Machine Age Clash Among Surfers

February 25, 2002



HALF MOON BAY, Calif. - "There was a time," Jeff Clark

said, "when looking at the biggest waves at Maverick's was

like looking at the moon from the earth and asking, 'What

would it take to get there?' "


In the early 1990's, Mr. Clark and a small cadre of fellow

surfers gained attention by surfing Maverick's, a spot off

Pillar Point south of San Francisco with some of the

largest waves on the planet. But the most massive waves,

towering above 35 feet, were simply too big and fast to



"We didn't have the vehicles or the technology to put us on

the moon," he said.


Later in the decade the technology was found, in the form

of highly maneuverable motorized personal watercraft, more

commonly known as PWC's. With these machines, a surfer

could be towed into waves like a skier behind a boat. The

result was a staggering advance in the pursuit of waves

that trip seismographs when they break.


Yet the tow-in surfers of Maverick's may be pulled back to

earth by a combination of environmental and legal concerns

and their own unpopularity.


The opposition these surfers face is almost as daunting as

the mountainous waves here in frigid, shark- infested

waters in the northern corner of the Monterey Bay National

Marine Sanctuary.


Environmental groups say the watercraft are noisy,

polluting and a threat to wildlife. The federal agency that

oversees the sanctuary is considering banning the machines,

which have already been banished from a wildlife area up

the coast. In addition, many traditional surfers whom

tow-in surfers count as friends simply hate what they are

doing, denouncing them as intruders and a danger to

themselves and those around them.


"In my 40 years of being a surfer, I've never seen any

issue turn into as big a maelstrom as this," said Dr. Mark

Renneker, an oncologist who has surfed here without

mechanical help since the early 90's and is one of tow-in

surfing's most vocal opponents.


Maverick's was once the domain of a very few. The place

found the media spotlight after Surfer magazine published

an article about it in 1993. When a Hawaiian surfer, Mark

Foo, died here in 1994, its infamy was assured. Today,

after large storms track across the Pacific, swelling

numbers of surfers and photographers descend here to ride

and document every wave.


Previously an informal agreement held that if paddling

surfers were in the water, the tow-in teams would wait to

surf, but on an enormous swell last November, "the tow-in

guys, they couldn't control themselves," Dr. Renneker said.


"They were just sitting there revving their engines and

creating all the smoke and fumes," he added. "Then they

began to buzz around us, trying to catch waves off to the

side. They catch a wave, they have to go fish their

brethren out of the water who get clobbered, and they roar

past you at 30 or 40 miles per hour with the ski rope

flying all over, like they're on a rescue mission. If you

were underwater, they wouldn't know where you were."


In January, the debate reached a new level an hour down the

coast in Santa Cruz. A collision between a tow-in surfer

and a paddle surfer in dangerous surf at a spot called

Mitchell's Cove caught the attention of the local

authorities, and a flurry of e-mail alerted the National

Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which regulates the

5,300-square-mile sanctuary.


"PWC users and surfers are heading at each other at high

speed, and there will be a collision unless they slow down,

talk to each other and find a way to resolve potential

conflicts with marine life and habitats," said Dan Haifley,

a marine biologist who heads the recreational advisory

council for the sanctuary and will make final

recommendations to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric

Administration on changes to the legal status of tow-in

surfing here.


The Monterey sanctuary occupies 275 miles of coast from

Cambria north to San Francisco, and is home to 11

endangered and 7 threatened species of birds, fish, turtles

and marine mammals that live in or migrate through the



Last October, NOAA banned motorized watercraft from the

Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, just

north of the Monterey sanctuary, saying that "no other

vessel type has demonstrated so many wide and varied

detrimental aspects." It cited the machines' exhaust and

tendency to disturb marine mammals and birds.


The conflicts among surfers, Mr. Haifley says, are issues

for the Coast Guard and harbor patrols to sort out, but

environmentally, "there has been a precedent set with the

Farallones ban." The agency is in the early stages of its

policy review, and a ruling on tow- in surfing is probably

three years away. "It could very well be that this activity

does not have a great effect on marine life because it's so

infrequent," Mr. Haifley said. "But we don't know yet."


Most tow-in surfers chafe at being labeled

anti-environmental. Mr. Clark said: "Maverick's is my

church. I've spent some of the most meaningful moments of

my life out there. We operate PWC's at Maverick's 15 days a

year in a square mile of ocean. How many cars are on the

road? The gas that comes out of your tailpipe, oil, brake

linings. All that runs down your gutter into a tributary

and right into the ocean. Our effect is infinitesimal

compared to that."


The Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group, has

angered some of its own members by opposing the use of

motorized watercraft other than for rescue and safety.

"There have been comments that we're eco-facist liberals

trying to dictate to a bunch of surfers," said Tim Duff,

chairman of the San Mateo chapter. "That's not what we're

about. We're all surfers with strong ties to the community.

As an environmental group, we'd look really lame if we took

another position."


Grant Washburn, a Maverick's surfer who makes films from

motorized watercraft and has towed Mr. Clark into many

waves, summed up the surfing world's conflicted feelings.

"In general, the human race has demonstrated a `party now,

worry about it later' attitude," said Mr. Washburn, who was

once run over by a machine that went in to rescue him after

a wipeout. "The Jet Ski is a guilty pleasure, and I don't

like to be responsible for making a mess out here. We were

out last night, it was a beautiful sunset, an amazing view.

You could see the whales and the other animals, but at the

same time, there's this Daytona 500 mentality.

"I love it, but I hate



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