Issue 5.3: June/July 2002

Heavy Water


story by Derek Ferrar
photos by Eric Aeder

How big is BIG? A six-foot
competitor provides a sense of scale.

About a decade ago, extreme big-wave surfers began experimenting with a new idea: Using jet skis to tow riders onto monster waves that were simply too big to paddle into. Soon, a handful of pioneers were slinging each other at fifty miles per hour into surf of unimaginable size?picture five-story mountains of water?at places like the North Shore Maui break known as Jaws.

Pulling moves previously imagined only in surf-mag cartoons, the tow-in crews redefined what was possible in the ocean. Even the normally staid National Geographic magazine was sufficiently moved to put Jaws on its cover in 1998. Since then, the sport has continued to evolve, with a growing number of crews somehow able to seek out ever larger and meaner waves around the world.

And now tow-in surfing has gone competitive. Early this year, the first-ever Tow-In World Cup was held in massive, perfect conditions at Jaws. Thirteen elite, two-man teams competed for the $70,000 winner?s purse, taking turns towing each other into skyscraper faces and death-defying "tubes." Luckily, there were no serious injuries, although several surfboards were shattered?and a jet ski smashed on the rocks?after mortifying wipe-outs.

Brad Gerlach, full speed ahead. 

At the end of the day, the team of North Shore Oahu die-hard Garrett McNamara and Brazilian star Rodrigo Resende took home the top prize with the highest combined score, while the highest-scoring single wave, a perfect 10, went to Californian Mike Parsons. Summed up event director Rosaldo Cavalcante: "It was truly unbelievable."

A documentary and DVD of the event is due to be released this summer. For information, visit