Some surfers are purists and believe that the only way to surf big waves is to paddle into them. Others have discovered that the paddling speed limitation can be overcome by the use of personal water craft (PWC) or jet skis, which tow the surfer onto the face of the unbroken wave at speeds equal to or greater than that of the wave. Tow-in surfing, as it is called, has made it possible for surfers to surf waves previously uncatchable – waves like Jaws.
Laird Hamilton, a life-long resident of the Hawaiian islands and all-round waterman, made tow-in surfing famous and is undeniably the best big wave surfer in the history of the sport.
On November 25th, conditions in the bay in front of the house appeared favorable to produce the kind of waves that tow-in surfers need to practice their sport. Waves 30 feet or more in size were looming large and crashing audibly on the rocky point a good mile away.
Driving by Ho’okipa Surf break on our way west towards town, the waves were huge and closing out. No one was in the water, an unusual occurrence. Then on the way back home a neighbor drove by with a PWC hitched to the back of his truck and a rescue board was thrown in the truck bed. That was a sure sign.
We drove the 2 miles west and made our way through the pineapple fields that border the surf at Jaws. Cars and more cars were coming and going, confirming my suspicion that today was the day. A crowd had gathered on the cliff overlooking the break. Down below were 15 or more PWC, half of them with surfers on the back or towed by a tow rope. Between where they sat and the horizon was a series of lines or “corduroy” – swell lines, long, deep and intimidating.
We watched along with about 30 others from atop the steep cliff that borders the ocean along most of the North Shore. There were serious photographers with big zoom lenses and tripods, locals with video cameras and digicams and European tourists speaking a number of different languages underdressed for the cool, misty weather.
As a set approached, two PWCs and their surfers began to jockey for position. The craft moved outside and then turned gradually shoreward. They moved slower than the forming wave, allowing it to catch up to them. The pilot determined where the peak would form and positioned rider accordingly. As the peak began to feather in the offshore wind, the better riders took a line deep into the pit forming below the peak, gained speed and released their hold on the tow line. The sling shot effect gave them added speed and their position on the wave so far away was detected mostly from the trail they carved along the face of the wave. Binoculars made the rider more apparent and the experience more real.
As the lip of the wave came thundering down, rider carved up and through the now concave face and then, careening back down the face, gained speed to outrun the jaws of the wave. A collective holding of breath, the crowd mind-surfed the wave with each rider, ooing and ahhing as they cheated death time and again. Wondering at their ability to hold it together as the wind flew up the face of the wave, bringing blinding water with it. Their balance and strength in the face of great opposing forces made apparent to all onlookers.
That night lying in bed, the waves pounded the coast, entering the subconscious to become part of the dreamworld where huge looming masses of water, speed and wind surrounded the dreamer. Exhilaration, and the closest thing to flight without wings.