Hype Beasts

The recent swell at Teahupoo was a spectacle, but were the tow-ins worth celebrating?

The swell of year, without a doubt, but are the efforts of these tow teams worth claiming? Photo: Pompermayer
| posted on May 16, 2013

Unless you have been living in an Internet black hole for the past couple days, you’ve no doubt been subjected to any number of grandiose claims regarding the recent exploits in Tahiti. With superlatives being thrown about like midgets at a dwarf toss (Biggest since Code Red! Heaviest wave ever ridden! The day to end all days!), this much-hyped swell has quickly become a real-time global spectacle. Whether or not that spectacle is worth celebrating, however, is something to consider.

The past five years have seen two divergent paths in the big-wave scene. While the focus in the US and Hawaii has been on pushing the limits of what is accessible through paddle power alone, the heavy water movement in Australia centers more around tow-assisted performances at mutant waves like Shipstern’s Bluff and The Right. Tahiti’s Teahupoo—a perfect reef pass with the heft and hairball drop of other less-approachable slabs—has established itself as a sort of middle ground, where the upper limits of paddleability and what is arguably the planet’s best tow-venue overlap in a highly publicized gray area. Nathan Fletcher’s wave at Teahupoo during the 2011 “Code Red” event shattered our preconceived notions—not about what was surfable (as he didn’t actually paddle into or make the wave), but rather what was survivable. Gracing the covers of a host of magazines, Fletcher’s wave redefined the upper limits of big wave “performance,” in the process garnering him an XXL Ride of the Year and setting a precedent for this week’s lunacy.

Indeed, lunacy is the only word that can accurately describe the scene this week at Teahupoo. With more than a dozen tow teams jockeying for position and upwards of thirty spectator boats clogging a closed-out channel, the lineup was an incredibly dangerous place to be—and this danger was compounded exponentially by a swell that arguably should have gone unridden. While big wave surfing used to be the exclusive purview of highly trained, self-sufficient watermen, tow-ropes, PFDs, and personal water safety teams have now made it possible for any semi-competent surfer to approach waves that would otherwise remain unrideable. But it seems to me that if you can’t get yourself into—and more importantly out of—a wave without assistance, then perhaps the wave shouldn’t be ridden at all. Hiring emergency personnel to watch you play Russian Roulette isn’t heroic—it’s conscious recklessness.

This isn’t meant to take anything away from the athletes who towed Teahupoo over the past two days. Men like Mark Healey, Shane Dorian, and Kohl Christensen are some of the most accomplished big-wave paddle surfers on the planet, and over the past year have publically emphasized the importance of physical, mental, and situational preparation when approaching big waves. But the waves ridden in Tahiti this week transcend preparation, which makes one wonder if all this talk about safety is little more than self-comforting rhetoric.

Most people would agree that a large majority of the skill involved in big-wave surfing is taken out of the equation when a tow rope becomes involved. With the media clamoring for ever-increasing levels of drama and bravado, we have created a situation where people are knowingly risking their lives by artificially breaking down natural barriers to entry—barriers that are probably in place for a reason. Whereas paddling into big wave waves has always straddled that thin line between accomplishment and addiction, towing into a 20-foot slab seems to be little more than a glorified drug fix—easy to acquire if you have the means, and likely to take more than a few past the end of the road.

  • http://none Steve Briggs

    It is only a matter of time before someone dies. That is a fact. It will eventually happen. Look to what happened to Mike Parsons at Ocean Beach, Greg Long at Cortes Bank. Did anyone see the photos of Makua Rothman after face planting the reef? Risk versus Reward. You have to ask the question if it really is “surfing” anymore at Tahiti when it is this size. Who will be the next to die?

  • http://www.ValleyPost.org Eesha Williams

    One of the best things about surfing is the lack of pollution it causes, and the peace and quiet. Jet skis are noisy and polluting.

  • hippy

    I agree with most of your opinion Matt, but when you suggest anyone can let go of that rope, you’re fooling yourself.

    its all the same guys for the most part, paddling and towing.

    and one death won’t stop the egos. Code red failed to kill anyone and all that did was embolden those inclined. Corpo pressure to earn checks is another factor.

    the sport is pushing itself and it won’t stop until the waves push back.

  • Fernando

    There were,a t least, 2 huge wipeouts by surfers towed in who where visibly underskilled to be there.

  • popo

    They had the same debate about the commercialization of climbing Mt. Everest. It went from pure, natural mountaineering to mass tour groups. According to The Economist, the number of surfers climbed from 26m to 35m between 2001 and 2011. I heard somewhere that it would be somewhere in the range of 50m surfers by 2020. (Not sure how you calculate this number). It probably won’t even be a debate, it will just be zoo of “thrill-seekers/bucket list hobos” in the lineup. I live on the North Shore and there are crowds even with 2-ft (face) swell.

  • mike

    teahupoo was firing?,,,,i had no idea…i have been watching the Rio contest…waves have been going off there

  • Henri

    I’ll be the one to say it. Who cares if someone dies! People who live for this are making calculated risks. I do it all the time driving the LA freeway.

    And second… people DO die all the time from surfing.

    If this is about the spectacle, the corpos, and this gawker magazine, then we should blame ourselves not the people choosing their own fate by flinging into a closeout death pit.

    Finally, the argument about who is qualified and who isn’t. This just smacks of snobbery. Nobody is qualified. So everyone is.

    I will say that these types of situations are going to require some management by the people there… things that can be prevented, like boating accidents and ski entanglements, can be minimized with some sensible rules in place… limit the numbers and take turns, etc.

  • Bison

    @Eesha Williams, what about boats? They have bigger engines, thus pollute more and they’re noisy too. What about the car you drive every single day? Looks like you live in the US where the average car is really bad on gas… What makes you say that a jetski is worse than any other vehicule? Maybe you should think twice before posting stupid comments

  • D

    Who are you ? You sound like a jack ass! To each his own ,live life to the fullest!

  • matt rott

    Thanks Mike….30 hours into a 33-hour flight itinerary and you still managed to give my tired mind a good laugh.

  • http://nosarashack.com graham swindell

    Someone to pull you in. Someone to pull you out. Someone ready to put a band-aid on. We’ve found ways to shortcut everything in life. Ever so inviting for the not quite skilled making the highly skilled look a little less impressive. Kudos to big balls though.

  • Rick

    I hate toe in surfing – it is the antithesis of the sport which should be man vs nature.
    At that, i hate jet skis in general – the only thing, weather withstanding, that has ruined a peaceful day on the water (boating) with my family is jet skis. They’re like mosquitoes; an annoyance accentuated when you are in a supposedly peaceful line-up.

  • Barry

    Who really cares if they towed or paddled..
    Theres this massive debate/devide about towing or paddling and which one is cooler at the moment.
    At the end of the day (and the road), people are just there to ride waves and have fun.
    It doesn’t matter if you paddled the wave or towed it.
    Just step back from this stupid ego fueled debate and remember why we all started surfing in the first place.

  • Viktor


    Some believe in it. Some don’t.

    Just remember, most people think of surfing as a religion.

  • Kirk

    Waaaahh…. Surfer Magazine sad they didn’t get the pictures from Teahupoo…. What a troll of an article.

  • Matt Stoker

    This article is dead-on, and speaks the truth. While living in Hawaii, I witnessed guys that could barely do a top-turn at 3 foot Velzyland bragging about “towing-in” at Phantoms, etc…unreal. If Laird wants to get placed into the barrel by a helicopter, who cares? The guy could get in there on his belly if necessary. These tatted-out, red bull drinking, funny underwear-wearing kooks need to learn some fundamentals before hurling themselves head-first into the reef.

  • Fras

    Each craft has its own set of benefits and similarly its disadvantages that make it harder and easier to ride than the next craft in different situations. So long as you’re on the wave, having a good time – or in this case getting the wave of your life – who cares how you got onto it or how you ride it? All water users should be equal, and equally respected in their own fields. And this goes beyond towing, I mean bodysurfing, bodyboarding, kitesurfing etc, maybe even kneeboarding…

    Anybody who went out to Tahiti over the past week did so knowing the risks, the guy who goes out to Teahupo’o and can’t tell that’s a deadly wave and surfs it without proper preparation will find out soon enough.

  • michael

    what kook wrote this?…you want to put some steinbeck literary spin on a huge Chopes swell. I doubt anyone towing there this weekend is not a ripping surfer when the waves are paddle only. The writer of this article should be fired for being a wanna be artisitc, literary kook. You make your money off people towing waves like this when laird is doing it 10 years ago. A swell that shouldnt be ridden?..shut the F%$k up kook…..these guys rip…and put it on the line when swells like this arrive….next you will be justifying slaters absence at cloudbreak mega swell as justified because it was just too dangerous. Koa,Manoa,Healy,Dorian,Grey,Riou…let them be the judges of what rideable,paddleable, and when its time to tow……..not some kook from SFSU sitting in the channel with his journal…fired!!

  • ignacio

    good point. worth thinking about.

  • ivan

    Yeah – why bother. THey are having fun surfing a great wave. Boogie, body, tow, paddle, SUP, whatever. You are alive now – enjoy beautiful waves however you can – what a great show.

  • Gorottyourself

    you really bitching and moaning about all that epic stuff that just went down? LOL you are that guy

  • sonnymillerfilms

    Interesting editorial with a crooked perspective.Have you ever experienced Chopu on a game day? If you sat ringside you would have no words to describe it. There is a test everytime going on of whats possible . Cowboys are everywhere ! The Masters know their act.The skilled tow teams get the ones that matter. Next level on all Boundaries. These days saw the Ladies KK and Maya step up. Young Hawaiians holding down paddle and tow all within one day. Many great Tahitians . The OZZY boys charged and bagged some gold. Brazillians nabbed the most yardage get pitted on 12ftrs.Without towing none of these benchmarks could ever be achieved . On the Paddle front there were some great ones. Billy Kemper nabbed a mental one.Its all good!Open your pespective and you will be rewarded with positive outlook.PEACE.

  • Mateo

    Mr. Rott- Say it to their face… Yeah didn’t think so.

  • Gareth Hubbard

    Eish Bro! Copping some heat from the readers ek se!
    Dude theres no way someone will go out at Teahupoo on a day that
    was as HEAVY as last week and try tow in. Those guys towing in are professionals
    that have mastered their sport which allows them the confidence and balls quite
    frankly to tow into waves of that magnitude. The line up did look chaotic at times
    and could probably be assessed to keep things as safe as possible and the boats
    were a plenty and should also be looked at but the oaks going out there putting their lives on
    the line are there because they know what they are doing and can handle it.

    This is what they live for, to say to them cant go ride those waves cause they towing in is
    like saying to a snowboarder you cant get a helicopter up to that crazy peak of beautiful powder snow
    because you using the helicopter! This is their job, they push the limits and they pay the price and thats what
    they do.

  • http://Surfer wldrabbit

    If there weren’t others who rode waves behind those that broke new ground there would be no surf industry and no Surfer magazine. Aren’t we all allowed to risk what we’re willing to put out there and enjoy what thrill we are capable to obtain? To me this is just another boohoo my surf gods have to deal with immortals and I don’t get enough shots to make money in the Mags. SOS different method of surfing.

  • RH

    Pimping one’s tow-in surfing is like claiming because you scored a hooker.

  • shwebell

    “conscious recklessness” … isn’t that what surfing’s all about?

  • cesar Cintron

    As James Jones once said …” If you cant paddle out there, you dont belong there.”

  • Chris Bouslog

    There was clearly little consideration of “safety” for self or more importantly, for others in the water that day, not on the part of the tow teams jockeying for position, not on the part of paddle in surfers sitting in the well up zone in danger of getting run over, not on the part of the SUP people, and not on the part of the boats sitting in the close out zone, blocking the surfers’ exits from the wave and barely avoiding going over the falls. Complete mayhem. It is fortunate that no one was badly injured.

    I don’t agree that the entitlement to tow into waves should be based solely on one’s ability to paddle in on those same waves. As the article notes, it really wasn’t feasible to paddle in on many of the bigger sets coming in that day. And there are many big wave paddle in surfers who are appallingly bad and dangerous jet ski drivers and those who don’t surf tow boards very well, either. Big wave tow in and big wave paddle in surfing are just two very different activities with only partially overlapping skill sets. A high level of physical conditioning is required for both. There are very few non-athletically fit or inexperienced surfers who will tow in for more than a session or two in large waves, a major source of barely used skis for sale. As one of the comments below states, once anyone has been anywhere near this intimidating wave and all complications from the crowds of people, boats, skis etc., they know and accept the high risks they are about to undertake if they still want to get towed or paddle the wave.

  • tyler

    Got to a give a big SHOUT OUT to laird all mighty!!! LOVE THE NEW MAZADA COMMERCIAL!!!! Hahaha