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The History of Tow Surfing

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It’s strange to think how quickly Tow Surfing has become not just a legitimate surfing genre but even more: it’s the sport’s most awe inspiring leap forward in decades. The big wave surfing era began with Greg Noll, Pat Curren, et al in the late 1950s at key spots like Waimea, Makaha, and Pipeline. But with improvements in surfboard, forecasting, and wetsuit technology; it seemed that there was no wave in sight that couldn’t be tamed. But shrouded in mystery miles off the coast were outer reef breaks that fishermen and pilots watched for years with dreamy interest. The general notion, however, was that these waves were just too big to paddle into. Too much water was moving too fast to safely capture them with human power.

In the 80’s, Herbie Fletcher began riding a suped up jet ski all around the North Shore’s heaviest waves, making sections and eluding massive closeouts that would have killed a mortal paddler. In 1986, Fletcher even towed a few surfers into giant sets at Pipeline. Among them, Tom Carroll and Martin Potter got in on what went down as a quirky blip on the surfing history radar screen. Then in the early ‘90’s, Laird Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox began towing each other into massive waves at spots like Phantoms and Backyards using a rubber Zodiac. The boat gave them the power needed to catch huge waves and the speed needed to get clean out of danger. Further, the boat made short work of long paddles and swirling currents that could make for a full day’s paddle otherwise.

To watch Hamilton and Kerbox in those early days was like watching scientists conducting extreme sport experimental field work. They made mistakes and made discoveries and mastered their approach. In a big wave paddle session, a surfer might grab 3-4 waves, but with a boat, they were grabbing dozens of good rides.

Soon, a crew of tow-in mad scientists was forming in Maui as they began building boards designed specifically for towing into big waves. Straps and extra weight were added to keep surfers from rattling off the deck amid surface speed bumps. Since traditional big wave guns were long to help garner more paddle speed, tow boards could be shorter and thus offer greater maneuverability yet narrow to insure more hold. The tow board was born.

They soon found the perfect laboratory in a spot called “Jaws,” a grinding right-hander that breaks as big as the ocean will offer. A host of underground chargers like Dave Kalama, Pete Cabrinha, and Mark Angulla joined Hamilton, Kerbox, and Gerry Lopez in testing equipment and pushing the tow-in concept to unimagined extremes. The Endless Summer II gave the public the first glimpse of this new sub-category of surfing and soon the mags were dripping with the Maui crew’s exploits. Not long after, the surfers at Mavericks in Northern California jumped into the fray. The mid-90’s had become big wave surfing’s coming out party. Ken Bradshaw took the concept to its next “logical” step with a mammoth wave a mile out to sea off the North Shore. When Laird Hamilton towed into an unholy beast at Tahiti’s Teahupoo, it became clear that this new approach was no one-trick pony. It could unlock lineups that had gone vacant once they hit their “unridable” extreme.

Then, there was Mike Parsons at Cortes Bank and now slab hunters the world over who are finding new ways to sling themselves into grinding pits in far flung locales like Tasmania and Indonesia.

Garrett McNamara has been taking tow-in surfing to new levels with the use of a helicopter and missions to the Arctic and even a record breaking drop into a wave in Europe. Garrett won the Biggest Wave Award for his 78-foot beast in Portugal that beat out Mike Parsons’ Cortes Bank record by a foot.

Sure, critics have leveled charges that power assisted surfing is cheating and in some ways impure. A paddle movement arose around 2012 that tempered the tow craze that had put a strangle hold on big wave surfing for a decade. Mark Healy and Nathan Fletcher and Shane Dorian embraced classic paddle power for some dramatic surfing at spots like Jaws and Teahupoo and made the point that the simple art is still relevant in a time of exploding technology. But now that tow-in surfing has been unleashed, the game has changed and big wave surfing ceases to have limits.

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