Saturday, November 25, 2006

Proposal could have surfers cooling their jets

Monterey Bay sanctuary considers banning personal watercraft in an effort to protect marine life.

Catching the big waves
Rescue expert Shawn Alladio rides a wave runner, ready to tow in Marcelo Ulyssea on a smaller day at Maverick’s near Half Moon Bay. The National Marine Sanctuary is considering a ban on personal watercraft at the hard-to-reach spot whose 40- to 60-foot waves draw surfers from around the world

By Ashley Powers
Times Staff Writer

November 25, 2006

A proposal to protect marine life by banning tow-in surfers who zoom onto mountainous swells at the famous break Maverick's has the international surfing community wondering if California has seen the last of its mega-wave riding.

In a draft management plan released last month, managers at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which hugs 276 miles of coast from Marin to Cambria, proposed barring personal watercraft from Maverick's, a spot near Half Moon Bay whose winter 40- to 60-foot waves draw surfers from around the world.

Officials considering the plan to protect gray whales, sea lions and other marine life could opt for a permit process for tow-in surfers at Maverick's. The proposal could also nix tow-in surfing at Ghost Tree near Pebble Beach.

A series of public hearings in several Northern California coastal towns set to begin next week has inflamed the intra-surfing spat over tow-in surfing, a relatively new innovation in a sport whose origins stretch back centuries.

Among the Monterey Bay sanctuary's chief allies are surfing purists who grumble that surfers pulled into the waves by jet-propelled watercraft hog their swells and threaten harbor seals that rest near Maverick's, named after a local surfer's dog.

"Jet Skis are a form of strip-mining a surf spot," said Mark Renneker, a family practice doctor at UC San Francisco who has surfed Maverick's for more than a decade. "They behave like the Wild Ones, whipping and spraying fumes…. I just find them so appalling and so disruptive to the near-shore environment and the peacefulness that I was out there for."

Beginning in the 1990s, surfers using personal watercraft to reach steep swells revolutionized big-wave riding. Harrowing waves once deemed uncatchable and unridable were suddenly accessible — and the watercraft also allowed for quick rescues after wipeouts.

"It's virtually impossible to save a surfer in waves of that size without a Jet Ski," said Bill Sharp, event director for Billabong's big-wave contests. The 2002 award went to a Brazilian surfer for riding a 68-footer at Maverick's.

The safety argument has been brushed aside in the battle for Maverick's, said Don Curry, a spokesman for the Assn. of Professional Towsurfers, because personal watercraft are saddled with "a bad reputation, like a motorcycle in the water. So they're being dealt with in the form of 'Let's just ban them so that there are no conflicts.' "

The National Park Service permits personal watercraft in several places along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, including Fire Island National Seashore in New York and Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Mississippi, though the watercraft are barred from the service's West Coast locales.

The proposal for Monterey Bay, among the 13 sanctuaries and one marine monument that the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration manages, would make it the second California sanctuary to curb personal watercraft. Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, just north of San Francisco, barred the vessels.

When the Monterey Bay sanctuary was established in 1992, some environmentalists lobbied officials to ban personal watercraft. Instead, the sanctuary pinpointed four zones where riders could vroom through waves — near Monterey, Moss Landing, Santa Cruz and Pillar Point harbors. Though a personal watercraft industry group sued the sanctuary soon after, a federal appeals court upheld the restrictions.

But problems quickly resurfaced. How the sanctuary defined personal watercraft — as jet-propelled, less than 15 feet long and carrying two people — grew outdated as vessels got bigger and could hold more passengers.

No rules were written for the larger craft, so their riders could whoosh through the reserve's 5,300 square miles, said sanctuary spokeswoman Rachel Saunders.

Meanwhile, surfer Laird Hamilton and his buddies, looking to ratchet up their wave-riding, used jet craft to catch huge, fast-moving swells off the Hawaiian shore — first in Oahu and then in Maui at a now-renowned spot called Jaws.

The men shrank, narrowed and put foot straps on their big-wave boards, ushering in a twist to their sport immediately immortalized in monster-wave videos. The monster waves at Maverick's were a well-kept secret of local surfers until word leaked out in the 1990s. Soon it was splashed on the cover of Surfer magazine, and wave riders from around the world converged on the break. Maverick's reputation became intertwined with tragedy in 1994, when professional surfer Mark Foo drowned.

With the new crowds, Maverick's became the arena where the tow-in vs. paddle-out battle was fought, particularly on days when waves topped out at 25 feet — still small enough to ride without a personal watercraft.

"A lot of people sort of cringe when they see or hear a Jet Ski," said Matt Warshaw, who wrote the book "Maverick's: the Story of Big-Wave Surfing." "They're like giant 1-ton mosquitoes…. You surf to get away from all that happens on land, including internal combustion engines."

But some Maverick's pioneers — including Jeff Clark, who has surfed the break for three decades — embraced the chance to stand atop waves, with the help of a personal watercraft, that they had longingly watched from shore.

"You can sit there and look at the moon your whole life and when someone says, 'Hey, you want to go there?' Of course you do," said Clark, who still paddles out when Maverick's waves are smaller. "We're like astronauts."

The debate heated up when the sanctuary began revising its management plan in 2001 — a process that has flooded the agency with more than 12,000 public comments.

Surfrider Foundation's San Mateo chapter lead a charge to tighten watercraft restrictions in the sanctuary, arguing that personal watercraft making tight turns at quick speeds endanger marine animals that can't elude them.

"If this prevents a handful of surfers from towing in, that's an acceptable sacrifice," said Tim Duff, vice chairman of the San Mateo Surfrider group.

Calling the sanctuary "tantamount to other global ecological gems like Yellowstone National Park," the Surfrider chapter said it was not against tow-in surfing, just watercraft speeding through a delicate ecosystem.

Sanctuary managers make a similar case, pointing to research that suggests, for example, that manatees' behavior changes when personal watercraft speed by.

Big-wave riders scoff at the arguments, saying the environmental dangers are overstated and their sport is so maligned that, as Clark put it, tow-in surfers have "like a snowball in hell's chance" of clinging to their revered break.

The draft will be discussed at more than a half-dozen hearings before Monterey Bay sanctuary officials decide on a final version. Congress then has more than a month to request changes before it becomes the sanctuary's policy.

Warshaw, who also wrote "The Encyclopedia of Surfing," said the most high-profile Maverick's surfers had little to lose: They would still flock to the break when the biggest swells whipped up, figuring a fine would be worth the thrill, and "the idea of it being a little more outlaw only adds to the cachet."