Bare Hands: the return of paddle-in big-wave surfing

First published in The Surfers Path

© Tony Butt 2010 - Please be decent enough to contact me before plagiarizing my stuff

The towsurfing boom is over.  Paddling into big waves is back, with a vengeance.  The best big-wave riders on the planet have left their towropes behind and gone back to catching waves with their bare hands.

Big-wave riders all over the world have now realized that towsurfing only starts to become interesting when conditions are truly suicidal.  Otherwise it’s boring, too easy, not challenging.  The consensus among big-wave riders worldwide is that the towropes and towboards only come out when the waves are one hundred and ten percent un-paddleable.   The last remaining crews of tow-only surfers, where they exist, are no longer being taken seriously by the big-wave community.

For a while, it seemed that towsurfing was going to overshadow traditional big-wave riding in the media, with photos of gigantic blue waves with some guy at the bottom on a tiny board selling products really well.  But now, over the last couple of years in particular, the public’s attention is well and truly back on paddle-powered surfing, particularly since the epic winter of 2009-2010.

Although I cringe to say it myself, the big-wave contests run over the last couple of years – first in South America at Punta de Lobos and Pico Alto, then in South Africa at Dungeons, then at Mavericks, Waimea and Todos Santos – have helped to bring paddle-in surfing back into the public eye through well-organized webcasts and media coverage.  Now people are just starting to get the gist of how difficult it really is being out in waves of those proportions, and how talented and serious those guys must be.

The XXL awards also seem to have their positive side.  If you compare the photos submitted for nomination of two categories, namely the ‘Monster paddle’ and the ‘Biggest [inevitably towed-into] wave’ awards, over the last three years, you can see that the best of the best are paddling.  In 2007, less than half the number of photos were nominated for the monster paddle award than for the biggest wave award.  In other words, in 2007, towsurfing was more popular than paddle-in big wave surfing.  But then, in 2008, there were 30% more monster-paddle than biggest-wave photos, and in 2009 there were 60% more monster-paddles than biggest-waves.  Finally, in 2010, the biggest-wave photos paled into insignificance with over 300% more monster-paddle ones.  Don’t forget, this is after a winter in the North Pacific with non-stop gigantic swells.  It wasn’t that the conditions were particularly bad for towsurfing; it was just that everybody preferred to paddle.

Towsurfing originally started as a response to the years of frustrated attempts at Oahu’s outer reefs such as Outer Log Cabins, famously quoted as being the ‘unridden realm’.  Towsurfing really got off the ground during the 1990s, ironically, as a means of escaping the crowds and competitive nature at places like Waimea and Sunset Beach.  Equipment was quickly refined, and other spots were opened up, including the most famous one: Peahi (Jaws) on Maui.

Throughout the first few years, things were fine and people were fascinated.  The towsurfers were having fun at Jaws and the traditional big-wave riders were still enjoying the challenge at places like Waimea and Pico Alto.  Other spots such as Mavericks and Dungeons were still in their infancy.  Then, a few years later, the dilemmas started.  While Waimea remained paddle-only and Jaws remained tow-only, certain other spots, including Mavericks, could be either paddle or tow, depending on the conditions.  The problem was, of course, that different people had different ideas of ‘paddle’ and ‘tow’ conditions.

Eventually, tow-only crews started cropping up.  A few of these people had never ridden waves over ten feet high, and some admitted to never having seen, let alone ridden, a surfboard over nine feet long.  There were numerous conflicts in the water, with aggressive tow-only teams dominating the line-up and humiliating those who wanted to paddle, including one incredible case of a wild-west-style shoot-out at Pico Alto.  Tow-only surfers not respecting the line-up and not having the right big-wave experience was becoming a big problem, even in Hawaii.  Veteran North-Shore lifeguard and big-wave legend, Darrick Doerner, took up towsurfing precisely to get away from the crowds at Waimea and Sunset Beach, but ended up being haunted by them.  Meanwhile, Mavericks pioneers such as Jeff Clark and Grant Washburn politely gave towsurfing the benefit of the doubt.  They gave it a go on huge days at Mavericks, but never really got fully into it themselves.  Some staunch anti-tow advocates like Mark ‘Doc’ Renneker were a little more outspoken, but were hailed with abuse by arrogant towers afraid that someone would ban jetskis in a nature reserve and take away their fun (which they now have).  In short, a lot of people wished the whole thing would just go away.

Fast-forward to the present day, and things have turned full circle.  At the paddle/tow spots, the people are paddling in on days that would have clearly been tow-in only a couple of years ago.  But the most remarkable thing is that, now, they are paddling the ‘unridden realm’.  At first, it was considered obvious that these spots couldn’t be anything but tow-only, since people tried to catch them for years without success.  But now, on certain days, they are quickly becoming a paddle option.  What has happened is, since towsurfing was invented, the technology to get surfers out there and rescue them if they get in trouble has been steadily evolving.  And today’s elite, international big-wave surfers are getting a lot more big-wave water time than the handful of Hawaiian surfers who attempted those reefs 30 or 40 years ago.  In addition, people are now fully respecting the fundamental rule of all rules: no towing when someone is paddling.  Jetskis are used as water-taxis and rescue devices, nothing else.

One thing that can be seen at the outer reefs, perhaps more than anywhere, is that surfers are now looking for a paddle-in big wave that gives them more than just a drop.  A down-the-line wave with a gigantic wall on it, and the possibility for getting shacked, are what people are looking – but, of course, including the thrill of being out there and catching the wave with your own bare hands.  Board designs are evolving to accommodate this, with four-finned guns being seen more and more, giving that extra bite to hold a high line.

In South Africa, the big-wave community experienced the rise and fall of towsurfing in their own unique way.  Cape Town has had a thriving big-wave culture for decades.  A hardcore dedicated crew have been paddling into 15-foot waves at places like the Crayfish Factory and Sunset Reef for years, virtually ignored by the rest of the surfing world.  It was only about 10 years ago when, thanks in part to (dare I say it) a big-wave contest, Dungeons revealed itself as one of the gnarliest and most challenging waves on the planet.  When the jetski came to South Africa, the same small group of big-wave surfers who had been paddling the Factory and Sunset took up towsurfing at Sunset and Dungeons; with the occasional paddle day if conditions were super-clean.

South-African surfers are brilliant when it comes to restlessness and looking for new challenges.  After about two years of towing, the big-wave fraternity of Cape Town quickly realized that towing into 25-foot waves was getting boring.  It was much more exciting to paddle into them, despite a much lower wave count.  At Sunset and Dungeons, people began to wonder whether they could actually paddle into the waves on what were previously considered tow-in days. 

But the real turning point was in July 2008, when the Big Wave Africa contest was held in solid 25 to 30 foot Dungeons – conditions which, prior to that event, were always considered too big and gnarly to paddle.  Here is what people had to say after that contest:

“This event taught the world a thing or two about what is possible in paddle-in surfing” (Simon Lowe);

“They’ve got to re-write the big-wave history books now” (Grant Washburn);

“To me, tow-surfing is a means of catching waves that you can physically not paddle into.  It is a very efficient way of surfing, but I believe a lot of the stoke and gratification is lost when you use the assistance of a PWC to help you catch a wave.” (Greg Long).

“What it’s all about is paddling into those bombs” (Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker);

“You wanna call yourself a big-wave surfer, you’ve got to get on that big board, paddle out there and get into the zone – that’s what it’s all about” (Jonathan Paarman, Cape Town big-wave pioneer and contest organizer);

“We always, always prefer to paddle.  That’s how we became big wave surfers. It’s what we love and have spent the better part of our lives gathering wave knowledge for.  Big wave paddle surfing is where it’s at.  Towsurfing comes later, much later.  Paddling into and dropping down the face of a truly big wave is an experience that is very addictive and the main reason the sport is growing so rapidly.  The surfers who paddle into the biggest, heaviest waves are the guys who are patient, know what they’re doing, understand the dangers and the risks they’re taking, and garner the most respect; period.” (Mike Schlebach, up-and-coming Cape Town big-wave hero).

Since that event, Cape Town surfers have not looked back.  They continue surprising even themselves with the sheer size of waves they now realize they can paddle into.  A couple of sessions at Dungeons towards the end of winter 2009 saw waves with 40-foot faces or bigger being paddled into.

While the southern winter of 2009 was drawing to a close, an epic winter in California and Hawaii was just gaining momentum.  As the season unfolded, some of the most impressive paddle-in sessions took place and were continuously documented on the internet and in the magazines.  The big-wave contests at Waimea, Mavericks and Todos Santos, which can sometimes go for years without being held (the Eddie wasn’t held for seven years once), were all held this year.  Some of images of the waves paddled into were truly spectacular; most notably on the day before the Eddie and on the morning of the Mavericks contest just before it started.  Thousands of people experienced the events live and several million more watched them on the internet.

Also documented this past winter was an epic paddle session at Nelscott Reef in Oregon.  Nelscott is considered to be the ideal tow-in wave, and every year a towsurfing contest is held there.  However, the organizers insist that “Big wave credentials are established by paddling big waves, not by buying a jet ski” and have started holding a paddle event just to make sure contestants know what they are doing before they tow.  The paddle session this year got just as much if not more publicity that the tow event. 

Finally, Cortes Bank was actually paddled on 27 December 2010 by a big-wave ‘dream crew’ including Peter Mel, Greg Long and Twiggy Baker.  Taking everything into consideration, including the fact that Cortez is over 200 km from the land, this was surely a landmark session.

Of course, most of us don’t care who won the XXL this year, and some of us perhaps even think (like me) that surfing a wave to win money, become famous be better than someone else is ‘just not right’.  However, these last couple of years I’ve managed to extract something positive out of all the contests, publicity and hype.  It is actually quite useful to see what the super-elite are up to, as a kind of yardstick.  While they are pushing the limits into the unknown, we can push our own limits in our own way.  Maybe get a slightly bigger gun and try a 12-foot wave when your previous limit was 10, for example.  What is not cool any more, is towing when you should be paddling.