The Evolution of Tow Surfing
NewsWednesday 08 October 2014
The introduction of boats and personal watercrafts (PWC’s) into the world of surfing has been described to have “brought about the only real quantum leap in surfing's history."
Since the sport of surfing began, surfers were been unable to overcome the sheer power of waves over 25ft. Being towed out by a motorised vessel saved surfers from paddling out long distances and also propelled them forward as the waves towered behind them.
Power-assisted surfing was experimented with back in the early 1960’s and self-proclaimed biggest wave surfer of his time Jim "Wildman" Neece tried speedboat-powered "water-ski takeoffs" in Hawaii in the mid 70’s. PWC’s were used by a number of pro tour champions in the late 80’s to tackle 10ft waves, but the true invention of tow-in surfing is widely attributed to surfing legends Buzzy Kerbox, Laird Hamilton, and Darrick Doerner, who in 1992 began using a Zodiac boat to hit 15ft waves at speed, using the tow-in method that is now synonymous with big wave surfing.
Using the boat to launch the surfer forwards, as soon as the swell was caught, the surfer would let go of the tow-rope and attempt to master the wave alone. The Zodiac was soon exchanged for a PWC and the revolution of tow-in surfing took off as it hit the silver screen in the classic film Endless Summer II.
The trend for tow-in surfing began to make an impact on surfboard design. With paddle speed no longer being a key attribute to a board, tow-in boards evolved into small and sleek boards, approximately 6'6" by 15", often with the addition of footstraps to help with balance. Laird Hamilton described the sensation as “a combination of flying, sailing and just going as fast as you've ever been. Really, it’s just the sensation of speed.”
Some skeptics believed that tow-in surfing was essentially cheating, but the ability to tackle bigger waves and attempt far more waves per session was enough to build a loyal fan base. Although the surfing community was somewhat divided over this issue, everyone wanted to see what tow-in surfing could achieve. Tow-in surfing quickly matured and by 1994, Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama and Pete Cabrinha were riding waves over 35ft.
Despite appearing to be far more dangerous, the head start given from being towed-in accounts for less frequent wipe outs than paddle-in big wave surfing. When these wipe outs do occur however, they can be extremely violent and one of the biggest dangers is being held underwater for extended periods of time as the wave passes.
In 1998, Ken Bradshaw became the first surfer to overcome the 60ft wave, and in 2011, Garrett McNamara, conquered the 70-foot barrier.
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Image Credit: Flickr User - Michael Dawes
Article by Jack Bartrop