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Is tow-in surfing going too far?

Big Wave Surfers Hit Jaws for Billabong XXL

The biggest swell in several years lashed the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 2009 and Pea'hi (a.k.a. Jaws) on Maui came to life for the cleanest tow-surfing session in ages. An all-star crew was on it, resulting a a number of waves which may figure in the 2009/10 Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards.

There is no shortage of surfing purists who believe tow-in surfing is a far cry from the true roots of wave riding. While some will go so far as to publicly disparage it, the majority of its opponents, for lack of a better term, will engage in a form of fence-sitting, politely acknowledging its existence but not going so far as to call it the evolution of the sport.

More over, does the collective reticence from modern surfing’s forefathers really suggest that tow-in is not even really surfing, but an entirely different sport?

There is no second-guessing the skill of those who can maintain control under the speed and volume of water that tow-in type waves create and by all means, these guys are great watermen. The growth of tow-in surfing, however, has taken the spirit of surfing and injected it with an adrenaline-laced cocktail of performance-enhancing machinery and made-for-TV commercialism.

(Then again, so have the folks at Quicksilver, Hollister and Volcom.)

Think about it. When is the last longboarding competition you’ve seen backed by television advertisers? No, I’m not suggesting lonboarding is the defining essence of surfing but it is without question the salt of surfing’s earth.

Tow-in wave riding has made what should not be accessible to most accessible to many. It also operates largely without the ingrained sense of etiquette that surrounds surfing. Does tow-in drown the defining concepts of the sport in a din of four-stroke recklessness? It can be argued.

The video in this post shows several surfers taking falls that could easily result in death. Yet, far too many people won’t get all that nervous when they watch hundreds of thousands of ocean current-fueled gallons of whitewater toss a rider like a kelp leaf because, idling just outside the death zone is a wave runner and life jacket, as if that’s all it takes to render flaccid the break of a 50-foot wave.

Big wave surfing, the stuff of Greg Noll and Jeff Clark, seems to me to be the better evolution of surfing. Tow-in wave riding, while admittedly intoxicating to take in, has pushed itself into its own realm. Unfortunately, it’s created an offshoot of surfing that is growing further away from its paternal influence. While that separation in direction does not make it inherently bad, it does require a great deal more supervision.

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