. This “thing” as Mark Foo called it, swept over them like a tidal wave, breaking leashes and surfboards and sending the lifeguards scrambling. James Jones called the wave “48 feet” and Ken Bradshaw declared it “the largest wave anyone has ever had to deal with.” Cooke, Jones and Patterson lost their boards and accepted rides from the rescue helicopter. Foo tried to ride a wave in, took a terrible wipeout, broke his board and finally accepted the helicopter basket to shore.

Six years later, in a 1991 Surfer magazine article called “The Unridden Realm”, Foo worried publicly about waves like the “thing” that had confronted him at Waimea. To Foo, waves from 35 feet and up were too massive and powerful to be hunted down, caught and ridden by any one man — no matter how strong he was or how long his surfboard.

Toward the end of the article, Foo tossed off a sentence that would prove to be prophetic: “Now, we could cheat our way in. For example, you could be towed in by boat or Jet Ski. But is that surfing?”
Laird and Buzzy and the Zodiac

Buzzy Kerbox and Laird Hamilton are the Redford and Newman of the surfing world. They are watermen in every sense of the word: surfers, windsurfers, paddlers, kite surfers. Always looking for a new way to move across the water, they began exploring Hawaii’s outer reefs using Kerbox’s inflatable Zodiac boat, propelled by a 40hp motor. Their first session was at a Hawaiian outer reef called Phantoms. “We didn’t even tow that day,” Kerbox said. “We just went out in the boat and checked it out. Drove around, dropped into a 15-footer that almost caught us. It was a little creepy. If we’d been caught and flipped with the engine blazing, it could have been nasty.” Their exploration inspired some adrenaline and discovered one important thing: a 40hp engine was not enough. Kerbox and Hamilton weren’t discouraged. They just needed a bigger engine.

During the winter of 1991-’92 Kerbox and Hamilton came back with a rebuilt 60hp Mercury outboard and began to get their tow-in system wired. While thousands of surfers fought and squabbled for waves close to shore, Kerbox and Hamilton had the outer reefs to themselves. Riding standard big-wave equipment with no foot-straps (an innovation that would come later), the two friends towed each other into giant waves at Phantoms and Outside Backyards and a number of esoteric North Shore spots.

Almost out of sight of land, they worked on their driving and towing techniques and tapped into an endless supply of beautiful bluebirds, finding solitude and space not far from one of the most congested surf zones in the world.

Where a typical paddling surfer might catch one of these waves an hour, or maybe even one a day, Kerbox and Hamilton were catching a dozen waves an hour, scores of waves in a day. They were riding more 15- to 20-foot waves in one day than most surfers get in a season, a lifetime. They were taking off at Second Reef Backyards and hauling ass for hundreds of yards, dropping into the Main Peak at Sunset Beach at 30 mph, coming from out of nowhere and blowing the minds of all the conventional paddle surfers sitting like ducks at Sunset.

One of these surfers was Darrick Doerner, a North Shore lifeguard who saw the act from the beach and was intrigued. “I figured, shoots, Waimea was too crowded, Sunset Beach was too crowded and there were a lot of days when it was too big for Sunset and not big enough for Waimea, and there were 10 or 15 reefs popping off along the North Shore. So I took up the rope.”
On Maui: Velcro, Footstraps and Jaws

While Hamilton and Kerbox were experimenting with the Zodiac and tow ropes on Oahu, their friends back on Maui began testing other ways of playing around in the ocean. Mark Angullo attached some straps to a small-wave board and took it out on some small days. Dave Kalama remembered Angullo’s first experimentation: “He goes out with the footstraps and does this loop off the lip, like a carving 360 aerial loop. Boom, plugs it standing perfectly straight up in front of the wave in the flats, still on his board. He fell after that, but Brett Lickle and I were on the beach and just happened to look at the right place at the right time and went, ‘Oh my God. That’s it. That’s what I want to do.'”

Like Kerbox and Hamilton, the Maui guys are watermen — all contenders for the Incredible Mr. Limpet Award — because they are always looking for ways and means to get into the water. Kalama, Lickle, Mike Waltze, Pete Cabrinha and Rush Randle were surfers turned windsurfers who loved big waves wherever they could find them and however they could ride them. In 1993, they decided to have a go at a particularly giant and seemingly unsurfable spot that they’d been watching for the past 15 years.

“Gerry Lopez was the guy who showed it to me,” Waltze recalled. “He called it Domes and the fishermen called it Jaws. Finally we got tired of looking at it, and some of us decided to windsurf it. It was just incredible: double mast-high, triple mast-high. I don’t know how big the faces were. Thirty- to 40-foot faces that day. We found out that the valley and the stream and the point are called Peahi, which means ‘to beckon.’ Well, it was beckoning to us.

A few weeks after that first windsurfing session at Jaws, Kerbox and Hamilton came back to Maui. They met with their Maui buddies, threw everything into the calabash, stirred it all together, took a sip and came up with a new thing: riding giant waves on surfboards equipped with footstraps, using boats and Jet Skis to catch the buggers.
Refining the Equipment

Nowhere else in surfing is design as important as in tow surfing. The difference between a good board and a bad board in giant surf can mean the difference between life and death. As Mike Waltze put it: “We all knew from windsurfing speed trials that if you want to go fast, you have to expose less surface area to the water.” That meant riding smaller boards. Kalama remembers Hamilton coming back from Oahu with an 8’2″ shaped by Dick Brewer that showed everyone the potential. “We all took a look at this 8’2″ that was 16 inches wide, concave bottom, thruster and went, ‘No way. It’s too narrow.’ I think even Laird had some reservations about it. But we took it down the coast to this other place that was about 10 feet. Laird caught a couple of waves and then came in and said, ‘You’re not going to believe it. You’re not going to believe the speed you will get on this board.’ And I said, ‘Whatever.’ So it was my turn, and I got a wave that looked like it was going to close out on me. But two pumps later, I’m around this section and I’m going, ‘Holy shit.’ The board was incredible. It was so narrow and gunny, but it was super fast and you could cover a lot of ground. I’m not sure whose idea it was to make it that narrow. But I think you have to give credit to Dick Brewer for really going way outside the boundaries.”

Inspired by that 8’2″, the other members of Strapped Inc. began experimenting with boards to find the length and width that best suited them. Dave Kalama found that, contrary to usual surfboard design, heavier was better. A heavier surfboard would handle the chops and speed better and stay flatter on the wave. Kalama took to hammering pieces of lead into his surfboards, anything to increase weight and stability. This was a brave new world of big-wave surfboard design, where shorter, thinner and heavier was the call.
Wake-Up Call: Part I

By the winter of 1993-’94, the Maui guys had their skis and boards and tow-in techniques wired.

Their motorized quiver consisted of four Zodiacs, three Wave Runners and a ProJet — which is like a Zodiac with a hard bottom — and dozens of surfboards, each refined and equipped with footstraps. “We’re almost like a SEAL team or the America’s Cup or something,” Waltze told Surfer magazine. “We all work closely together, and we learn a lot from each other.”

The core group was Angullo, Cabrinha, Doerner, Hamilton, Kalama, Kerbox, Lopez, Waltze, Randle and Bob Haskins. They called themselves Strapped Inc. and combined their act to convince the rest of the surfing world to incorporate footstraps into their small- and big-wave surfing.

They surfed all over Maui, in small surf and large, but when it got big, Peahi was their object of desire.

On a huge day in December 1993, Pete Cabrinha and Hamilton were both towing behind one ski, on a double rope. They dropped in together on a big lump with Cabrinha in front, backside and Hamilton in back, frontside. As Cabrinha pulled up high and streaked through a cavernous tube, Hamilton did the unthinkable: he straightened out and took all of Jaws on his back. Hamilton is a sturdy lad, 6’3″ and 210 pounds, and he took a hit that most likely would have killed just about anyone else. “It was like getting hit by a dump truck,” he said later. “I couldn’t believe how hard the wave hit me, and I couldn’t believe I survived.”

A few months later, Hamilton’s wife, Maria, fell and nearly drowned. An experienced, gutsy bodyboarder, Maria had towed into waves at Jaws on her bodyboard, but wasn’t as experienced on a surfboard. Kalama was driving when Maria ate it, and he prowled in and out of the zone through four or five waves, catching glimpses of Maria’s head popping up for a few seconds, only to go under again for wave after wave. “We were like chickens with our heads cut off,” Kalama said. “What the hell do we do? Do we get her board or lose the ski? After five or six waves, we finally got her out, but for about 20 or 25 seconds before that, we all thought she was dead. It really hit home — this isn’t just a game anymore. This is the real deal.”

Maria later admitted to a women’s bodyboarding magazine that the wipeout might have caused a miscarriage. From that day on, the Maui crew worked to refine their rescue techniques. They attached sleds to the backs of the skis, which allowed a surfer to grab on for a quick trip out of the impact zone, and talked about employing inflatable vests and small bottles of oxygen.
Maverick’s in the Spotlight

There were other things going on in the big-wave world during the first half of the ’90s. While Hamilton, Kalama and friends were charging Peahi, a similarly dedicated crew of Northern California surfers were challenging a new big-wave reef called Maverick’s.

Although Half Moon Bay local Jeff Clark had ridden Maverick’s by himself since the mid-’70s, Maverick’s wasn’t exposed to the world until the early ’90s. A giant, mean, perfect wave breaking in cold, sharky waters, Maverick’s quickly established itself as a serious contender to Waimea Bay as the most challenging, dangerous big wave in the world.

The biggest days at Maverick’s were every bit as out of control and uncatchable as any Hawaiian outer reef. But for many reasons, tow surfing was slow to catch on there. “Basically, we were all just finding the limits of paddle surfing out there,” said Peter Mel, a Santa Cruz surfer who has become a legend at Maverick’s. “I was aware of tow surfing and so were a lot of others, but it just wasn’t cool at Maverick’s, at least not in the mid-’90s.”

In December of 1994, bellicose Santa Cruz surfer Vince Collier showed up in the lineup at Maverick’s on a Jet Ski. Jeff Clark had towed into a few waves behind a boat early in the decade, but no one had yet taken a ski out there and tried to catch waves. Collier and his partner-in-crime Zach Acker made a nuisance of themselves that day, driving through the lineup with little regard for all the guys bobbing like corks on their big-wave guns. Collier and Maverick’s pioneer Jeff Clark got into a heated argument, and Collier nearly got arrested. He never returned on his ski.

Maverick’s wasn’t the only place where surfer/ski vibes were boiling. By the winter of 1995-’96, there were as many as eight tow-in teams zooming around the North Shore of Oahu. The surfer/PWC wars started all over again, but this time it was surfers getting mad at other surfers who had been become believers in tow-in surfing. The Unridden Realm had become The Overwhelmed Realm. Where there once had been isolation and privacy, there now was Water World.

Thanksgiving Day 1995 was The Day it Officially Got Weird, with eight tow teams appearing at an Outer Reef that had been oh-so-lonely only the year before.

There were bad vibes between paddle-in and tow-in surfers. Brother turned against brother. Surfers had become gearheads and a few surfers asked out loud, “Is nothing sacred?”
Missing Eddie

In December of 1995, George Downing made a tentative call for the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay, the world’s most prestigious big-wave contest. Downing waffled a bit on the call in the morning, which sent invited surfers Darrick Doerner, Laird Hamilton and Ken Bradshaw down to Outside Backyards, thinking the contest was off. When Downing changed his mind and green-lighted the event, Mel Pu’u drove his ski from Waimea to Backyards to let the three know what was going on. The three surfers were torn between towing into giant, beautiful bluebirds at Backyards and honoring the Aikau family by making it to Waimea. Bradshaw went for Waimea. Hamilton and Doerner stayed at Backyards.

Even though he opted for the contest, that morning at Outside Backyards made a believer out of Ken Bradshaw.

“I saw Laird ride some beautiful waves that day,” Bradshaw said. “I was just in awe. He looked like a John Severson cartoon.”
Biggest Wednesday

There were a lot of superlatives being thrown around during the winter of 1997-’98. Meteorologists were calling for a nasty season of storms and swells in the North Pacific. Taylor Knox paddled into the biggest wave of the winter and won $50,000 at the K2 Big-Wave Challenge. And the boys at Maverick’s were pushing the limits that Mark Foo delineated in the ’80s.

But none of this compared to January 28, when Ken Bradshaw and Dan Moore teamed up with about eight surfers for an assault on a North Shore reef called Outer Log Cabins. This was a historic day, as one of the biggest winter swells in 30 years produced giant, perfect 35-foot surf. Bradshaw and Moore launched from Backyards, made it through a horrendous shorebreak and motored west a few miles to Outside Log Cabins. There they joined Cheyne Horan, Noah Johnson, Aaron Lambert, Shawn Briley, Troy Alotis, Tony Ray, Ross Clarke-Jones and Michael and Milton Willis in the biggest waves ever ridden.

One of the first waves of the session was one of the best. Driving a Yamaha 1100 WaveVenture, Moore whipped Bradshaw into a thick lump that transmogrified into an unthinkably humongous wall. It was almost without question the biggest wave ever ridden by a surfer. Unfortunately, the North Shore paparazzi got caught with their pants down, and only one guy, filmmaker Bill Ballard, caught a Zapruder-like image of Bradshaw’s wave with a video camera. The wave is easily 12 times over Bradshaw’s head. He called it a 45-foot wave with an 85-foot face. But Moore, who had the best view, was the most impressed. “Hey, that wave was behind Kenny and he couldn’t see it,” Moore said. “I was on the ski looking back at Kenny and I could not fricking believe how big that wave was. My God, I’d never seen anything like it. Good thing Kenny didn’t look back. He might have had a heart attack.”

The rest of the day was death or glory surfing. Bradshaw said he rode “in excess of 30 waves.” “At least three of them were 35 feet, but they were at least 20 feet smaller on the face than that biggest one.” One of those lower Richter scale waves was well-documented by photographer Brian “Hank” Stephen, and it became a poster titled, “The Biggest Day Ever Ridden.”

That same session, Tony Ray found, much to his alarm, that his Yamaha Wave Runner III 700 didn’t have enough juice to outrun a big wave, and he got swallowed up by a mountain of whitewater. Ray and his partner Ross Clarke-Jones spent the next two hours drifting a dead PWC down the coast in 30-foot open ocean swells. They were less afraid about dying than they were pissed that they were missing history.

Although not as well covered, January 28 was also historic at Jaws. Buzzy Kerbox gave witness: “Jaws was very, very heavy that Wednesday, but for some reason, it keeps getting forgotten. Although the swell direction wasn’t perfect, it was the biggest day ridden out there. Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama and I all rode huge waves that raised the bar for big waves at Jaws forever. Ken Bradshaw did ride a monster on Oahu, but I believe that some waves at Jaws were just as big.”
Big Friday At Maverick’s

Peter Mel was in Hawaii for Biggest Wednesday, but he watched it all, in awe, from the roof of a house. “I’ve been around the ocean all my life, but I’d never seen it do what it was doing that day.” Two days later, Mel was back in California, waiting for that same swell to hit Maverick’s. The K2 Big-Wave Challenge was still going and the $50,000 was still up for grabs. That day at Maverick’s, there were $50,000 waves breaking every couple of minutes. Maverick’s was giant, offshore and perfect, but off-limits to all but the suicidal. Flea nearly drowned when he wiped out, got nailed by a 25-footer, then snagged his leash on a rock and was held fast as the Pacific Ocean pounded him. Later that morning, Mel was in position for an absolutely perfect 25-foot wave. Either he couldn’t get it or didn’t want to get it — or both — but a $50,000 wave passed between his legs. Maverick’s had entered the Unridden Realm.
Perry And Doug’s Big Adventure

That same Friday, after the wind had come up and most of the normal paddle surfers had given up, Santa Cruz surfers Perry Miller and Doug Hansen teamed up on a Yamaha WaveVenture 701 for a tow session out at Maverick’s. Ignoring grumbling from the more traditional paddle-in surfers, Hansen towed Miller into a couple of monster waves, both rides resulting in spectacular wipeouts.

A photographer from San Francisco named George Nikitin took photos of Miller’s rides and they appeared in newspapers all over the United States the next day. Once again the surfing world was set on its ear, and once again, controversy erupted. “I wasn’t happy because they wouldn’t even paddle in on a 10-foot day, yet they decided to tow on a 25-foot day,” said Jeff Clark. “I was afraid they would end up getting killed and then everyone would be banned. You have to respect the arena you’re playing in.”
Little Sister

The winter of 1998-’99 was a little sister to the previous winter. El Nino had been replaced by La Nina, and meteorologists were now predicting a clear, cold winter with lots of clean surf in the North Pacific. They were right. Mark Renneker, a meticulous man who keeps track of such things, recorded 82 notches, or days surfed at Maverick’s, during the La Nina winter — a record.

It wasn’t until the end of the season, though, when someone picked up where Miller and Hansen left off. On March 21, Ken Bradshaw flew to Half Moon Bay with his tow-in partner, Dan Moore. On a big but not huge day, they joined locals Peter Mel, Flea Virostko and Ken “Skindog” Collins to push the limits of Maverick’s with skis and ropes. Bradshaw and Moore were the more experienced drivers, and they teamed up once again to make history. This time, Bradshaw returned the favor and towed Moore into a whopping mother of a Maverick’s wave. With the 30 mph boost, Moore got into the wave early, pulled up into the hook and boldly went where few men had gone before, disappearing inside a cavernous tube and then getting blown out by the spit. “You should have seen what was going on behind Danny on that wave,” Bradshaw said. “It was like Jurassic Park.”

The wave was enough to convince the Maverick’s locals that they had some serious catching up to do. For the spring of 1999 and into the summer, Peter, Skindog, Flea and some of the other Santa Cruz guys practiced their driving and tow surfing at beachbreaks deep within Monterey Bay and along the reefs north of Santa Cruz.
Opening Day Surprise

The practice paid off on October 28, 1999 — opening day at Maverick’s for the 1999-2000 season. “The 28th was the day we had been training for,” Mel said. “We had been towing in for months; we were ready.” Mel, Collins, Flea and Clark calmly hotdogged 25-foot Maverick’s as if they were surfing 6-foot Pleasure Point: stalling, fading, doing giant carves and boldly going where few surfers had gone before. Mel was the stand-out surfer that day. Like Hamilton, he used his 6-foot-plus body frame and weight to handle all the speed and chop that Maverick’s put in his path. He caught more than a dozen waves, flying on all of them, doing 50-yard, mid-face carves and just generally hauling ass. One wave of Mel’s was particularly memorable. He stalled for a little too long behind the peak and found himself trapped at the bottom of a 20-foot, 50-yard section. He turned his board up the face a little bit, tapped into some of that abundant speed and power, and transformed a certain wipeout into a monster adrenaline rush. “When I came out, my heart was almost pounding out of my chest.”

There had been other tow incidents at Maverick’s going as far back as the early ’90s, but October 28 was a hallmark day. This was The Day They Got It Wired.

After that early start, the rest of the 1999-2000 winter was relatively slack for tow surfers at Maverick’s. January 31 and February 2 were tow days, the first one big and gray and gnarly, the second day big and blue and too offshore for paddlers. But the surfing on these two days was transcendental. Once again, the surfers were hotdogging monster Maverick’s, toying with it, fading and stalling and pulling into the barrel.

They did indeed look like “John Severson cartoons.”

All of a sudden, Maverick’s turned into a motocross track. On the good days there would be a half-dozen tow teams in the lineup, as paddle surfers scratched their heads and wondered if they should go out and spoil the show.

Meanwhile, in Hawaii, new teams of tow surfers were showing up at places like Phantoms, even on days that were well within the realm of paddle surfers. North Shore chargers like Shawn Briley, Noah Johnson, Tom Carroll and Troy Alotis were doing nonstop laps on days when they would have been happy to catch three or four waves an hour.

Not everyone was keen on the Wave Runners. Grant Washburn agreed to tow guys into waves but has yet to be towed into a wave himself. And Doc Renneker threatened to go to local authorities and have all PWC banned, as Maverick’s is within a national marine sanctuary.

The first winter of the new millennium ended with the Quiksilver Maverick’s Big Wave Event in early March. As the world’s best big-wave surfers stumbled and floundered into big, gnarly Maverick’s, the guys who had been tow surfing and the witnesses wondered about the future of their sport. The advantages of tow surfing were obvious to anyone who watched the elegant tow sessions of October 28, January 31 and February 2 and compared that with the over-the-falls flailing of the Maverick’s event. Would tow surfing eventually supercede paddle surfing? Was this a farewell to arms?

For such a fast sport, tow surfing has had a relatively slow progression. In 1972, Fletcher rode one of the first Jet Skis. In 1981, he took it to Hawaii. In 1991, Kerbox and Hamilton experimented behind a Zodiac on the North Shore. By 2000, Mel, Collins and Clark were toying with giant barrels at Maverick’s.

Who knows where tow surfing will be in 10 years, 20 years. As the sport of king’s motorized spin-off gets even more popular, and as the tow surfers themselves get better, they will ply their trade on newer, bigger, meaner waves. One such spot sits 100 miles off the Southern California coast, in open water — a shockingly perfect giant wave called Cortez Banks that may offer the biggest ridable surf in the North Pacific. Plans are already afoot to ride the place under the code name Project Neptune.

Mel, Kalama and others talk about the inevitability of a tow contest. Bradshaw has worked on it, as have others. There are enough tow teams in the world to make it viable, but a format and rules are needed. Beyond that, the ocean is the limit. Tow surfing has given surfers the ways and means to ride anything the ocean throws at them.

Mark Foo was one victim of this progression in big-wave surfing, but his question echoes: “Is it surfing?” If you ever find yourself in Northern California or Hawaii during a big winter swell, go sit in the channel at Jaws or Outside Alligators or Maverick’s, and try to have a conversation with that adrenaline-filled man who has just ridden a toothpick at 40 mph with an aquatic dinosaur snapping at his heels. If he can hear your question above the roar of the ocean and the mad beating of his own heart, here’s how he’ll answer: “Who cares?”

By: Swell.com

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