Towsurfer.com was created and founded by Eric Akiskalian in 1998 with a vision to promote the responsible growth of big wave and tow-in surfing.

Our Goal:

To increase the presence of ocean safety and rescue personnel in the waters during giant swells at specifically chosen big wave locations around the world.

Our Mission:

To promote and ensure ocean safety, awareness and education while promoting the sport of tow-in surfing and big wave surfing.

Our Objective:

To offer man power, equipment and or financial support to current ocean safety and rescue personnel at specifically chosen big wave locations around the world.

 Online Store Safety Products and Equipment:

We sell all the necessary tow-in equipment, custom towboards, rescue sleds, ropes, tow handles, and safety gear needed to properly outfit your PWC. We also carry life vests and inflatables for big wave paddle-in and tow-in surfing. Please visit our online store.

Available Services:

International Logistics, Ocean Safety/Water Patrol, PWC and Tow-In Training, Youth and Adult Surf Lessons, Surf Adventure Travel Guide, Television/Event – Commentary/Host, Youth Empowerment and Motivational Speaking

 Ocean Safety:

In return for your continued support, Towsurfer.com is able to deliver crucial and current material on technical training and ocean safety. As we bring you up to date with ongoing contests, exclusive editorials and weather reports, it is our goal to have a global presence that is respected and backed by our visitors, sponsors and partnerships. With our available services, products and media contacts to the sport, Towsurfer.com has become one of the leading industry sites for the past two decades for eXtreme Paddle-in and Tow-in surfing.

The 10 Commandments of the Big Wave Surfer:

Scary wipeouts, never-ending hold-downs, steep drops and inevitable bail-outs. Big wave surfing can be painful and, sometimes, your life is in serious danger.

Big wave surfers have learned to prepare for big occasions. Their daily job requires a perfect balance between physical health and mental preparation. You are not born a big wave rider. You may become a big wave rider. There’s too much at stake when you’re traveling down the wave face at 50 mph (80 km/h) and, on your back, a massive wall of water chases you at full throttle.

Brock Little, Laird Hamilton, Shane Dorian, Garrett McNamara, Grant Twiggy Baker, Grant Washburn, Greg Long, Ian Walsh, Jay Moriarty, Jeff Clark, Mike Parsons, Peter Mel, Ross Clarke-Jones are some of the best big wave surfers of all time.

They share the commandments of the big wave surfer. So, what have they got in mind, when it’s time to paddle for the biggest ride of their lives?

1. Never take off on the first wave of a big set. It’s hard to resist a good-looking wave when you’re waiting for 10 minutes and adrenaline wants to pump your whole body. The problem is that, if you wipeout, you will take the entire set on the head;

2. Let the whitewater control the movement of your body. If you get caught by the wave or if you wipe out, don’t resist the power of the whitewash. You’ll lose energy and oxygen. Let yourself go in a fetal position;

3. Always wear a buoyancy or inflatable surf vest. A floatation vest can save your life and get you to the surface during life-threatening hold-downs;

4. Control panic, let fear do its job; Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. You don’t want that. On the other side, fear is a basic survival mechanism. Fear is good and should be driven to big-wave management;

5. Bail out the smartest way possible. Know the ocean bottom and visualize the behavior of the wave behind you before bailing out;

6. Learn to wipe out. Always jump away from your board, avoid head dives, protect your brain, keep cool and open your eyes underwater;

7. Never go out all by yourself in a big wave surfing day. If things go wrong, you won’t have a jet ski saving your life. Paddling out alone is probably the worst mistake a big wave surfer can make.

8. Study currents, ocean bottom and wave peaks before paddling out. Knowledge is power. Before paddling out, take your time and gather as much information as you can about the big wave spot, and you will reduce your anxiety levels.

9. Learn to track swells and how to read weather charts. Surf science will help you pick the spot, the day and the right time to battle the wave titans. There are great surf forecasting books in the market.

10. Practice Yoga and Pilates, improve your eating habits and increase your lung capacity. Stretching and increasing the amount of air your lungs can absorb is as critical as setting a relaxed mindset for riding giants.

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 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 newcomers 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 about liability, safety, and conflict of use problems 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 an annual average. There is limited access to 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 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, Buzzy Kerbox, Darrick Doerner, and Strapped Crew surfers in Hawaii in the early 90s. Tow Surfing can be attributed to similar sports such as wakeboarding, surfing, and waterskiing, where 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 emerged 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 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 the use of PWC for faster, expressive surfing exhibitions in very small wave sizes, and small surf competitions to entertain beachside spectators.

Tow Surfing Expansion:

Our global expansion of population and encroachment on waterway use and management, complemented with safety issues for water users and product manufacturers combined with boating laws and regulations forces us to take action with 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).

Table Mountain National Park located in South Africa is issuing “permits’ for review of the sport and the participants through compliance with set rules and regulations until December 30, 2005. Revisions, and 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 3,500 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 effect 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 exist, and only 4 stroke vessels are being sold in the State of California dealerships to date. Many towsurfers are using four strokes 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 was 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, and 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 to 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 a 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, Step-Offs, Tow-In Surfing, Strap 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 operate 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 300,000 registered Personal Watercraft in the State of California

 State of Hawaii Defines PWC as: ‘Thrill Craft’

*There is 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 uses 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 a leash attached.

The operator will tow the athlete into a peaking large wave face prior to plunging. The 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 40 feet or more when paddle surfing was not optional.

Definition of Towable Devise:

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 planning 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 who 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 known to “tow’ 2 people on a line with towboards

 Tow Surfing / Big Wave Surfing, Current, and Past Competitions or Exhibitions: (approximate)

  1. World Cup of Tow Surfing- Jaws, Hawaii – 2002
  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 – 2003
  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 Hawaii – 2004
  9. Red Bull 5X Surf Contest Florida – 2004
  10. Chile Challenge: South American Tow Surfing Challenge – 2004
  11. Haleiwa Tow In Competition-Hawaii – 2004
  12. Pe’Ahi Poi Bowl World Tow-In Surfing Hawaii – 2004
  13. Gravity Games Tow In Session 2004 Australia
  14. Annual International Tow Surfer Awards-towsurfer.com
  15. Red Bull 5X-North Shore tow in Event-2003 Hawaii
  16. Kawasaki Surf Bash-Sling Surfing Competition California – 2004
  17. Billabong/Santa Cruz Surfboards 1′ Foot Tow-In Surf Fest-California
  18. OP Surf Tour-“Tow Surfing Expression Session’- California – 2004
  19. Billabong Clipper-Aerial Search for Towsurfing Waves – 2004
  20. Red Bull UK Local Heroes Tour-South Africa 2004
  21. International Towsurfer Awards – 2004
  22. Billabong Global XXL Big Wave Awards – Now the WSL
  23. Nelscott Reef Tow-In Competition – 2005
  24. Zon North Canyon Project by Garrett McNamara – 2013
  25. World Surf League (WSL) Big Wave Awards – Present
  26. Big Wave World Tour (BWWT) – Present
  27. World Surf League (WSL) Big Wave Tour – Present
  28. Red Chargers Nazare Project – 2016
  29. Nelscott Reef Big Wave Surfing Pro-Am – Current

Towsurfing Associations:

Association of Professional Towsurfers; (APT) -Eric Akiskalian, Director (Washington)

World Tow Surfing Association; referred to as (WTSA)-Ken Bradshaw, Director (Hawaii)

Tow Surf South Africa; (TSSA)

Australia Tow Surfing Association (Queensland) Paul Garrard [email protected]

 Agency Search and Rescue Support Concerns:

Swell peak teams are depending on the time of day, tidal considerations and location of launch to the 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: 

  1. North America
  2. Central America
  3. South America
  4. Australia
  5. Oceania/Indonesia
  6. Africa
  7. Europe
  8. Asia
  9. Hawaii

Global Towsurfing Locations and # of Tow Zones:

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

The 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 beachfront homes in 2004. In January 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 under 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

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 / Video / Film:

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.

Launching Locations in Southern 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 Surf Training and Courses:

  1. Hawaii Tow Surfing Courses and Certification Program: 1-day classroom only
  2. Towsurfer.com: Personal training sessions time frame: TBD
  3. K38 Water Safety 1-3 day boat training courses classroom/field
  4. Derrick Doerner: Personal Instruction
  5. Tow Surf South Africa: 2-day training course classroom/field

Sponsorship / Marketing / Corporate Investment:

This Overview does not include the fiscal impact of jobs created by the sport of tow surfing, 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 products 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, and 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 of information.
  1. Joining a membership group to help assist with any legislative concerns would be a positive benefit for the entire sport.
  1. Carrying full liability and medical insurance policies would help offset any out of pocket expenses if an emergency arose.
  1. Take a CPR and Basic first aid course
  1. Carry all necessary emergency gear, required by law and additional lifesaving products
  1. Understand how to use a handheld GPS and a Marine Band Radio
  1. Have the ability to read nautical charts and monitor radio weather channels
  1. Possess a strong swimming ability and be capable of taking a series of waves in the zone of operation
  1. Develop of communication program of whistle blasts and hand signals with teammates
  1. Have an emergency plan, know your zones of operation
  1. Know your teammate’s ability in waves and operating the PWC, never go beyond their limits and place them at risk
  1. Understand the operational characteristics of your PWC and rescue board in the aerated water and big surf or beach breaks.
  1. Observe your PWC fuel consumption, 1/3 underway, 1/3 return, and 1/3 emergency
  1. Carry a working cell phone and carry emergency numbers laminated on a stored card
  1. Develop wave knowledge with a personal watercraft in stages of operational development.
  1. Maintain your PWC properly and make/use daily checklists, file in log book
  1. Carry emergency notifications on board that are laminated
  1. 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.

Online Resources:










Google.com (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 consideration 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 mandatory 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 unconscious by contact with the vessel. In towsurfing, oxygen deprivation, contact with the surfboard or impact with the surface of water can render an athlete unconscious. 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 inflatable off of your body instantly. You need a properly 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, and angles drops, resulting in 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 arsenal. 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 the opportunity for resuscitation in drowning or near-drowning situations. Even with muscle cramps or burst eardrums, it can be difficult on the surface of the water for basic swimming survival, a PFD can help you and your teammate. 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, and wind chill and reduces 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 for self-survival and rescue. It won’t work if you don’t wear it.

Introduction – What is Tow-In Surfing:

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 surfer’s life depends on his partner’s 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 gets 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 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.

In the Beginning:

With the inherent 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 overnight, 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 on 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 wasn’t until the next go out in 1991 with a 60 h.p. Mercury Outboard when they started to get the hang of a motor assists 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.

Suggested PWC Items and Tow-In Surfing Equipment List:

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 Items:

Float Plan Filed

Refreshments and Hydration

Spare Lanyard

Bow Tow Line

Fog Horn


Illumination waterproof flashlight, glow stick, and other

Gear Bag

Throw Bag




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 Equipment List: 

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)

Wahoo LifeSled Rescue Sled

Jet Pilot USCG Approved or Non-Approved Personal Life Jack

Quatic Inflatable Surf Vest

30-45 Tow Rope and Handle

Gath Helmet

Quick Release System for Tow Rope

Mounting Hardware

Rescue Ring

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


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 [email protected] or call Eric at (805) 443-2045. 


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Original Edit By Shawn Alladio – K38 Water Safety – August 15, 2004

Last Edit By Eric Akiskalian – towsurfer.com – December 9, 2022

For information and ordering, contact:

Eric Akiskalian / Owner
Email: [email protected]
(805) 443-2045

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