Smoke on the Water
Big-wave towsurfing will become a thing of the past if jet skis are banned in the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Consider the following four portraits of the jet ski in Monterey County waters:
• A jet ski tows a surfer into a 50-foot wave at Ghost Tree, the mysto-death wave off Pescadero Point in Pebble Beach.
• A lifeguard launches a jet ski off Carmel Beach and broncos out through the dangerous surf to save a drowning girl.
• Santa Cruz pro surfers whip each other into three-foot waves off Del Monte Beach and launch outrageous airs while photographers with hummingbird shutter speeds shoot for gaudy surf magazine ads.
• Two teams of industry wakeboarders learn to surf by towing each other into 10-foot waves at Moss Landing, narrowly avoiding disastrous collisions with each other, frightening local marine mammals and pissing off local surfers.
No issue underlines the difficulty of regulating ocean activity in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary than the use of PWCs (jet skis are officially referred to as personal watercraft, or PWCs). At last weekend’s statewide conference of the California Surfrider Chapters in Monterey, the PWC debate continued to polarize and confuse members of the surf-oriented environmental organization, prompting local chapter head Ximena Waissbluth to organize a panel of experts to come together the following Monday to address the facts.
“The Sanctuary will be unveiling their new PWC regulations in the spring,” Waissbluth says, “then there’s going to be two months of public comment. So I wanted to get a sense of how our chapter membership feels. The San Mateo chapter has a fairly strong stance against PWC use and is essentially asking all Central Coast chapters to show a united front. Before we do that, we wanted to find out more information.”
Events at the Surfrider meeting on Monday, Nov. 7, illustrated precisely why the surfing community has been incapable of addressing the data and coming to any sort of agreement on PWCs in the Sanctuary.
A dispute that broke out in the audience between well-respected but hot-headed local Brent Bispo and equally respected and hot-headed Santa Cruz pro Ken “Skindog” Collins turned into a shouting match. The fight illustrated the fact that, to surfers, the issue may have very little to do with PWCs and more to do with territoriality, localism, and media exploitation.
A vocal contingent of local surfers resent the media attention that towsurfing has brought to Monterey. It’s a story as old as surfing. Waves are a limited resource and some Monterey County surfers see jet skis and the people who use them as a threat to their local breaks.
Fueled by testosterone and a deep-rooted sense of entitlement, Bispo and Collins’ eruption was a perfect example of how towsurfing has polarized an already dysfunctional family. Local surfers have found themselves at the heart of the debate ever since local pros began using PWCs to tow into previously uncatchably large waves at Maverick’s, the infamous big wave off Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay.
Over the ensuing five years, the tow-surf movement simply blew up beyond all reasonable expectations. Fueled by a rash of surf movies, television programs and even American Express commercials featuring pornographically lustrous images of surfers wrapped in gargantuan blue barrels, the sport has become big business, and launched literally thousands of PWCs.
Billabong, the Irvine, Calif.-based Fortune 500 surfware company, upped the ante when they began offering a bounty on the biggest wave of each season, paying $1,000 a foot. Last March, Carmel surfer Don Curry was towed into a 60-plus foot wave off Pebble Beach that was a finalist for the award.
But most damaging to the image of PWCs is the new sport of “tow-at” surfing, where aerialist surfers are towed onto small waves at 30mph to launch looping tricks high above the water before splashing down.
Doug Kasunich, a 53-year-old surfer who’s watched PWCs transform his beloved Moss Landing into a dangerous, aquatic rodeo in recent years, has found himself at the center of the controversy.
“Moss Landing is the nursery school for towsurfing,” Kasunich says. “You’ll have these really inexperienced teams, wakeboarders for Christ’s sake, letting go of the rope and immediately falling down the face because they’ve never learned to surf. They drive all of the paddle surfers down to one peak to get away from them. It’s incredibly dangerous. It can’t keep on the way it is.”
And despite towsurfers’ protests to the contrary, Kasunich says, the jet skis are disturbing the local wildlife.
“On days when there are no skis, I surf with dolphins, otters, harbor seals. When you have five or six jet ski crews tearing the place up, there won’t be an animal in sight,” he says. “Just two weeks ago I was with eight harbor seals cornered by jet skis on the inside. I have to assume there’s a connection.”
Ed Larenas, the San Mateo Surfrider Chapter chair, points to “a huge amount” of data and court cases proving that PWCs’ detrimental effect on marine wildlife.
“The Sanctuary was taken to court by the PWC industry, and the industry lost,” Larenas says. “The same scenario has played itself out in the San Juans [off Washington State] and Marin. The ban has been upheld because of a substantial amount of data.”
Nonetheless, to date, no targeted scientific research has occurred within the Sanctuary on environmental impacts of PWCs.
Kip Evans is a member of the Pacific Grove Ocean Rescue Team, which regularly trains with and uses PWCs for lifesaving.
“Where’s the data that these jet skis are causing the havoc that they say they’re causing in the Sanctuary?” Evans asks.
California state lifeguards and rescue teams like Evans’ have been using PWCs in Monterey County for years now because “nothing is faster or safer to extract victims from the nearshore,” Evans says. “The speed of response is so critical to success.”
Evans points to an incident last March when lifeguard Eric Sturm launched a PWC into extra-large surf from Carmel beach and saved a drowning boogie boarder.
“In the time it would have taken to swim out and get her, she would have drowned,” Evans says. “The conditions were extreme.”
If there’s one thing that all sides of the PWC debate can agree on, it’s that an exception will be made for lifeguards and rescue teams.
“Our chapter definitely supports the use of PWC for life rescue operations by public agency personnel,” Larenas says. “We are concerned with recreational use.”
Eric Akisalian, founder of the Association of Professional Towsurfers, an organization that is attempting to become the governing body of the sport, doesn’t understand why PWCs are being demonized.
“Why are only PWCs being singled out, and not other vessels, including speedboats and fishing boats, which can be as hazardous or worse to wildlife and habitats?” Akisalian asks. “Most of us towsurfers who are aware of this issue believe the real issue at hand is personal bias towards towsurfing.
“Honestly, if I were not a towsurfer and just a big wave paddle surfer, I too would be annoyed by the noise and commotion that a crew of PWCs makes in the lineup.”
Don Curry rides a four-stroke Yamaha FX140, which received the industry’s two-star “very low emissions” rating in 2004.
“Everyone’s got the cleaner-running machines, and even some of the two-stroke machines are still rated two stars. You want to point a finger at the environment, point it at urban runoff, or that big old cruise ship seeping God knows what into the Sanctuary,” he says ”I guess I just don’t understand why this is an issue.”
Curry contends that there are only a handful of towsurf teams in the Sanctuary on a handful of days a year.
“This was never an environmental issue,” Curry says. “It was a human issue.”
But Kasunich and others are quick to point out the issue is not big-wave towsurfing.
“Guys like Don Curry should be able to go out and challenge these enormous waves,” Kasunich says. “Everyone knows there’s no wildlife around a 50-foot wave. Even seagulls don’t fly around waves that size.”
The problem, Kasunich says, is that the havoc caused by “tow-at” surfers at Moss Landing reflects upon the big-wave towsurfing community as a whole.
“As a group the towsurfers are irresponsible,” Kasunich says. “They haven’t gotten together. Until they can organize themselves and prove that they can regulate themselves while protecting the marine wildlife, I’m going to have to support a ban.”
And nothing illustrated how right Kasunich may be than Monday night’s Surfrider meeting at Monterey’s Hilltop Community Center. While Waissbluth attempted to regain control of the meeting, Bispo and Collins took their fight outside. Surrounded by their posses and, fortunately, one levelheaded mediator, the two managed to avoid an all-out fistfight and arrests, but spent the better part of a half-hour screaming at each other while the issue’s panel of experts continued to field questions from the audience inside.
Ed Larenas says that, in general, the PWC debate is not even about towsurfing.
“The press likes controversy, and what better source of controversy than surfers?” Larenas says.
The real issue, Larenas says, is wildlife disturbance. Their silence, speed and unpredictability make PWCs a threat to murrelets, dolphins, harbor seals, and sea lions, according to expert scientific testimony from pertinent court rulings posted on the San Mateo Chapter of Surfrider’s Web site.
A study in the San Francisco Bay concluded that watercraft like jet skis, which exhibit sudden changes in speed and direction, were more likely to flush out harbor seals than were vessels passing at a steady speed and constant course. Also, research in Florida found that PWCs can increase turbidity in the ocean and redistribute benthic invertebrates, such as native mussel populations.
Another study in Florida found that bottlenose dolphins, which also frequent the coastline of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary, are endangered by PWCs because this type of boat is not acoustically detectable at the same distance as other boats.
As a result, Larenas and his chapter are advocating for responsible use within the four existing offshore zones established by NOAA in 1993.
Twelve years ago, Sanctuary regulations specifically defined PWCs and confined them to certain zones in order to protect marine mammals and seabirds and minimize conflicts.
The mistake that Sanctuary legislators made then was basing their definition of a PWC on prevailing design features—namely the number of seats on each watercraft. The PWC industry responded quickly by rolling three and four-seated PWCs that effectively neutralized the Sanctuary’s restrictions.
This spring, the Sanctuary’s joint draft management plan is expected to finally remedy that oversight. And thus the current controversy.
Sean Morton of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has been at the center of the PWC debate since facilitating an infamous 2003 PWC working group, which brought together environmentalists, industry officials, the Coast Guard and towsurfers for input into the draft management plan. The four-day working group was “a philosophical discussion of where they were or where they weren’t appropriate.” As a result, Morton and his colleagues at NOAA have drafted a new joint management plan much like the old joint management plan.
“It was, without a doubt, the hardest facilitation I’ve ever done,” Morton says. “We wanted to restore the original intent. We also wanted to discuss the possibility of finding a way to permit towsurfing at Maverick’s. We made it clear that there would be no other options anywhere. If you want to tow- surf into a 3- or 4-foot wave, you can do that outside of a marine sanctuary.”
Morton says that, outside of the four existing offshore zones, the only possible exceptions to the ban would be for harbor patrols and search-and-rescue teams. As for towsurfing, Morton says, a narrow exception for use at Maverick’s is being considered.
“There would be a list of potential conditions under which this kind of exception would occur,” Morton says. “The waves would have to be over a certain size. They could only be in the water at certain times. We’re talking very limited use.”
But, Morton warns, even a limited use plan for Maverick’s was met with a lot of resistance from conservationists.
Other ideas which would allow for towsurfing on big days at Maverick’s, such as a permit system or a lottery for users, will be mentioned in the draft management plan, Morton says. But since no consensus could be made during the 2003 working group, they won’t be considered part of the plan.
According to Morton, the new set of proposed rules for PWCs will be coming out in Spring 2006, after which the public will have two months to comment. Morton and his team will then make changes to the plan, there will be a review by the government and then a final draft will be implemented no less than six months after the introduction of the draft.
“So this will go into effect probably in January of 2007,” Morton says. “At the very soonest.”
And then will come the sticky issue of enforcement.
“We’ve discussed a network of enforcement that would include the Coast Guard and the cross-deputization of the Department of Fish and Game, the Harbor Patrol and State Parks,” Morton says. “But obviously, it could get very expensive and very complicated to monitor and enforce.”
Many anti-PWC people are highly suspect of the Sanctuary’s ability to effectively enforce the new ban. As evidence, they point to the fact that two of the three enforcement officials in Monterey County—California State Lifeguards Erik Landry and Eric Sturm—are enthusiastic towsurfers and PWC-users themselves.
Yet some professional towsurfers like Tyler Smith of Santa Cruz have already stated that when conditions dictate, they will simply “take the fine” and tow into waves at Ghost Tree, Maverick’s or elsewhere.
“If it’s going off in the 30-plus-foot range and only a PWC is going to get me into the wave, then we’re going,” Smith says. “It’s going to be like the old West. We’re going to be outlaws. If that’s the way they want it, that’s the way it will be.”
Or else, according to Curry, towsurfers will simply find an alternate, and inevitably more dangerous, way to do the sport.
“It’ll be a safety issue more than it is now,” he says. “We’ve got the machine to go out and do the sport safely right now. Towsurfing is not going to go away. We’ll just use inflatable rubber boats or some kind of prop-driven platform, and that’s going to be far more dangerous in every aspect of the sport.”
Scott Kathey, federal regulatory coordinator for the Sanctuary, says that individuals who ignore the new rulings and continue to operate PWCs in undesignated parts of the Sanctuary risk escalating fines and, eventually, the confiscation of their vessel.
“The first offense is $500 and the second offense would go up appreciably,” Kathey says. “At any point we could confiscate the craft and keep it.”
In addition, Kathey points out that these are civil penalties, not criminal penalties, so the burden of proof is significantly lower.
“We don’t need evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. We just need a preponderance. The bar is not as high. If officers witness them on the water at any time, the enforcement could happen on the docks upon return.”
Many towsurfers continue to hope that something can be worked out before the Sanctuary’s new ban goes into effect.
The towsurfing debate has broken onto the national stage in recent years with feature articles in the New York Times, Outside and The New Yorker. Most recently, the December 2005 cover story of Surfing magazine features some of the main players in the towsurfing debate, including Monterey Bay locals Peter Mel, Ken Collins and Doug Kasunich.
Agreeing that towsurfing may be reaching critical mass in some places, especially at high-profile spots in Hawaii and Tahiti, the participants discussed possible plans to regulate the new sport, including the aforementioned permit system or lottery draw, and self-policing.
Peter Mel, the Santa Cruz pro who has become the de facto spokesperson for the sport, and participated in the 2003 working group, has won praise for his level-headed articulation of the pro-tow position, but an equal amount of criticism from towsurfers who claim he is too soft spoken and passive for the job.
Yet throughout the course of the article’s round-table discussion, only Mel steps up and offers to “take the logistics of making a skeleton of what we actually need for a real organization.”
There are some, however—including some of the sport’s leaders, who are willing to throw in the towel and accept a ban.
In Hawaii they’ve implemented a licensing system where PWC-users have to take a safety class before they’re allowed in the water. Last December, 70 PWCs and boats descended upon at Peahi, towsurfing’s Valhalla off the coast of Maui, and chaos ensued. According to eye witnesses, it was a miracle no one died.
In light of these developments, Laird Hamilton, the godfather and co-inventor of towsurfing, stated in the article, “I say ban it. At 99 percent of the places. Probably the best thing for everybody. For us, too. That’s just my opinion, but…if we went back to paddle surfing, that’s fine. Never had a problem with it. This was just a way for me to ride some really big waves.”
And in light of Monday’s Surfrider Foundation meeting, the possibility for an exception for towsurfing in the Sanctuary looks increasingly grim. From an objective perspective, towsurfing benefits far too few people to justify the energy and resources it would take to implement and enforce. One thing’s for sure, however: time’s running out for the towsurfing community to find a unified voice with which to present a reasonable mixed-use plan. And without the ability to prevent infighting and resolve the emotional issues surrounding localism, the surf community doesn’t have a paddle surfer’s chance at Ghost Tree to make this wave. ~~~