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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 25, 2004

Big surf brings crowds, chaos on Maui

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

WAILUKU, Maui — Dwayne McClintock was on a Molokini snorkeling cruise when he heard about the mammoth waves expected to hit the Jaws surf break off Maui the next day.

On Dec. 15, monster waves drew large numbers of tow-in surfers, thrillcraft riders and others to the Jaws surf spot on Maui. Meanwhile, huge crowds on the cliffs overlooking Jaws jostled for the best viewing positions, trampling pineapple crops and causing other damage.

Eric Akiskalian

So he and three traveling partners rearranged their vacation to catch the spectacle of daredevil tow-in surfers riding some of the world's biggest and most powerful waves.

They weren't the only ones to find their way to Pe'ahi, the remote north shore spot where pineapple fields meet sea cliffs that drop 200 feet to the ocean.

"It was packed," McClintock recalled a few days later. "Just in our little corner there must have been hundreds of people."

McClintock, a former surfer from Australia now living in California, was part of the chaos that reigned Dec. 15, both in the water and on shore.

On land, Maui Pineapple Co.'s harvesting operations were halted as cars jammed the field's network of narrow dirt roads. A quarter-acre of pineapple was destroyed as vehicles simply ran over the crops. Witnesses said it was a miracle no one fell off the cliff as the crowds pressed for the best viewing. The landowner said a meeting has been planned to discuss those issues.

In the water, scores of tow-in surfers jockeyed for waves as dozens of boats and thrillcraft, and five helicopters, dodged one another — and the huge breakers — for position. At least two people suffered broken bones and were plucked from the water via rescue helicopter, while a few thrillcraft were smashed against the rocks.

As Dave Gilovich wrote for Surfline.com: "There was so much flotsam and jetsam bobbing around, it looked like a scene from 'Waterworld' or 'Tora, Tora, Tora.' "

The mobs are a testament to the growing reputation of the Jaws surf break as well as to the burgeoning sport of tow-in surfing, in which a surfer on a surfboard equipped with foot straps is towed into waves that can top 60 feet in height.

They also are a warning that some law and order is needed at Jaws before someone gets killed, observers say.

Chuck Patterson, a former Maui resident and professional kiteboarder who flew in from Dana Point, Calif., said there were surfers in the water who weren't adequately trained to surf the awesome walls of water. The congestion made surfing that much more difficult.

"There's got to be some concern," agreed Patterson's tow-in partner, Eric Akiskalian, who runs the Web site Towsurfer.com. "Archie (Kalepa, tow-in surfer and Maui County water safety operations supervisor) and the Maui crew have got to get together and police it. Otherwise, there's someone going to die some day."

Just who, if anyone, is responsible for maintaining safety at Jaws is unclear. Boating officials with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources could not be reached for comment this week.

In September, the state began certifying tow-in surfers and requiring a safety course. Since then, more than 340 surfers have been certified.

The new administrative rules governing the sport start with this line: "The state assumes no responsibility or liability associated with tow-in surfing."

As for problems on land, the chaos of Dec. 15 could have been a lot worse had it not been for surf promoter Rodney Kilborn and his crew, who volunteered to keep the crowds and photographers safe.

Kilborn, who previously organized the Jaws Tow-in World Cup using shuttle buses to bring the crowds in, said he had been working with another company to secure permits for a noncompetitive event, but that didn't happen before the big waves hit.

Kilborn said a couple of photographers almost tumbled over the cliff because of the "domino effect" of the crowd.

"It was chaos," he said. "People were fighting for their (viewing) spots."

At one point, Kilborn said, he stopped a man from loading 30 pineapples into the back of his truck. He said he also prevented someone from setting up a barbecue grill in an area where the parched grass easily could have caught fire and trapped dozens of spectators.

A representative of Pe'ahi landowner A&B Properties Inc. said company officials will meet with representatives from Maui Pine, which leases the field, to discuss ways to prevent a recurrence of the problem.

Warren Suzuki, Maui Pine senior vice president of community relations and communications, said the company understands people want to see the waves that have gained an international reputation, and will do its best to accommodate the interest.

"But when we're ready to harvest, we need to do it," Suzuki said. "Pineapple margins are not that great."

Kalepa, who caught some of the largest waves of the day, including one estimated as having a 70-foot face, said Pe'ahi should be turned into a park to preserve the viewing area and to make the cliffs safe.

"It's one of the new wonders of the world," he said.

Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880 or thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.