Friday, January 26, 2001
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Posted on: Friday, January 26, 2001

New rules drafted for tow-in surfing

By Tino Ramirez
Advertiser North Shore Bureau

HALEIWA — After more than two years of meeting with surfers throughout Hawai’i who use jet-propelled personal watercraft to tow into waves, the state Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation has drafted rules intended to make the sport safer and prevent conflicts with paddling surfers.

While using thrill craft to tow into waves lets surfers ride waves too big to catch by paddling, the mix of powerful waves and fast, high-powered machines with tow ropes can be dangerous. Surfer Ken Bradshaw, who began working to create tow-in rules five years ago, described an incident in which a giant wave bore down on a surfer tangled in a rope attached to a swamped thrill craft.

"That was the most dangerous thing I’ve ever seen. That guy is lucky to be alive," said Bradshaw yesterday. "It was like harpooning a whale and dragging it through the ocean."

The draft rules include requiring quick-release lines, other safety equipment such as knives to cut lines, cell phones or radios, registering thrill-craft used for tow-ins, registration decals, training and certification, liability insurance and limiting tow-ins to certain surf spots.

The rules are "basically good," said Michael McNulty, a surfer who lives in Waialua and is president of the North Shore Ocean Safety Association. The nonprofit group was formed last fall by residents concerned about thrill craft operating near paddling surfers, swimmers and divers, a potentially fatal mix. The group worked with Bradshaw and state boating regulation planner Carol She on the rules.

Because of the association’s input, said McNulty, tow-in surfers will be required to leave an area where surfers are paddling into waves and to wait until the surf is big enough to break on the North Shore’s outer reefs. That will prevent "wanna-be big-wave surfers" from towing-in when the surf is smaller and others are paddling into waves, he said.

"The main theme has always been safety, and you can’t mix the two," said McNulty. "That’s what tow-in surfing is all about, really big waves. When those guys are out there on the outer reefs doing their thing, hey, they deserve it."

Alison Brundage, who lives near McNulty and has also had conflicts with tow-in surfers, disagreed. She said the rules legitimatize an "inherently bad activity" that can be fatal, pollutes the ocean, threatens marine life and is impossible to regulate.

"There are too many variables for it to be safe," said Brundage. "If a jet-ski stalls and they lose it, and it washes through to the surfers on the inside break, they put somebody else at risk. The waves are unpredictable, equipment can break down and it’s a thrill sport where adrenaline alters judgement. It’s a given that eventually somebody is going to get killed."

Tow-in surfing, which began about 10 years ago, has so far been safer than any other form of surfing, Bradshaw said. Rules, such as allowing only thrill craft to be used for tow-ins, will make the sport inherently safer, he said.

For example, he said, current laws would allow him to use a Zodiac boat powered by engines with outboard propellers for towing into waves.

"That’s the most dangerous thing I can think of," said Bradshaw. "Not only can I get hurt, but a loose Zodiac going through an inside break where there are surfers is like a Cuisinart looking for food to chop up."

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