Tow-in Surfers No Longer Select Group

By Andrew Pereira


As the popularity of surfing continues to soar and spots get more and more crowded, a growing number of surfers are seeking solace in Hawaii’s outer reefs.

Tow-in surfing used to be reserved to a select group of watermen, but in the past few years more wave riders are pulling themselves into huge waves with the help of a personal water craft.

"Once you're out there all those fears are left behind and all you want to do is get a wave," said Daniel Skaf, a tow-in surfer from Brazil who now lives on Oahu.

Skaf and his partner Buzzy De Mendonca were challenging waves in the 18 to 20 foot range outside of Alii Beach Park Tuesday at a spot known as Avalanche.

"As soon as you let go of the rope you never know what can happen," said De Mendonca, who also hails from Brazil and works as a lifeguard on Oahu’s North Shore.

De Mendonca and Skaf were among at least eight teams of tow-in surfers who launched their personal water crafts from Haleiwa Small Boat Harbor. They say the sport has grown so much in the past few years that on many days there is the real potential for catastrophe - and not just from the pounding surf.

“Just a few days ago a jet ski almost ran over my friend Edison and me,” said Skaf.

Since September of 2004 Hawaii has required all tow-in surfers to become certified or face possible fines. Surfers must complete a two day course offered by the state’s community colleges in order to get certified by the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, or DOBOR. The course instructs wave riders on safety measures and equipment and where tow-in surfing is allowed.

“The course is not going to teach you how to drive (a jet ski),” said De Mendoca, “but is going to teach you respect.”

According to DOBOR, 765 people completed the tow-in surfing course as of March of last year.

However some tow-in surfers like Travis Whittmeyer feel the certification process does not go far enough. "You should have to do a water course,” said Whittmeyer. “I mean it should be measured against your waterman's ability not just your ability to retain intellectual information.”

De Mendonca and Skaf say they train year round for the opportunity to ride large outer reef waves during Hawaii’s big surf season, typically October through April. However both men say not all tow-in surfers are fully prepared to face the power of a 20 foot swell.

“Many times we go out and seems like many people don't have that training,” said Skaf.

Before Skaf and De Mendoca began towing into huge waves more than a quarter of a mile out to sea, they spent many days paddling into extra-large surf at Waimea Bay and other North Shore spots.

“Paddle in big waves first and then jump in for tow-in,” said De Mendoca.

“If your Jet Ski fails,” added Skaf, “you'll have to swim to the beach.”

Andrew may be reached at or ph. 591-4263.
Story Updated: Dec 2, 2008 at 6:30 PM HST