Editor’s Note: Disruptors is a series that identifies the most groundbreaking moments in surf history.
Date: Winter, 1992
Location: Backyards, North Shore, Oahu
Moment: Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, and Darrick Doerner tow into 15-20 foot waves using a Zodiac, kicking off the tow-movement that plotted the course for surfing’s future.
We lay it all down, including what others call sanity, for just a few moments on waves larger than life.
For years, big wave surfing was stuck on a plateau. Up until the early 1990s, waves larger than somewhere around the 20 foot mark were, for the most part, thought of as simply too big to surf. That seemed to be the range where Mother Nature was too strong to overcome–human paddle power just wasn’t enough, and waves that big were deemed “impossible” to surf. But all that changed when Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, and Darrick Doerner drove a Zodiac out to Backyards on the North Shore of Oahu on a 20 foot day, grabbed onto a rope, and yanked each other into some of the biggest waves ever ridden. And that was just the beginning.
The idea for tow surfing wasn’t a new one. In fact, according to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, it had been tossed around since the early ’60s, when Mike Doyle wrote that “the surfer might be towed into the wave by a boat much like a water-skier.” For decades after that, someone would occasionally give it a shot. In 1987, for example, Herbie Fletcher towed Tom Carroll and Martin Potter into a couple of 10-foot waves at Pipeline. It wasn’t taken seriously, however, until that day at Backyards, and even then it took a minute to catch on. But when it did, it took the world by storm.
By 1994, tow in surfing was all the rage. Laird and his crew had turned Jaws into their playground, catching and riding bigger waves than ever before. As technology caught up, tow boards–heavier, smaller, and equipped with foot-straps–made big wave surfing into something incredible. No longer would people surfing large waves be encumbered by the bigger boards necessary to make up for paddle strength; waves of massive proportions could not only be caught, but they could be surfed like a smaller wave. Massive turns and enormous barrels replaced steep drops followed by simply hanging on for dear life. It seemed, for a few years at least, to be the future of big wave surfing.
For nearly a decade, tow surfing ruled the roost. Ken Bradshaw’s wave at Outer Log Cabins in 1998, a time when tow surfing was still finding its feet, broke the world record when he was towed into a wave that dwarfed anything before it. ESPN called it at 85-feet, which has been heavily debated. No matter the exact size of Bradshaw’s wave, though, there can be no debating that it was, by any standards, a truly massive wave. Then, in 2000, Hamilton blew minds with his Millennium Wave at Teahupoo, a wave so thick it redefined what was possible on a surfboard.
Tow surfing caught the eye of the global non-surfing public, and Laird, for the most part, played the part of the hero. Major media outlets covered the new form of surfing, and Hamilton was prominently featured in nearly everything to do with it. Not everyone was as enamored with it, though. Critics soon bashed Laird and his crew for destroying the soul of surfing, and by the early 2000s, a number of big wave surfers, along with boards developed specifically for huge waves, began to bring big wave paddle surfing back. Tow surfing’s fall from popularity was a quick one, and although it’s not nearly as pervasive as it was in its heyday, the fact remains that some waves are physically impossible to catch by paddle power alone.
Tow surfing’s brief foray into the world of popular surfing served as a division in the sport. While it was, for a few short years, the future of the sport, in the end it became simply another form of wave riding, one to be used only when necessary and by a select few. It has opened up places like Nazaré, which until PWCs were used, was unsurfable. It showed that wipeouts in waves bigger than 40-50 feet were survivable. Surfing on ridiculously heavy slabs is now possible. Tow surfing, no matter what your opinion of it, shaped surfing today, and in a very short period of time. And like anything else, it’s all because of a few people with the courage to try something new and the drive to force its evolution.