Big wave surfing used to be limited to a few relatively unknown specialists. They were unassuming watermen mingling amongst the rest of the population until the right swell arrived, and then in an instant they’d transform into superheroes of the sea, indifferently absorbing the world’s adoration and gracing the front and back pages of the media for a few short days. Then, as quickly as it arrived, the swell would die, and these heroes would return to their anonymous day jobs leaving behind few clues to their personal experimentation in testing mortality.
That is until one Mr. Laird Hamilton got involved. Largely regarded as the ultimate waterman he came crashing into the public consciousness thanks to his proficiency in riding, paddling and sailing all sorts of weird and wonderful ocean-going craft. Although there is some mileage to be had in his feats on a hydrofoil surfboard, and he’s clearly talented on a SUP, it’s his big wave surfing that will guarantee him status amongst those who have truly redefined specific elements of our sport.
Laird certainly wasn’t the first to use motorized craft to propel himself and his surfboard into big waves, but he was the first to hone this skill, perfecting the art of catapulting the surfer into the ideal position to allow them to complete the ride without the aid of a tow. It was also Laird and his buddies that pioneered the redesign of equipment required for tackling these previously un-ridden waves. Waves formerly regarded as too big to paddle became viable targets, and now that paddle power was rendered completely insignificant the requirements from these big wave boards changed out of all recognition. Whereas we were used to seeing big wave surfers of old charging Waimea on 10 foot guns, the new guys were skating around 40 foot faces in a style more usually associated with an offshore day at your average beach break.
In doing all this Laird shifted the very definition of a big wave, and for a while all perspective became a little jumbled. Suddenly a 20-foot day on the North Shore became almost irrelevant. Laird and his crew began pushing their equipment, capabilities and skill levels to death defying heights. Culminating in what must be one of the most impressive sights ever documented in surfing, Laird’s millennium ride at Teahup’o had a monumental impact and catapulted his specific brand of tow-in surfing to a global audience. Surfers and non-surfers alike marveled at the sheer size of this wave. Those who didn’t surf were certainly impressed. But those who did surf had difficulty comprehending the sheer volume of water involved; we marveled at the technique required to hold your nerve in such a situation and simultaneously winced as the vicious lip of the wave curved it’s way menacingly around the bowl of the reef.
But while this wave launched Laird to new levels of international stardom, in a way, it also marked the beginning of the end. Where would tow-in surfing go from here? How could anything ever match what was achieved in these Tahitian waters? Everything recorded from now on would be impressive, but forever compared to that wave at Teahup’o.
And it’s the aftermath of the recent Eddie that reminds us just how far tow-in surfing has fallen. The green light was given in thunderous conditions, possibly the biggest seen in the time frame of Quiksilver’s competition. But it wasn’t Jaws big. Just around the corner while the contest was being run, highly skilled tow-in specialists were fueling their jet-skis and tackling this big wave spot. For obvious reasons the crowds lined the sand of Waimea Bay rather than the cliff tops above Jaws, but even on a non-contest day you sense the momentum has shifted.
Perhaps it’s the required levels of paraphernalia that have led the surf community to begin frowning slightly in the direction of those being towed. The purity of surfing lies with the simplicity of the equipment. A surfboard is all you need to ride the waves. If you showed modern day surfing to the ancestors of the sport they’d be perplexed at the equipment and styles on show, but they’d recognize it as surfing. If the first Polynesian surfers were to witness a tow-in session they’d be calling for the witch doctor to rid the seas of the motorized beast thrashing around in the water.
And what personal achievement can be gleaned from a wave that has only been caught because of artificial propulsion? In theory, anybody could be placed in the line of fire of one of these giants. They might not make it out the other side, but the process of actually catching these waves is a skill entirely alien to the majority of surfers. Strapping on a buoyancy aid and reaching for the tow rope undoubtedly requires immense talent and bravery, and the hold downs endured must be unlike anything else. But how much of real big wave surfing is possessing the ability to catch these waves under your own power?
I appreciate that the art of towing into giant waves exists in an entirely different category to regular surfing. It has its place and we will continue to be captivated by the footage arriving from spots such as Nazaré. But what’s interesting is that we seem to have turned our interest back towards those 20-foot days at Waimea. We can relate to the fact that paddling to the line-up is an achievement in itself, and that no amount of world titles will guarantee you a ticket to join the party. The majority of us will never have a partner on a jet-ski to scoop us out of the way of oncoming waves and we’ll never wrap ourselves in a vest designed to keep us bobbing on the surface. It’s surfing, but not necessarily as we know it. Perhaps the everyday surfer needs to feel an affinity with the skills they’re showing an appreciation for. Tow-in surfing, whilst magnificent, is just too far removed from our everyday experience of riding waves to be heralded by the masses as the pinnacle of our sport.