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About Towsurfing
   2005 Global Tow Surfing Overview

This document will serve as an overview of the sport of "Tow Surfing'; for use as a reference guide for migration, legal concerns, boating safety, injuries and educational purposes.

   Tow Surfing Demographic Overview
This analysis is to provide information on the sport of "Tow Surfing' and its global impact as a modern boating sport: locations, definitions, education, enforcement concerns, injury/accidents, competitions, migration, equipment needs, sponsorships, media exposure, and financial contributions.

This report was constructed with California boating safety issues as the impetus for the report in conjunction with current related recreational boating safety use. The State of Hawaii Thrill Craft rules and regulations have been addressed as a set precedence for the validity of the sport.

California beaches embrace approximately 700 paddle surf locations. Outside reefs that produced large waves during the winter storm season; that were difficult to access without a personal watercraft, became the focus for tow surfers originally. The sport has matured and new entry level athletes have entered and brought attention to new user concerns.

Many newcomer and original towsurfing teams are utilizing smaller size waves at shore breaks amongst or near paddle surfers or traditional paddle surfing areas to train and hone their skills year round. This has led to concerns of liability, safety and conflict of use problem at select locations.

Due to the climate of the Pacific Ocean, many of California's ocean beaches range in water temperature depending upon seasonal conditions and locations from 50 degrees to 74 degrees based on annual average. There are limited access boat ramps available and restrictions do apply in most zones from beach launching, loading and retrieval.

To date, there has not been any construction, organization or assimilation of facts, data, or resource content directed towards the sport of "Tow Surfing'. This is designed to begin that process and will be considered as Edition No. 1.

   Highlights of Tow Surfing
Tow Surfing or Tow-In Surfing is a relatively modern water recreational boating sport that was developed by the creative efforts of Laird Hamilton and Strapped Crew surfers in Hawaii in the early 90's. Tow Surfing can be attributed to similar sports such as wakeboarding, surfing, and waterskiing, whereas a person is towed behind a vessel utilizing an extension rope with a grab handle, and standing on an aquaplane device, including the foil boards which has been experimented by the Strapped Crew for the past several years, and products that will come in our near future as the concept evolves and is refined by enthusiasts and product manufacturers.

Tow Surfing derived from the desire of Big Wave Surfers who wanted the ability to safely power surf larger waves that were breaking on outer reefs and typically incapable of catching due to their size and current surfboard construction. The size of these waves generally tracked towards land at faster rates than could be paddled into by "Guns', surfboards designed for larger waves. Laird and his partner's utilized technology and background products from windsurfing, and surfing which created specialized tow boards with foot straps, design, and size for speed.

In those early days, tow surfers also experimented with vessels for towing, beginning with small inflatable boats propelled by outboard engines; small jet powered boats and graduated towards the use of Personal Watercraft (PWC). Personal Watercraft quickly became an ideal tow surfing platform for the new sport due to their ability to capsize and easily be righted and get back underway, maneuverability and high speeds that could track along with the larger swell speed.

The tow surfing boards and Personal Watercraft merged as the platform of this new high impact extreme immersion sport. Technological advances in vessel designs and accessory equipment, such as foil boards, and rescue boards, will take horsepower and water sports to new levels in the coming decades.

The founding fathers of this sport were using the wave energy in excess of 40 foot waves, newcomers are training in small waves at shore breaks which are creating a lot of concerns and conflicts with governing authorities, leading to bans, closures and community discord. Promoters are also encouraging use of PWC for faster, expressive surfing exhibitions in very small wave size, and small surf competitions to entertain beach side spectators.
   Tow Surfing Expansion
Our global expansion of population and encroachment on waterway use and management, complimented with safety issues for water users and product manufacturers combined with boating laws and regulations forces us to take action in respect to this new boating and surfing related activity.

Education and enforcement will lead to safer users and reduce user conflicts in high density zones, and create competent measures that protect this new sport which is being embraced worldwide. This can only happen with the efforts of enforcement policies and personnel.

Currently, in Hawaii, (where Laird and his friends first towed into large waves), has embraced tow in surfing as a regulated sport in the United States. Hawaii is the sole big wave locale to permit tow surfing as a viable sport with mandatory education and government support through the DLNR (Division of Land and Natural Resources).

The Table Mountain National Park located in South Africa is issuing "permits' for review of the sport and the participants thorough compliance with set rules and regulations until December 30, 2005. A revisions, reduction of access have already taken place in the first 30 days of operating their Big Wave Registry with only 2 viable tow surf locations now permitted.
   Summary on Education and Enforcement
To date approximately 1000 people have taken a course supporting the Hawaiian certification process within that State. There is controversy surrounding the endorsement of certification that may promote the sport on a higher level, and enforcement of these rules has yet to be tested. Proponents stress that these students are receiving critical information they would not have sought out previously.

Regardless, the tide has turned due to media exposure and favor within the viewing and surfing community. The Hawaiian certification process began as a 6 hour classroom course, and has been modified for a 2 day, 5 hours per day, 10 hour classroom course, and may have successive alterations to the course outline to date.

The Hawaiian description reads: “Ocean Safety Educational and License Requirement Course”, the new tow surfing law goes into affect on September 1, 2004. This includes both residents and visitors from other countries and accommodates various rules and regulations. Towsurfing is only allowed within certain locations and under "high surf advisory' when the wave height is deemed acceptable for the sport.

California has experienced numerous complaints against the use of personal watercraft for towsurfing which centered in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary beginning in the year 2000. The complaints focused on environmental concerns, however many complaints were user conflicts. To date, approximately 200 persons in the State of California have taken boating safety courses of either classroom and or field training for the purpose of tow surfing within the State or abroad.

San Mateo County Surfrider Chapter brought the PWC issue to the attention of the surfing community and media, citing the dangers to marine life and paddle surfers, and the argument originally centered on a large wave break named "Mavericks' where a use of conflict began between big wave paddle surfers and towsurfers in the year 1999. Four Stroke and two stroke engine technology exists, and only 4 stroke vessels are being sold in the State of California dealerships to date. Many towsurfers are using four stroke only personal watercraft at this time.

The Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) began meetings with a self appointed PWC Task Force to address the revision of the sanctuary management review. Committee members were not able to come to a consensus on presented topics. SAC members sent recommendations to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for review. Due to committee meetings and NOAA representative remarks, it appears that tow surfing will be practically eliminated within the sanctuary waters, with towsurfing related issues being the focal point of a ban supported by Surfrider. Possibly these changes will be enacted in late 2005 or 2006.

Due to these initial conflicts, NOAA and the SAC advisory committee focused on a prior PWC restriction that went into effect in 1993 to reduce waterway use for recreational PWC users. NOAA did not take into consideration the 3 person craft that were in production at this time and only the one and two person(s) type of craft were included in their original restricted PWC use zones. (There are 4 designated operating zones)

NOAA is currently addressing changing the definition of Personal Watercraft to include any craft designed in the future that could be used for tow surfing purposes in their descriptions, photography, and initially they addressed the occupation safety and rescue application for local public safety agencies. This area comprises over 5,000 nautical miles of Pacific Ocean use.

As of April 2005, California boating rules and regulations do not have complimentary endorsed laws that support the towsurfing activities being conducted along its coastline. By nature of the degree of difficulty to navigate inside the impact zone, vessel weight stability and safe speed limits and operator safety, towsurfing cannot support a 3rd person as required by law to act as a "spotter'. This law was originally enacted for the purpose of water skiing on inland waterways to warn other boaters of the person in the water for safety purposes.

Enforcement of tow surfing is limited in California. Known contacts have been Dana Point Harbor, Santa Cruz Harbor, Moss Landing, Monterey, and Pillar Point. All locations have issued warnings to operators through harbor, lifeguard, or USCG contacts, with little follow up statistical data on citations with the exception of one survey undertaken in 2004. There is currently no data available on boating accident reports filed by PWC owners with the California Department of Boating and Waterways from PWC damages or personal injuries from tow surfing.

Todos Santos wave break "Killers' has experienced conflict of use issues with towsurfers primarily from California in altercations with traditional paddle surfers. To date there have no been any law enforcement contacts from the Mexican authorities. This is considered a "migratory concern'.

   Sport Reference Titles:
Towsurfing, Tow Surfing, Sling Surfing, Tow-In Surfing, Power Surfing
   Personal Watercraft:
PWC, Thrill Craft, Boat, Vessel
   Personal Watercraft Industry definition of a PWC
'Personal Watercraft' shall mean a vessel which uses an inboard motor powering a water jet pump as its primary source of motive power and which is designed to operated by a person sitting, standing, or kneeling on the vessel, rather than the conventional manner of sitting or standing inside the vessel.

*There are over one million personal watercraft "boats' within the United States.

   State of California Definition
Personal watercraft refers to a vessel, usually less than 16 feet in length, which uses an inboard, internal combustion engine powering a water jet pump as its primary source of propulsion. The vessel is intended to be operated by a person or persons sitting, standing or kneeling on the vessel.

*There are approximately 200,000 registered Personal Watercraft in the State of California
   State of Hawaii Defines PWC as 'Thrill Craft'
*There are approximately 1,452 registered thrill craft in the state of Hawaii, according to Deborah Ward, DLNR spokeswoman, covering all of the islands.

   Definition of Tow Surfing
PWC Operator/athlete sometimes using a towable rescue board attached to the stern deck; with a determined length of towable line with a grab handle. The PWC operator and athlete must wear USCG Approved lifejackets appropriate for use/properly fitted. The athlete is "surfing' a unique design board (aquaplane device) that incorporated size/weight/foot straps, sometimes with leash attached.

Operator will tow athlete into a peaking large wave face prior to plunging. Athlete will release the grab handle/line and free surf the wave energy, using the speed of the vessel to match the speed of the wave. Tow Surfing was created when waves became too large to "paddle surf' by the Strap Crew on Maui. Oftentimes this type of activity was generated by the size of the wave face at above 40feet or more when paddle surfing was not optional.

   Definition of Towable Device:
Any product that is used to propel an individual or individuals into an ocean wave for the purpose of surfing, gliding or to be propelled by the energy of that wave by releasing a line from a vessel that pulled the athlete into the wave energy of any product by either laying, standing, sitting or kneeling.

Such as any hybrid planing device constructed from wood, plastic, inflatable, rubber, foam, or other composite materials: wakeboard, surfboard, tow board with foot/ankle/heel straps, foil board, foil chair (Air Chair), skateboard deck, or individual foot strapped or fitted devices.

Note: This description does not include the Power Ski or the X-board motorized surfboards

Also, foils can ride open ocean deep swells, and not breaking waves

*Large aircraft can land in open water and unload a PWC for towsurfing/photo purposes

   Definition of a Tow Surfing Team
  • 1 personal watercraft
  • 1 operator
  • 1 athlete

  • *Can be teams from a minimum of 2 persons upwards to 5 people who rotate or whom share the responsibility of paying for the PWC, trailer, rescue board and related items
  • Individuals "migrate' globally and can trade with partners. Partners are not always dedicated "teammates'.
  • (have been know to "tow' 2 person on a line with towboards
  •    Tow Surfing Current and Past Competitions or Exhibitions/Productions (approximate)
    1. World Cup of Tow Surfing- Jaws, Hawaii
    2. If it Doesn't Kill You, It Ain't Extreme, Hawaii (Garret McNamara)
    3. Red Bull Tow Surfing-Tasmania, Australia
    4. XXL Big Wave Awards-Global
    5. Billabong Odyssey-Search for the 100 foot wave-Global
    6. *Project Neptune (precursor to the Odyssey)-Cortes Banks-USA
    7. Oakley Biggest Wave Surfed Award-South Africa 2004
    8. Jaws Invitational Tow Surfing Championships (1997) Hawaii
    9. Red Bull 5X Surf Contest 2005-Florida
    10. Chile Challenge: South American Tow Surfing Challenge-Chile
    11. Haleiwa Tow In Competition-Hawaii 2005
    12. Pe'Ahi Poi Bowl World Tow-In Surfing 2003, Hawaii
    13. Gravity Games Tow In Session 2004 Australia
    14. Annual International Tow Surfer global
    15. Red Bull 5X-North Shore tow in Event-2003 Hawaii
    16. Kawasaki Surf Bash-Sling Surfing Competition 2003-California
    17. Billabong/Santa Cruz Surfboards 1' Foot Tow In Surf Fest-California
    18. OP Surf Tour-"Tow Surfing Expression Session'-California
    19. Billabong Clipper-Aerial Search for Towsurfing Waves-Global 2005
    20. Red Bull UK Local Heroes Tour-South Africa 2003
    21. International Towsurfer Awards

       Towsurfing Associations
  • Association of Professional Towsurfers; referred to as "APT'-Eric Akiskalian, Director (Washington)
  • World Tow Surfing Association; referred to as "WTSA'-Ken Bradshaw, Director (Hawaii)
  • Tow Surf South Africa; referred to as TSSA
  • Australia Tow Surfing Association (Queensland) Paul Garrard
  •    Injury-Accidents
    Tow Surfing has not experienced a fatality as of the March of 2005. There has been a high incidence of personal watercraft damage and total "loss' and minor to serious injuries to both the athlete and the operator of the vessel, or photographers/videographers who work with them.

    Originally tow surfing operators and athletes did not wear lifejackets. Around 2002, athletes began to adopt the use of additional flotation by experimenting with wetsuits that had built in flotation panels, or neoprene vests that were not USCG approved for positive flotation. Shortly thereafter a shift began and operators began to comply with safety procedures and started to wear USCG approved PFD's.

    Inflatable chest/waist harness PFD's are not recommended for the purpose of towsurfing. PFD's are tested in normal water conditions for buoyancy factors. Aerated water lessens the efficiency of buoyancy with the weight of a person and the amount of air in the water on USCG Approved PFD's.

    There is a high incidence of injury accidents both for the operator driving the boat and for the athlete tow surfing the wave. The most common types of injuries are:

    1. Operator: Falls on board vessel resulting in impact injury
    2. Towsurfer: Foot entrapment with towsurfing board or impact injury or line entrapment from tow line.
    State of California requires that a vessel accident report must be filed within 48 hours of the incident for $500 bodily injury or $500 vessel damage.

    Operators perform the rescue and assist for their towsurfing partner. During extreme situations other teams assist in rescues, PWC retrievals and injury transport. These people self rescue and are the first responders in these emergencies and have a low incidence of agency support for rescues or retrievals. This is a positive attribute for the reason there have not been multiple fatalities.

    Every evolution on wave riding for towsurfing can be considered an assist or potential "rescue' when the towsurfer and his equipment are being retrieved either onto the PWC or onto the rescue board. These towsurfing teams primarily "self rescue' amongst their own user group and rarely rely upon governmental agency assistance.

    "Shaper and surfer John Pyzel broke his neck while tow-in surfing Mokule'ia."

    'As far as the toll taken on the guys' equipment, Ryan Rawson lost one to the boulders on shore while motoring in to help rescue Skindog, who got pummeled on a wave and rolled underwater for a distance that appeared, at least from the cliff, to be beyond human tolerance. No one, it seemed, would be able to hold his breath for that long while cart-wheeling under 50 feet of whitewater. But, thank God, Skinny did, as did all the others who wiped out that day.'

    'I get caught by a wave and lose the housing. But it's right there bobbing 20 feet away. So I motor over to grab it and just as I'm about to grasp it I GET HIT by another Bigger Wave... And plant my face on the handlebars of the ski breaking my nose. But I'm having so much fun... I just had to stay out....'

    'Padaca broke his left fibula and tibia after he wiped out while tow-in surfing 20-foot waves off of Oahu's North Shore. In essence, the two bones in his lower left leg snapped in half during the accident.'

    'Russell Smith would overturn his jet ski trying to pick up his brother Tyler, who had taken a solid 50-footer on the head, and they would both be swept into the boneyard, with Tyler sustaining an injury to his shoulder.'

    "Dan Moore, who was forced to straighten out after streaking beautifully for a hundred yards or so across a 50-foot-plus wall. Mike Parsons saw the whole terrible scene unfold from the channel and later called it: "No doubt one of the worst wipeouts I have ever seen in my life."

    The most common causes of all PWC accidents were operator inexperience (61%), excessive speed (50%), and operator inattention (42%). (Some accidents have more than one attributable cause.) All of these causes are operator-controllable factors.

    An operator drove into the impact zone to retrieve their partner, losing control of the PWC and getting separated from the craft due to wave action. This vessel ended up getting pushed into the rocks and sustained serious damage. The second vessel of another operator went in to do the rescue, and also lost their vessel, resulting in 2 complete destroyed PWC's from the same incident

    An operator lost his PWC during a pick up attempt of his partner, losing the PWC because the wave action removed the lanyard and there was not sufficient time to reinsert to restart the craft. The wave took the PWC to the rocks and washed up on shore. The operator asked bystanders to help assist removing the PWC before local authorities were notified of the boating accident. No boating accident report was filed.

    A PWC operator was crossing over the middle peak of a large wave as the wave was preparing to plunge. The situational choices resulted in the operator diving away from the PWC, as it plunged over the falls forty feet below almost hitting his partner who was towsurfing the wave. The PWC rescue board was completely destroyed and the PWC suffered minor damage after going through the rocks and washed into a lagoon

    An operator was heading back out to sea with his partner in tow, crossing over the shoulder of the wave. He was hit by another operator towing his partner on the backside of the wave at approximately 20 miles per hour between both vessels. The first operator sustained a pelvic fracture from the bow of the PWC striking him broadside with the other PWC. Rules of the Road did not apply due to visibility

    An operator was not able to make a clean pickup of his partner in the impact zone due to situational choices. He was struck by the wave, which opened up the storage compartment and the PWC was submerged. Both the operator and his partner drifted for 3 hours offshore in strong currents and clinging to a submerged PWC before another tow PWC operator came along and rescued them.

    A towsurfer was fading on a large wave that folded on top of him. He was a very experienced tow surfer, but this time the hydrology of the large wave resulted in forces of action against his body and a broken hip. The impact of the boiling water and potential extension of his legs strapped into the tow board may have contributed. He had to be rescued and had a one year recovery with intensive therapy.

    An operator was driving his PWC in small shore break waves at unsafe speeds for towsurfing. He came off the top of a small wave with improper body positioning and landed full force on his left leg. The shock and stress that impacted his leg shattered bones, he had surgery with plates and pins inserted with a year of intensive therapy. This was due to not keeping his boat low profile to the water and forces of action.

  • Leash Wraps (body parts-sea vegetation-rock/reef outcroppings-crab/lobster pots)
  • Surfboard Impact/Concussion/Black Out
  • Lacerations
  • Torn Ligament/Musculature/tendon
  • Near drowning: Vomit/Foaming
  • Fear/Panic/Shock
  • Shoulder/Neck/Spinal injury
  • Type of apparel worn damage or impact with wave force: Gath Shields, wetsuits, street clothes/PFD's
  • Athletic Enhancement Supplements/drugs/alcohol (stimulants)
  • Oxygen Deprivation-signs
  • Unconscious Victim(s)
  • Compound fractures
  • Drowning/Near Drowning
  • Blunt Force Trauma
  • Burst Ear Drums
  • Carbon Monoxide Exposure (boat based)
  • Vessel collision or impact with fixed object

    'Bradshaw who surfed in the contest (against the advice of an orthopedic surgeon) despite a painful back injury suffered during a tow-in session at Outside Backyards a few days before the contest'

    'By bunny hopping, Allport loosened the straps on the tow board, his feet were wiggling around too much, and he used the heel straps as well, effectively locking himself to his board. When a "huge" set came through and Allport got clipped by the mountain of whitewater, the board spun 360 degrees and broke his left leg in four places'
  •    Agency Search and Rescue Support Concerns
    Swell peak teams are depending upon the time of day, tidal considerations and location of launch to site, distance and fuel consumption. Many tow surfers will launch their PWC early morning prior to sunrise, and return after the sun has set in near black conditions, as well as fog.

    "Going in was sketchy at night due to the mysto outer reef pop ups that can sneak up behind you"

       Global Zones Of Operation (KEY)
    1. North America
    2. Central America
    3. South America
    4. Australia
    5. Oceania/Indonesia
    6. Africa
    7. Europe
    8. Asia
    9. Hawaii


    Towsurfer fell on wave and receives serious injuries
    Broken Hip/Vertebrae 9

    Operators left leg slams into deck from jumping a wave
    Fractured Tibia/fibula 3

    Towsurfer was at shallow reef, the wave through him onto dry rock Shoulder Injury 1

    Towsurfer falls on wave, receives neck injury
    Broken neck 9

    Towsurfer gets hit by wave
    Back injury 9

    Operator places towsurfer in critical section of plunging wave resulting in a wipeout
    Ankle injury 1

    Operator gets hit from behind by wave, face impacts the console/helm
    Facial injury/broken nose 9

    Towsurfer gets hit by wave, rotation of knee strapped into towboard tears ligament
    Torn ligament 9

    2 Operators fail to see one another coming from the backside of a wave and have a collision resulting in serious injury and vessel damageFractured pelvis 9

    Operator hits a submerged rock while observing towsurfer and tracking the wave
    Broken hand, ribs 1

    Towsurfer is hit by wave, leash is attached to his ankle resulting in torn ligament due to over extension
    Torn ligament 1

    Towsurfer is injured when a PWC that was trying to rescue him hit him resulting in injuries
    Broken leg and ribs 9

    Operator is not competent in large surf and drives over the falls
    Operator panics and experiences near drowning, passenger receives facial laceration 4

    Towsurfer gets hit by wave
    Torn muscles in back 6

    Towsurfer gets hit by wave and dragged onto rocks
    Facial laceration and broken foot 9

    Operator excessive speed during transitioning over backside of wave shoulder results in fall on board
    Operator receives broken leg 9

    Towsurfer is hit by wave and dragged across reef
    Lacerations to the feet 5

    Operator goes into the pit to retrieve towsurfer, his leash is wrapped around his wrist with towboard attached and the operator is not aware of this and powers the PWC pulling the towsurfer off the rescue board
    Shoulder injury 1

    Operator transits over wave too fast, becomes separated from PWC and lands on PWC
    Broken femur 3

    Towsurfer slides off rescue board, tow line wraps around foot as athlete is dragged underwater
    Ligament/tendon/musculature damage to ankle 6

    Operator is hit by a wave due to kelp in the jet intake, PWC rolls over operator on reef
    Lower back/pelvic injury 6

    Athlete impacts shoulder with water while surfing
    Shoulder injury 6

    Athlete borrows a tow board which doesn't properly fit with the foot straps, results in injury
    Torn hamstring 6


    PWC engine stalls and is hit by a wave, becomes submerged and rolls up onto beach. PWC is retrieved from the shore at low tide 2 days later Internal engine damage,
    PWC fails to run properly after servicing 1

    Operator goes into the pit to rescue a towsurfer, gets hit by wave and rolled to shore Total loss of PWC 9

    Water action removes lanyard from clip, operator doesn't have enough time to reinstall and is hit by wave, PWC is thrown onto rocks
    Total loss of PWC 1

    Operator goes into pit to retrieve towsurfer who is trying to pull his towboard onto the rescue board. PWC is tracking into a rock broadside, then the wave hits pushing them on starboard side onto the exposed rock
    Gunwale on starboard side is destroyed, rescue board is damaged 9

    Team deploys into a new break, PWC stalls and is hit by a wave and submerges, PWC is stranded and the team needs assistance for retrieval from local agency
    Fuel system is compromised, vessel doesn't run well again 1

    Operator is not paying attention to wave movement, dives off PWC, while PWC goes over the falls almost hitting towsurfer.
    Minor damage to PWC, rescue board is total loss 1

    Operator hits a submerged rock while driving, engine motor mounts break, engine is damaged and hull is destroyed
    Total loss of PWC 1

    Operator misjudges waves, goes into pit to retrieve towsurfer, gets hit by wave and separated from craft which ends up in the rocks
    Gunwale is damaged, total loss of rescue board 1

    Operator misjudges waves gets hit by wave and PWC is submerged, second PWC comes into to manage the retrieval/rescue and is also hit by wave. Both PWC's end up on rocks
    Total loss on 2 PWC's 2

    PWC has poor preventative maintenance program. PWC begins taking on water and sinks, operator swims with PWC to shore in remote location
    PWC and crew are airlifted by helicopter 6

    Operator is not experienced with jet pump ability and aerated water conditions and is hit by the wave due to situational oversight
    PWC total loss 9

    Operator loses PWC by getting hit by wave, PWC is submerged and washes into rocks
    Retrieval later only of floating pieces on shore 9

    Operator gets overrun by wave with IRB and flips far offshore
    Outboard engine is dewatered, equipment is retrieved 6

    Operator is unfamiliar with large surf, PWC goes over the falls
    PWC sustains minor damage 4

    Operator loses control of PWC while searching for a towboard, PWC ends up on the rocks
    PWC total loss 9

    Two PWC's collide in the lineup resulting in hull damage Hull damage on 2 PWC's 9
    Two PWC's towsurfing t-bone one another
    Damage to gel coat, fiberglass and bond line 1

    Operator misjudges wave action, loses PWC which goes "over the falls' and almost hits the towsurfer
    Complete loss of PWC 5

       Global Towsurfing Locations

    *California USA 26
    *Mexico 9
    *Hawaii USA 16
    *Australia 12
    Tasmania 1
    New Zealand 4
    *Brazil 6
    Chile 3
    *South Africa 12
    *British Columbia, Canada 4
    Azores 3
    Canary Islands 2
    *Oregon USA 9
    *Washington USA 6
    Tahiti 3
    *Indonesia 12
    Moorea 2
    France 3
    Spain 3
    Portugal 4
    Ireland 5
    United Kingdom 7
    Nova Scotia, Canada 3
    *Rapa Nui 1
    New York, USA 3
    Costa Rica 2
    Florida, USA 6

    Cape Town, South Africa. Local surrounding beach community associations made a presentation to the governing authorities to ban PWC near their beach front homes in 2004. In January of 2005, a complete PWC ban was enacted. Local authorities have now begun preventing PWC users from launching at local launch ramps. There are only 14 tow surfers in the region & 8 PWC total.

    Mavericks, California. The infamous big wave location is within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary over the guidance of NOAA. It is also within a local nature preserve called 'The Fitzgerald Preserve'. Currently Mavericks is facing multiple PWC restrictions for tow surfing, photography and rescue purposes.

    A group of tow surfers descends upon a nature preserve island for a photo and film shoot. The proper authorities were not notified, nor were the appropriate permits enlisted. All persons were issued citations and vessels were confiscated. This resulted in a PWC ban enacted to protect the zone and a conflict arose between environmentalists and tow surfing supporters

    *identifies locations within known Sanctuaries and Preserves

       Locations that have restricted or banned PWC use:
    Note some are being revoked

  • San Juan County, Washington
  • Mendocino County, California
  • Monroe County, Florida
  • San Francisco County, California
  • Pacifica, California
  • City of Malibu, California
  • Walton County, Florida
  • Newport Beach, California
  • Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, California
  • Channel Isles, California
  • Hawaiian Islands, Hawaii
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • Isla De Lobos, Brazil
  • Psychos, California Gulf of the Farallones, California
  • Long Island "Fire Island', New York
  • Cape Lookout National Seashore
  • Farallon Isles, California

  •    Photographer/Videographer/Filmmaker
    Many surf related photographers rely on personal watercraft for taking photos on the shoulder of a break or inside tracking with the wave or the impact zone. Sometimes the photographer is the operator of the craft, and other times he has a "driver' while he shoots from either the forward facing or reverse facing position, or from a rescue board. Other times a photographer relies upon the services of a helicopter for aerial shots. Many locations are far from land and not accessible.

    Equipment Needs and Associated Costs (approximate needs)
    Equipment Needs and Associated Costs (approximate needs)


    Initial Startup based on Annual Associated Costs APPROXIMATE COST NEW (US Dollar)

    1 3-person personal watercraft (3 seater)

    *does not include percentage fee for loan on watercraft, tax or license $9,800.00

    Tow surfing boards (min one per athlete) *with foot straps 850.00

    Vessel Registration 10.00 (varies)

    Rescue Board with attachment hardware 1,300.00

    Hull modifications for rough water conditions (compartment straps) 65.00

    Tow Line for vessel 65.00

    USCG approved lifejacket x 2 @ 75ea = $150 75.00

    Wetsuit, hood x 2 $325.00ea 325.00

    Booties x 2 @ $40ea 40.00

    Gloves x 2 @ 45ea 45.00

    Trailer (one water vehicle trailer is $800-does not include maintenance)

    2 place trailer 1,380.00

    Spare Tire and rim 85.00

    Battery Charger and spare tools, tool chest 235.00

    Tow Vehicle (preferably truck, does not include fuel/maintenance) 38,000.00

    Tow Package: Receiver/hitch/lock 480.00

    Electrical Wiring Harness or Vehicle 55.00

    1 year PWC Basic Maintenance Costs 800.00

    1 year PWC Boat Insurance 475.00

    Water proof bags for communications (2) 65.00

    PWC Emergency equipment (miscellaneous) 285.00

    VHS Handheld Marine Band Radio 275.00

    Handheld GPS 125.00

    Batteries for GPS 18.00

    Water Whistle x 2 @ $10ea (required on coastal waters) 20.00

    Rescue Tube 75.00

    PWC Visual Aids (Orion multi flare pack) 79.00

    Lanyards (minimum of 3 @ $35 each from mfg) 105.00

    Fuel (Average for one season estimated at 20 days of use x 18.5 gallons per full tank of fuel, including 5 refills for longer sessions)

    462.5 gallons x $2.80 per gallon at 93 octane 1,295.00

    Garden hose for flushing/washing 29.00

    Hydroturf deck mats and foot chocks 110.00

    Gath Helmet 145ea x 2 145.00

    Launch Ramp Fees/parking x 20 @ $10 each (some are free) 200.00

    Compass 39.00

    Rescue Knife 65.00

    Intake Clearing Tools (4 items) 49.00

    Surfboard Storage Bag 95.00

    Trailer tie-downs (2 sets) 49.00

    PWC canvas cover 165.00

    Locks/cables for anti-theft 95.00

    Anchor/chain/line 85.00

    Personal Medical Insurance (annual policy) 3,000.00

    Boat/Trailer storage @ 40 per month x 12 480.00

    Fin Belt 35.00

    Fins 60.00

    Boating Education & Fees: $800.00 *

    TOTAL $ 61,128.00

    Additional variable travel expenses:


    Average Excursion Length (7 days per person)

    Airfare - 48 hour notice $2,500 to $5,800 $3,200.00

    Long term parking airport $12 per day x 7 days 84.00

    Shuttle/cab service/tips * varies

    Car rental and fuel $125.00 per day x 7 days 875.00

    Hotel fees $90.00 per night x 7 nights 630.00

    Food $62 per day x 7 nights 294.00

    Travel Insurance 125.00

    Extra baggage Shipping fee for tow boards $100 per board 200.00

    Approximate TOTAL $5,428.00 search: 'Towsurfing' posts
  • 113,000 for tow surfing
  • 114,000 for tow in surfing
  • 57,300 for sling surfing

  • search: 'Personal Watercraft' posts
  • 2,240,000 for Jet Ski
  • 838,000 for Personal Watercraft
  • 150,000 for Waverunner

  •    Launching locations in southern/central California and governing agency jurisdiction
    1. Treasure Island, San Diego (San Diego Port Police)
    2. Oceanside Harbor, San Diego (Oceanside Police/Harbor Department)
    3. Redondo Harbor (lift), Los Angeles (Redondo Harbor Department/Baywatch)
    4. San Pedro, Port of Los Angeles (Los Angeles Port Police)
    5. Santa Barbara Harbor, Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara Harbor Department)
    6. Gaviota State Beach (lift) (State Lifeguards)
    7. Pismo Beach (beach launch) (State Lifeguards)
    8. Morro Bay Harbor, Morro Bay (Morro Bay Harbor Department, USCG Station)
    9. Monterey Bay Boat Launch, Monterey (USCG Station, Monterey Harbor Department, State Lifeguards, NOAA officer)
    10. Moss Landing, Monterey County (State Lifeguards, NOAA Officer)
    11. Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz City (Santa Cruz Lifeguards, State Lifeguards, Santa Cruz Harbor Department, NOAA officer)
    12. Pillar Point Harbor, Princeton (Pillar Point Harbor Department, State Lifeguard, NOAA officer)
    13. BEACH LAUNCHING: Cayucos, Jalama, Gaviota, private beaches

    *NOTE: Does not include private waterfronts or resorts/park facilities

       Tow Surfing Training/Education
    1. Hawaii Tow Surfing Courses and Certification program 1 day classroom only
    2. Personal training sessions timeframe: TBA
    3. K38 Water Safety 1-3 day boat training courses classroom/field
    4. Derrick Doerner: Personal Instruction
    5. The Willis Brothers: Personal Instruction
    6. Tow Surf South Africa: 2 day training course classroom/field


    Females participating in sport as of January 2005 22

    Hawaii - through registration of "Thrill Craft' Tow Surfing certification program
    *may have international/stateside representatives 440

    California 340

    Eastern/Southern United States 175

    North America (non US) 45

    Africa 65

    Central America/Caribbean 50

    South America 95

    Europe 210

    Oceania/Indonesia 90

    Asia 12


  • Estimated Number of Personal Watercraft Involved in the year 2005: 386
    based on 4 person team ratio to one PWC

  • Age: 12 years of age to 57 years of age

  • Average Age: 31 year old male

  • PWC speed tracking waves: Varies upon swell speed average from 11-28 miles per hour

    The average trolling speed is approximately 19 miles per hour due to medium wave speed and surface conditions, the larger the wave, the faster the speed.

  •    Sponsorship/Marketing/Corporate Investment
    This Overview does not include the fiscal impact of jobs created by the sport of towsurfing, or the services that support this activity, such as hotels, airlines, fuel, food and beverage, travel and sales for events, staff or other necessities. Sponsors support athletes financially or supply product for professional pursuits, expeditions or photo sessions. Advertising and marketing expenses, personnel, and level of support are not known collectively as a group.

       Positive Recommendations
    Education and Safety are positive benefits for the sport of tow surfing. Here are some positive suggestions to use for the benefit of participants. Knowledge is your power, there are many online PWC courses available for free. Take hands on boating courses, continue your education boating pursuits, you can never know enough before you tow!

    1. Thoroughly understanding and abiding by current boating laws and regulations will help towsurfers to preserve their recreational pursuits. Investigate the sources for information.

    2. Joining a membership group to help assist with any legislative concerns would be a positive benefit for the entire sport.

    3. Carrying full liability and medical insurance policies would help offset any out of pocket expenses if an emergency arose.

    4. Take a CPR and Basic first aid course

    5. Carry all necessary emergency gear, required by law and additional lifesaving products

    6. Understand how to use a handheld GPS and a Marine Band Radio

    7. Have the ability to read nautical charts and monitor radio weather channels

    8. Possess a strong swimming ability and be capable of taking a series of waves in the zone of operation

    9. Develop of communication program of whistle blasts and hand signals with team mates

    10. Have an emergency plan, know your zones of operation

    11. Know your team mates ability in waves and operating the PWC, never go beyond their limits and place them at risk

    12. Understand the operational characteristics of your PWC and rescue board in aerated water and big surf or beach breaks.

    13. Observe your PWC fuel consumption, 1/3 underway, 1/3 return, and 1/3 emergency

    14. Carry a working cell phone and carry emergency numbers laminated on a stowed card

    15. Develop wave knowledge with a personal watercraft in stages of operational development.

    16. Maintain your PWC properly and make/use daily checklists, file in log book

    17. Carry emergency notifications on board that are laminated

    18. Take digital photos of your PWC/trailer/vehicle for filing

    Note: These statistics are derived from personal experiences, conversations, editorial, and internet resources and do not constitute a complete or final analysis. This is subject to the integrity of sources and validity of subject matter conducted over a 90 day period, and is subject to change.

    Rules and Regulations are based upon the State of California boating law and PWC manufacturer recommendations, check with your local governing body prior to getting underway. K38 and its partners assume no liability for the information or interpretation of this free downloadable manual and overview. Reader/Participant acknowledges that tow surfing is an inherently dangerous activity that can result in serious injury or death. Take additional USCG approved boating courses, mandatory educational programs and certifications, CPR and First Aid Training or other required courses in your region.

    If you would like to add to this report, please e-mail your information supported by proof of documentation to:

    Author - Shawn Alladio
    K38 Water Safety

    Please go to the International Surfing Association link for a free download for towsurfers:

    Personal Contact, industry contact (injury/accidents)
       What You Need to Know Before You Tow
    Towsurfing is a high risk sport. Because of this fact, safety precautions and equipment need to be the first consideraton prior to launching a personal watercraft.

    The basic life support product, a lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD) is the number one priority for your team. Generally Type V or Type III PFD's are used for Personal Watercraft use.

    Many towsurfers complain about the use of a PFD, due to the lessening of physical mobility in comparison to surfing with just a wetsuit. The bulkiness and getting accustomed to wearing new gear inside the impact zone does take some getting used to. Nevertheless, a properly fitted PFD should be manadatory gear, but let's look a little further at this issue.

    The law in the United States on boating rules and regulations varies from State to State, all are required to have on board or worn USCG approved PFD's for passengers and operators. However, there are also USCG inflatable PFD's that come under compliance, but this doesn't mean they should be used for this high risk activity.

    Falls on board/overboard are the #1 boating accident fatality related issue due to drowning or being rendered unconcious by contact with the vessel. In towsurfing, oxygen deprivation, contact with the surfboard or impact with the surface of water can render an athlete unconsicous. Your head is heavy, it will fall forward face down into the water, it's only a matter of time before your body wants to gasp for air, but there won't be any.

    Aerated water alters the buoyancy factor of a PFD, due to the amount of air, the PFD isn't as efficient in normal water conditions. And with an inflatable you have no additional flotation available. The heavy water action can rip the waist belt or chest harness of an infatable off of your body instantly. You need a proper fitted type that works under these diverse conditions.

    Your head basically becomes a hinged bowling ball attached to your body, when you are being thrown around by the wave action. Remember, the wave energy has a mile per hour speed to it, angles, drops, resulting at some point released energy due to the underwater geomorphic terrain. There are many forces of action competing against your body language and equipment. How much do you value your life?

    What precautions are you willing to invest in to protect and ensure certain levels of your safety? A lifejacket is an important piece of your aresenal. They do require maintenance and replacement when wear or tear begins. The materials of inner foam construction break down with UV exposure, the way you take care of them, and to harmful vapors.

    The best Lifejacket is one that keeps your airway in an upright position. Many PFD's do not have the 'back neck pad' that helps keep your airway upright. These are a little bulkier and not popular for wear unfortunately. If you take in water to your stomach and lungs your body is heavier in the water, without the additional flotation of your PFD, your body may not come to the surface, especially in heavy aerated conditions.

    There is a fine timeline for rescue and recovery in these conditions, give yourself every opportunity you can seize for the opportunity for resucitation in drowning or near drowning situations. Even with muscle cramps or burst ear drums it can be difficult on the surface of the water for basic swimming survival, a PFD can help you and your team mate. A properly fitted PFD also gives your partner a grab handhold for assisting you out of the water and it offers a little bit of protection for hypothermia, wind chill and reducing potential injury.

    You only have a few minutes for survival under these conditions, give yourself every potential victory at your disposal. A lifejacket is just that, one of your greatest assets on the water, your life! Compliment it with the right PFD 'type' that understands the need of self survival and rescue.

    It won't work if you don't wear it.

    Shawn Alladio
    K38 Water Safety

       Sheboygan man drowns after falling from personal watercraft
    Associated Press

    SHEBOYGAN, Wis. - A 32-year-old man died during the weekend after falling off a personal watercraft in Lake Michigan about 1,900 feet offshore from North Point, authorities say.

    The coroner's office determined that the death Saturday of Edwin J. Rivera of Sheboygan was due to drowning, Lt. Jim Risseeuw of the Sheboygan County Sheriff's Department said.

    Rivera was driving the watercraft when he apparently came off the craft while trying to maneuver it through a wave, the department said.

    A passenger, Dayra I. Botzau, 38, of Sheboygan, jumped off the watercraft after the accident in an attempt to help Rivera and was not injured, Risseeuw said.

    Rivera was wearing a waist-belt style personal flotation device, but it came off when he entered the water, the sheriffs department said.

    Tow-In Surfing is an ocean based sport that requires the use of a Personal Watercraft (PWC), Rescue Sled, Life Vests, Tow Rope/Handle and two very experienced and passionate big wave surfers. Drivers utilize a PWC, trailing a 30- 40 rope and handle, to position their surfer in the right part of fast moving ocean swells. When the surfer drops the rope he uses his momentum to catch waves that are generally un-catchable by paddle in surfers.

    Drivers monitor the position of their surfer at all times and place their PWC just behind the breaking wave to offer immediate assistance to a surfer who finishes or falls on each wave. Buoyant rescue sleds are attached to the back of each PWC providing a stable platform for surfers to grab a hold of and travel in and out of the line up on.

    The surfers life depends on his partners ability to drive that PWC, assist in pick-ups and come in for the intense rescue before the next mountain of water rolls over them. It is not uncommon for both surfer, driver and PWC get plowed over by four or five building size walls of whitewater.

    Big Wave Tow-In Surfing is a dangerous sport that requires the level of mental and physical conditioning that only year round conditioning and training can provide. Tow-In Surfing establishes bonds between partners not unlike a marriage and allows each partner to feel a part of the successes of each wave.

    The mental and physical preparation can include: underwater rock training, Indian runs, PWC swims, weight training, yoga, heavy cardio, biking, running, breathing exercises, free diving, dieting and making sure one gets proper rest.

    Small wave Tow-In Surfing allows surfers to perform maneuvers with more speed than ever before. In turn, aerial feats of unlimited potential await Tow-In athletes that use their motorized momentum to launch from any size of wave face.


    With the inherit dangers involved and the ever growing interest in eXtreme sports, tow-in surfing is and has become one of the most exciting competitive water sports in the world. It didn't happen over night, in fact it's a well known and documented fact that Laird Hamilton and a few of the boys from Hawaii, such as Buzzy Kerbox and Derrick Doerner were the first to take an inflatable Zodiac raft with a 40 h.p. motor out to a spot called Phantoms on the North Shore of Oahu in the very early 90's.

    Their approach was simply to check it out, Kerbox said, "We didn't even tow that day. We just went out in the boat, checked it out and drove around, while dropping into a 15-footer that almost ran us over. "It was a little creepy and if we'd been caught and flipped with the engine blazing, it could have been nasty," said Kerbox. It wasnt until the next go out in 1991 with a 60 h.p. Mercury Outboard when they started to get the hang of a motor assist tow, like a water-skier or wakeboarder. It was quick enough so that one could actually have the speed to glide down the giant open face. So after this, came the idea of a PWC assist watercraft. The following year they brought their experiences and passion to Peahi on Maui's North Shore (JAWS) to tow into surf even bigger and more powerful waves with the assistance of a PWC.


    Below is a list of suggested, necessary and required items that you may need in case of an emergency, basic PWC operations, needs and equipment for tow-in surfing.

    Suggested PWC Items:

  • Float Plan Filed
  • Refreshments and Hydration
  • Spare Lanyard
  • Bow Tow Line
  • Fog Horn
  • Whistle
  • Illumination waterproof flashlight, glo-stick and other
  • Gear Bag
  • Throw Bag
  • Goggles/Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Knife
  • Intake Clearing Tools
  • Various lengths in zip ties
  • Duct Tape
  • Jumper Cables/Spare Battery
  • Spare Tool Kit
  • Waterproof Bags
  • Small Waterproof Tool Containers
  • Spare Fuses and Spark plugs
  • Compass and GPS
  • First Aid Kit
  • Snorkel-Dive Mask-Fins
  • Anchor and 125 Rope for various depths
  • Safety Clips
  • Budgie Cords & Various Lengths and Sizes of Rope
  • Lighter/Water Proof Matches
  •    Suggested Tow-In Surfing Equipment:
  • A Personal Water Craft (3-seater)
  • Hydro Turf Deck Pads for PWC
  • Straps for seats and storage compartments
  • Trailer with box, tie downs and spare tire
  • Towboard (Progressive, Dick Brewer, Dan Moore)
  • BZ Rescue Sled
  • Jet Pilot USCG Approved or Non-Approved Personal Life Jack
  • HSA 30-45 Tow Rope and Handle
  • Gath Helmet
  • HSA Quick Release System for Tow Rope
  • HSA Mounting Hardware
  • HSA Rescue Ring
  • HSA Bow Tow Line
  • DaKine Foot Straps
  • Specs Extreme Water Glasses/Goggles
  • Hydro Turf Deck Pads for Foot Strap Area
  • Full or Short Wetsuit depending on Water Temps
  • Hood-Booties-Gloves-Rash Guard-Lycra
  • Leash
  •   Note: Annual fees and requirements on registration for PWCs and trailers will vary from each state and country. It is suggested to have your PWC and equipment insured and take state licensing courses that may be required to tow-in surf. For more information on PWC Risk Technician, Ocean Safety, Tow-In Equipment and Surfing Courses, you may e-mail or call Eric at (805) 443-2045. You may also check our Safety & Training page for a list of instructors.

    TOW SURFING GUIDELINES for 'User Etiquette'
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    By: Shawn Alladio- K38 Water Safety
    August 2004

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