Since my days of shredding Newport as a grom, surfing has arrived in places I never would have imagined. Not only is it moving above the wave, with aerial maneuvers that are starting to rival those of snowboarding and skateboarding, but that Holy Grail of riding a 100 foot wave is fast approaching. Technological changes in board design and materials have contributed to this rapid evolution and advances in meteorology/surf forecasting are making it possible to know on a global level where the biggest waves are going to hit.
There’s no doubt above the wave surfing is mind blowing — its creativity endless — but what really sparks my imagination is big wave surfing and the tracking of behemoth waves.
Eddie wouldn’t tow… No, I think he might
Big wave surfing is divided into two camps; paddle in and tow in. In the surfing world, this is more than just a division of technique it’s a division of philosophy. Paddle in is as exactly as it sounds, you catch the wave by paddling into it. Of the two methods, paddling in is generally considered the more maverick — relying on a greater set of skills, strength and cohones.
Yet, there’s a point where waves become too big and too fast to paddle into and consequently — until relatively recently — impossible to catch. This is where tow surfing takes off. By using a PWC (personal watercraft i.e. jet ski) surfers can be whipped into waves at speeds which match, or even exceed, the waves themselves and thus allow them to be ridden. Where paddle in surfing is essentially a solo endeavor, towing is a coordinated team effort that’s as much about getting each other into waves as it is about getting them out when dangerous situations arise.
“Purists” often call this latter aspect of tow a cheat, saying if you can’t handle the waves on your own then you shouldn’t be in them in the first place. And while I can understand where this argument is coming from (a resentment against those who tow into conditions that can be paddled into), being caught inside on a 60 foot +, four wave hold down — PWC or no PWC — has got to be one of the scariest and most challenging things anyone would ever have to do in the ocean.
Below is a link to an illuminating interview with Northern California big wave surfer Mike Parsons talking about the nuances of tow surfing and his latest trip out to the Cortes Bank (an underwater mountain 100 miles off of San Diego) in January to catch some of the biggest waves ever ridden. It’s not a long interview, but it shines an interesting light on just how difficult and dangerous tow surfing can be in those type of conditions — wave heights approaching 100 feet. Timing, apparently, is everything.
If you want to know more about the history of big wave surfing — both paddle in and tow — check out Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants. It’s an entertaining primer with some amazing footage and great interviews with both the pioneers and modern pursuers of the sport.