Big Wave Surfing With a Jet Ski Assist

12/02/2008
Paddling out to cruise some curls is good enough for most surfers. But a small set of extreme thrill seekers want more. They seek bone–crushing waves up to 50 feet tall. These are swells so big, they require a well–timed tow in from a jet ski and a quick pick up by the same. An offshore reef near Lincoln City, Oregon offers some of the gnarliest waves in the Pacific Northwest. Correspondent Tom Banse got a glimpse of tow surfing and bring us this report.


SPECTATORS TOTING BINOCULARS LINE THE BLUFFS, BALCONIES, AND LINCOLN CITY BEACH TO WATCH PRO SURFERS RIDE THE MONSTER WAVES ABOUT A HALF MILE OFFSHORE. RECREATIONAL SURFER ROBERT GROSSNICKEL OF BATTLEGROUND, WASHINGTON KEEPS HIS FEET FIRMLY PLANTED ON SHORE.
GROSSNICKEL: "The size of these waves is beyond anything I've ever surfed. I've surfed very near here, down the way, and I've been held under by waves one-third the size of these. It felt like my legs would be torn from my body."
LAST WEEKEND SAW AN UNUSUAL CONVERGENCE OF MILD WEATHER AND BIG WAVES. THE OPTIMAL CONDITIONS AND A COMPETITION CALLED ON SHORT NOTICE PROVED IRRESISTIBLE FOR DOZENS OF THE WORLD'S BEST SURFERS.
WORMHOUDT: "You're out in nature and it's exhilarating. There's challenges, both physical and mental, to make it happen. So it's just a great sport."
ZACH WORMHOUDT OF SANTA CRUZ IS CLAD HEAD TO FOOT IN A BLACK WETSUIT. HIS LIFE JACKET LOOKS MORE LIKE BODY ARMOR. HE'S BEEN CHASING BIG WAVES FOR MORE THAN TEN YEARS.
WORMHOUDT: "The main risk would be drowning. The cause of that would be potentially just getting held under for a couple of waves at a time or hitting the reef on the bottom. Or a wipeout where the lip of the wave actually comes down and hits you while you're surfing and then you could potentially hit your board. There's a whole bunch of stuff that can go wrong at any given moment."
THAT'S ONE REASON SURFING IS NO LONGER AN INDIVIDUAL PURSUIT FOR THESE WATERMEN. IT'S A TEAM EVENT. ONE PERSON SHREDS THE WAVES WHILE A PARTNER DRIVES A JET SKI.
THE JET SKI COMES EQUIPPED WITH A RESCUE SLED AND A TOW ROPE. THAT MAKES THE DRIVER PART LIFEGUARD AND PART LAUNCH PAD. THE NAME FOR THE COMBINATION IS TOW SURFING – "TOW" AS IN T–O–W. ITS REGIONAL SHOWCASE IS THE NELSCOTT REEF CONTEST.
A FLOTILLA OF WAVE RUNNERS BOBS IN THE SWELLS AS THE ATHLETES GAUGE THE NEXT SET. THEN THE NEXT PAIR PEELS OUT TO CATCH ANOTHER WAVE. BRAZILIAN SURFER EVERALDO TEXEIRA WAS MOVING ABOUT 25 MILES PER HOUR WHEN HE LET GO OF THE TOW ROPE AND DROPPED INTO AN EPIC SWELL.
TEXEIRA: "When you get a jet ski, it's easier to get in the wave. You can surf with smaller surf boards than you surf when you paddle."
THAT'S GOOD BECAUSE ON A SMALLER BOARD YOU CAN MANEUVER BETTER ACROSS A TOWERING WAVE FACE.
THE FIRST TOW SURFERS SHOWED UP ON THE OREGON COAST A LITTLE MORE THAN FIVE YEARS AGO. THE PHENOMENON IS NOW GETTING STARTED OFF WESTPORT AND OCEAN SHORES, WASHINGTON. LINCOLN CITY SURF SHOP OWNER JOHN FORSE JUST HOSTED HIS FOURTH TOW IN CONTEST.
FORSE: "I saw an opportunity for Lincoln City to be put on the world stage in surfing. Definitely in surfing, when you hear Lincoln City or Nelscott Reef everybody knows where it is."
AT THE NELSCOTT REEF CONTEST, THREE AMATEUR TEAMS FROM OREGON WENT UP AGAINST WORLD CLASS SURFERS FROM CALIFORNIA, HAWAII, AUSTRALIA, AND BRAZIL. COMPETITOR JUSTIN HOWARD OF TILLAMOOK EXPECTS TOW SURFING TO GET BIGGER HERE.
HOWARD: "Sad to say, I don't want it to. But it will. I mean just because it gets more crowded and more dangerous. It's hard to enjoy yourself when you're worrying about a lot of other people and things."
ON THE OTHER HAND, ASSISTANCE FROM A JET SKI OPENS MORE TERRITORY TO SURFING. EXPERIENCED LOCAL RIDERS ARE EXPLORING AND TESTING THE BREAKS OVER OTHER OFFSHORE REEFS. A DOCUMENTARY ON THE LINCOLN CITY TOW SURF PIONEERS IS FORTHCOMING TOO, ALL OF WHICH SHOULD SOLIDIFY THE FOOTHOLD TOW SURFING HAS FOUND. I'M TOM BANSE IN LINCOLN CITY, OREGON.
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