Jet Skis Changed Big Wave Surfing

Changing our perception of big wave riding: Frank Quirarte and the “Jet Ski.” Photo: Seth de Roulet

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new series, “By Design” with Sam George that examines the genius, and sometimes the mystery, of surfing’s storied design history. Sam has been writing about surfing for more than three decades and is the former Editor-in-Chief of SURFER magazine. He won an Emmy for his work on the 30 for 30 documentary, Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau. Today, Sam looks at the use of Jet Skis in big wave surfing.

“Oh, it’s had a humungous affect on the progression of big wave surfing over the past 30 years. No question. ”

This from Frank Quirarte, the renowned surf photographer and heavy water safety expert from Half Moon Bay, California who, having recently returned from an epic strike mission to Cortes Bank, definitely knows what he’s talking about. He isn’t referencing any particular surfboard design, breath-holding training method or inflatable vest. He’s not talking about different GoPro mounts, either. What Quirarte is pointing to as having arguably the single most significant influence on big wave surfing over the past few decades is the Jet Ski.

Peahi, Teahupo’o, Aussie bommies and slabs, Mullaghmore, Cortes Bank and, of course, Nazarè — all tackled at size with a hand on the throttle, and in each case completely redefining the parameters of what is considered to be rideable surf. Then there’s the paradigm shift when it comes to safety, with the introduction of precise teamwork and coordinated rescue protocol. Yet although having become ubiquitous in big wave lineups around the world, and the topic of much discussion and even controversy since gaining popularity in the early 1990s, the wider surfing world has been told virtually nothing about how and why these machines work, or, in fact, anything about their performance and design evolution. So let’s fix that right now.

First, some super-condensed Jet Ski/surfing history:

Early 1980s: Veteran waterman Flippy Hoffman begins using an original stand-up Kawasaki Jet Ski to explore and ride North Shore outer reefs, glassing shaped surfboard foam to the rails to improve maneuverability.

1987: Hoffman family member-by-marriage Herbie Fletcher, also using a souped-up, stand-up Kawasaki model, tows young South African pro Martin Potter into a Second Reef Pipeline beast.

1988: Suitably inspired, legendary Island surfers and Hawaiian Water Patrol founders Brian Keaulana and Terry Ahue adapt new sit-down Personal Water Craft (PWCs) for lifeguarding duties, eventually adding the rescue sled, initially made from bodyboards.

1993: Having previously been towing into giant waves at Peahi with inflatable boats, Laird Hamilton is given a Kawasaki 650 Jet Ski by Dana Brown, who featured Hamilton in his film The Endless Summer II. The light bulb goes on.

How the Jet Ski Changed Big Wave Surfing

Early test pilots Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama muscle their jet into takeoff position, circa 2002. Photo: Tom Servais.

“We’d seen how the Hawaiian Water Patrol had been using skis for rescues,” recalls Dave Kalama, Hamilton’s main tow partner in the early days. “But we hadn’t seen anyone using them to tow into waves. At the time we were still using Zodiac inflatables and anytime you’re doing anything near an outboard prop, you’re bound to have some dangerously close calls. I know that I did. So when we got that first ski, we were really excited about both the safety and the maneuverability.”

The “jet” in Jet Ski is what provides both. Based on Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion (“for every action there is a reaction”) the ski works by use of a small pump in its hull outfitted with a rotating fan called the “impeller.” When you hit the throttle the pump sucks water through a grate and the impeller then blasts it through a jet nozzle in the rear of the craft, increasing the water’s velocity. The force of water pushed out the back of the ski (action) drives the ski forward (reaction), as well as providing maneuverability. Safer and friskier than a prop boat, perhaps, but still relatively crude, considering the Strapped Crew’s cutting edge application in mega surf (namely Jaws).

“Those first skis we were using were in no way designed for what we were doing with them,” remembers Kalama. “These were single seaters, with two-stroke engines and motorcycle handlebars, designed for lakes. In fact, even when we started getting some love from brands like Yamaha they told us, ‘Ok, we’ll give you these WaverRunners, but we never want to see what you’re doing with them. These things are dangerous enough in flat water.’”

How Jet Skis Changed Big Wave Surfing

Nothing in the past century has expanded the scale of big wave surfing quite like the ski.
Lucas Chianca on the throttle, Justine Dupont off the rope, Cortes Bank. Photo: Wooding.

Despite no opportunity to provide feedback, the machines eventually evolved at a pace that suited the new-age big wave riders.

“The engines got bigger, the hulls got longer and they got a lot heavier,” says Kalama. “ I mean the old Kawasakis weighed, like, 300 pounds. Laird and I used to lift them into the back of a pickup, and just push them down the sand into the water. With skis today, it’s like the difference between a ’72 VW Bug and a $70,000 custom Ford F-150. It makes me laugh just thinking about what we were doing on those old skis back then.”

For some perspective consider that those old Kawasakis, with their two-stroke engines and single stage jet pump, produced 460 pounds of thrust, whereas the three-seat Yamaha WaveRunner like the one Frank Quirarte piloted at Cortes Bank, weighing in at 754 pounds, and with a super-charged four-cylinder, four-stroke vortex high output Yamaha marine engine and double impeller intake, generates almost 2,000 pounds of thrust. And the difference isn’t confined to the power plant.

“For those first few years we were using skis that were made for racing on flat water,” explains Quirarte, who, having grown up on a lake driving Jet Skis, and later pioneering their use and efficacy at Maverick’s, is today one of the world’s leading rough-water ski experts. “Built for speed, which means flat-bottoms. Very unstable in any sort of chop. But as the engine technology improved, like adding a double impeller for more bite in aerated water, the hull designs evolved, especially with the ocean-going skis, with a deeper hull for stability.”

Interestingly enough, when it comes to performance in the impact zone, faster doesn’t always mean better.

“Keep in mind, these things are designed for racing,” Quirarte says. “They’ll probably go 60, 70 miles an hour, flat out. But in the surf I only need to go a little bit faster than the wave, maybe 30 miles an hour. Any faster and I’d get thrown off if I hit any chop.”

Another key improvement wasn’t even about going forward, but backward.

“A big game changer was putting the reverse lever on the handlebars,” says Quirarte. “All the new skis have that now. With the old models the lever was located below and you had to take a hand off the handlebars. Now we can use both hands when backing up, which is a big deal when doing rescues.”

How The Jet Ski Impacted Big Wave Surfing

Not all the surf stars at the 2023 Eddie contest were competitors. Photo: Servais

Look no further than coverage of the recent Eddie Aikau Invitational, held in max-size Waimea Bay, to see how firmly-placed the Jet Ski is in surfing’s harshest realm. Featured prominently ferrying photographers, towing competitors back into the lineup, pulling them out of harm’s way in the death zone and shorebreak and generally functioning as an integral element of a paddle-in surf competition, the ski was depicted as an essential component of big wave surfing today.

“In the early days a lot of the hardcore guys resisted them,” says Dave Kalama, who all these years later still includes a ski in his diverse water world toolbox. “Like, ‘Why do you want to bring those things out into the surf?’ But it’s great to see how widely accepted they’ve become, the progression they’re responsible for, and how much safer they’ve made things. Right from the start, we always knew the potential was there.”


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