Machine Age Clash Among Surfers
February 25, 2002
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
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
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
"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
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
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