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.