The Beginning of Tow-In Surfing

Motorized form of big-wave riding popularized in the early 1990s, in which the surfer, towed from behind a personal watercraft (PWC), is whipped into the wave. For decades surfers had been unable to overcome the rushing trough-to-crest flow of water on waves bigger than 25 or 30 feet. Tow surfers, by giving themselves a running start, broke the 30-foot barrier easily and continued riding ever-larger waves—well over 50 feet by 2001. “Tow-in surfing,” surf journalist Sam George said, “has brought about the only real quantum leap in surfing’s history.”

The idea for power-assisted surfing dates back to at least 1963. “The surfer might be towed into the wave by a boat much like a water-skier,” California’s Mike Doyle wrote in Surf Guide magazine, wondering how a 35-foot wave might be mastered. Hawaii’s Jim Neece tried using a speedboat-powered “water-ski takeoff” on smaller waves in 1974, with the idea of riding huge surf at Kaena Point—a project he soon dropped. In 1987, California’s Herbie Fletcher used his PWC to tow a group of surfers, including pro tour champions Martin Potter and Tom Carroll, into 10-foot waves at Pipeline; in the fall of 1991, East Coast surfer Scott Bouchard was towed in to a half- dozen 12-footers at a Florida break called RC’s.

But the invention of tow-in surfing is rightfully credited to Hawaiians Buzzy Kerbox, Laird Hamilton, and Darrick Doerner, who began by using Kerbox’s inflatable Zodiac boat in late 1992 to tow each other into 15-footers at Backyards, near Sunset Beach, on the North Shore of Oahu. The idea was simply to get a running start at the wave; the tow-rope was dropped as soon as the swell was caught, and the rider was then on his own. Hamilton and Kerbox moved to Maui a few months later, where they replaced the Zodiac with a PWC, and turned a nearby big-wave break called Jaws into their tow-in laboratory. The first surf magazine articles on tow surfing were published in 1993; Endless Summer II, released the following year, brought the spectacular new form of surfing to the big screen.

With paddle speed no longer an issue (paddle-in big-wave “guns” are designed mainly to catch waves, and are about 10 feet long and 20 inches wide), the new tow-in boards were designed for riding only, and were soon pared down to about 6’6″ by 15″. Footstraps were added to increase leverage and balance. Strapped into their new short boards, the tow surfers were able to do swooping turns and cutbacks, whereas paddle surfers—had they been able to catch the wave in the first place—could do little more than angle their oversize guns for deep water. PWCs also whisked the rider back to the lineup following each ride (allowing the surfer to ride up to a dozen or more waves per hour; paddle surfers often ride just one or two waves per session), kept him from getting caught inside, and allowed for quick rescues following a wipeout.

By 1994, Hamilton had led a small group of Jaws-based surfers, including Dave Kalama and Pete Cabrinha, into waves measuring more than 35 feet, and was riding in a high-performance style that would have been unimaginable just five years earlier. Critics said that tow-in was a blasphemy against the very nature of surfing—that drawing a bead on an incoming wave and paddling into a vertical drop was in fact the essence of big-wave riding, and that the sport in general derived its beauty in large part from its lack of mechanization. Most people, however, realized that the sport had in fact split in two. The vast majority of surfers would continue to paddle-surf. A small number of devotees—less than one-percent of all surfers—would use PWCs.

The 155-horsepower Yamaha WaveRunner, with a top speed of 65 miles per hour, had become the tow-in surfer’s vehicle of choice by the early ’00s; tow-in accouterments include the flotation vest (to help the rider get to the surface after a wipeout), and a polyethylene foam rescue sled (attached to the back of the PWC and used as a life raft during post-wipeout drive-by pickups). Thirty feet of soft-braid water-ski line separates the rider from the PWC. Most surfers like to be towed in to the wave on a straight line; some prefer to run at the incoming swell and get “whipped” into position.

Thanks to the added control of having a running start, tow surfers wipe out far less often than paddle-in big- wave surfers; wipeouts, however, given the additional wave height, are especially violent. Tow surfing also helped give rise to “slab” riding, in which the surfer hunts down waves that are not only big, but ridiculously thick and often misshapen. Still, as of early 2013, there had been no tow-in surfing fatalities. Tow surfing by that time was in practice all over the surfing world, at places like Maverick’s and Cortes Bank in California, to Dungeons in South Africa, and various heavy-water breaks in Europe, Australia and the South Pacific.

Hawaii’s Ken Bradshaw, towing at Outside Log Cabins on the North Shore in 1998, became the first surfer to crack the 60-foot mark (as measured from trough to crest; using the prevalent “Hawaiian scale,” the wave was said to be 40 foot). In 2011, Garrett McNamara, also from Hawaii, broke the 70-foot barrier.

Tow surfing captured the attention of mainstream media outlets like nothing else in the sport’s history, turning up in the New York Times, National Geographic, Outside, and Vanity Fair, plus Hollywood movies, IMAX movies, TV commercials, and network news shows. Meanwhile, the long-simmering debate over the legality of tow surfing came to the surface in 2001, as environmentalists in California (supported by a small number of surfers, most notably San Francisco big-wave rider Mark Renneker) sought to have the noisy and polluting PWCs banned from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which covers 275 miles of central California coastline, including Maverick’s. As of 2013, PWCs were allowed at Mavericks only during contests.

Tow surfing began to lose cachet during the mid-2000s as big-wave riders like Greg Long, Mark Healey, Shane Dorian, and Kohl Christensen began paddling into waves that were once considered too big to catch unaided. Some of the most powerful waves still remain firmly tow-in only at size, including Tahiti’s Teahupoo, and Australia’s Shipstern Bluff. But paddle surfing has again become the fashionable mode of big-wave riding.

The Tow-In World Cup, held at Jaws in early 2002, was the first tow-in competition; winners Garrett McNamara of Hawaii and Brazil’s Rodrigo Resende split the $70,000 first-place prize. The Billabong XXL Awards, given out to the riders of the biggest and meanest waves of the year, typically include a handful of tow-in surfing nominations. In 1996, Sarah Gerhardt of California became the first woman tow-surfer, riding 15-footers on the North Shore of Oahu.


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