Stab Magazine | The Universal Guide To Tow Surf Etiquette

The Universal Guide To Tow Surf Etiquette

The rules of engagement according to the enforcers.

news // Jan 2, 2017
Words by stab
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Welcome to the exceedingly complex world of modern big wave surfing! Here, a screamed “oi!” ain’t audible over the rev of a jet ski, and the only method of regulation is the ambiguous (and often rubbery) law of localism. In the contest of man versus horsepower, there can only be one winner, and hot tip: It won’t be the one made of flesh and bone. Just ask Tahitian legend, Raimana Van Bastolaer, who nearly lost his head to an errant jet ski at Teahupoo. Tow etiquette saves lives. This is how the system works at the world’s five busiest big wave spots.

TE 002

Voice of The Right, Mr Chris Ross. “He’s definitely one of the best out there,” says Chris Gurney. “He’s an amazing surfer, and he’s on a lot of the best ones. He’s down there a lot, knows the wave really well – he’s really committed to the wave. He’s actually from the area. And he’s one of those lowkey underground guys, he’d be out there regardless of if there’s a camera or not. I’ve watched from land before and seen those guys out there with no one shooting.”


Chris Gurney

Location: The Right, Western Australia

Enforcers: Chris Ross, Ben Rufus, Cale Grigson, Chris Shanahan

Rules, According To Chris Ross: “We regulate The Right because we’ve been surfing out there the longest. We don’t have respect for the lids that exposed the joint. We have never exposed a wave, ever, and believe it’s wrong for a tourist to come and blow it out. The new generation can only see dollar signs. They exploited the area and really put it on the map to make a name for themselves, ruining it but calling themselves pioneers at the same time. Most Perth people just want to make a name for themselves, where country crew from down here are all about preservation. These city slickers will reveal a wave before they even surf it, just to big note themselves. It’s actually a war and they are threatening our lifestyle and they don’t care. They’re from the city and wouldn’t even be able to paddle a six foot wave, but expect to get paid to professionally surf. They’re used to having hundreds of people in the water. We will hold our ground and won’t let them take over our local wave to the point where someone’s going to die due to a traffic hazard. We have a lifetime of practice in comparison, so it won’t be us. We got cut off from every angle last surf, every single wave, and then heard the Perth guys were trying to vandalise our cars in the car park, while their cars were safe in accommodation. Where else would out-of-towners try that? Then they called up Channel Seven and said the locals have no ethics. I even looked after one of ‘em, put him up, hooked him up a sponsor and then got punched in the eye while swimming out at The Right and have continually been hassled out by him. There are some selfish, egotistical people out there and it’s best to stay well away from them. Lesson being: Be really careful who you choose as company. Hang out with crows and you’re going to cop a bullet. Thanks for letting us tell our story.”

TE 003

This is Mick Corbett, on the same day as the previous Chris Ross spread. Both were captured during the decade swell (you may remember Craig Anderson cutting down at 10ish-feet Kandui’s on a 5’4”? Yeah, same pulse). “This was one of the two or three days,” says Gurney. “Usually you get not even a day there, maybe just a window of a few hours. But this was three, full days of being so good. This one, however, surged and closed out, and he got swallowed.”


Chris Gurney

TE 004

See this? This is pure confidence, the kind that only comes from growing up at a spot and surfing it every time it’s breaking – a relationship Matahi enjoys with the jewel of Tahiti, the reefbreak known as Teahupoo. It’s no surprise then, that he helps ensure that the lineup runs smoothly.


Ben Thouard

Location: Teahupoo, Tahiti

Enforcers: Vetea ‘Poto’ David, Manoa Drollet, Matahai Drollet, Raimana Van Bastolaer, Tikanui Smith, Michel Bourez

Rules, According To Matahai Drollet: “No towing under 12 feet. And if there are people paddling, normally no one tows, but sometimes people will paddle when it’s like 12 to 14 feet. Once it’s not makable, we start to tow, but there are no exact rules. The best surfer doesn’t always have priority. You have to wait for priority and once you have your wave, you have to join the line again. Locals get priority on the bombs, but it’s pretty mellow – if we see someone has been waiting for a long time, we let them take the bomb, for sure. If we see he really wants it, even if he’s not from here, and he’s waited his turn, we let him go. It’s not like Pipe where the locals take every wave and are super edgy. At its worst, there were 14 teams towing and that was pretty crazy. No one was waiting their turn, then add a bunch of people paddling and… it was gnarly. Now when people come, they must know they have to wait for their turn. This year we’ve had a couple of big swells, just paddling, no towing, and it’s been pretty mellow, everybody was waiting their turn. The only exception is Raimana. Sometimes he comes and tows when there’s people paddling. Sometimes he will do step-offs and he will bring people to surf Teahupoo and use a jet ski when it’s only six to eight foot. But it’s fine, we don’t really care as long as he doesn’t take all the waves. He’s really friendly and it’s Raimana, too. He is known as “the guy” at Chopes. But everyone knows that if he tries to take every wave, even though he’s the guy, we’re not gonna let him (laughter).”

TE 005

Chopes is one of the few places left where, beyond a certain size, it simply must be towed. Which all makes sense. But what is hard to comprehend, is that a wave this powerful, this furious, this deadly, can break with such aesthetic perfection.


Ben Thouard

TE 006

Ever been to the Cape? You might not be aware that it’s located very close to some high-traffic shipping lanes. It’s a strange thing, watching huge tankers pull outta the harbour, as gents like Mark Mathews (who’s just let go of the rope here) pull into death jams. As if the place wasn’t dramatic enough already.


Bill Morris

Location: Cape Solander aka Ours, Sydney

Enforcers: Koby Abberton, Mark Mathews, Richie Vaculik, Evan Faulks

Rules, According To Richie Vaculik: “Like a lot of places, when they’re towing, they’re doing it because there are waves that can’t be paddled into. As soon as the skis get in, they’re there to get those massive ones. If they try to go on one and someone turns to paddle, the guy who’s paddling has right of way, more or less. Everyone knows each other in the lineup. It’s a relaxed, cool set-up, compared to Tahiti, where people are from all around the world and everyone is jostling, trying to get the biggest wave of the day. At Ours, all the Cronulla and Maroubra guys are the ones who surf it all the time. It’s a much more relaxed environment. If you’re able to paddle the wave, the guys paddling have right of way. Koby and Mark really led the way.

Koby was the first guy who had a ski and was towing it. That was back in 2000, 15 years ago, and he was at the top of the big wave surfing world. He definitely dictated a lot of what went down out there. And Mark, again, ‘cos he surfed it so good he got a lot of respect out there and people showed it back in return.

Guys who have been surfing it the longest get a bit more priority. For someone to go out there and not do the hard yards paddling and get all the bombs on the jet ski, that doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, myself included. The guys who’ve been out there the longest get the most respect, and the guys who paddle the nuts ones, everyone is stoked to see them as well.”

TE 007

A firm decision was made, when it became clear that we’d need to run imagery of Cape Solander, that under no circumstances would we run a photo from the Red Bull Cape Fear event, which flooded the internet in viral fashion when it broke. But this… this moment, featuring Richie Vas scratching over the shoulder of a gurgling mutant, was just too much to sleep on.


Rod Owen

TE 008

Here we have the pulled-back pleasure of Tasmania’s Shipsterns, complete with impending staircase, and a good idea of the amount of PWCs you’ll find in the water when it’s on. Interestingly, Josh Kerr once told your Stab correspondent that despite the spot’s threatening nature, it’s not really scary once you’re in the barrel – simply because you can’t see all the lips above you.


Alasdair Shurman

Location: Shipsterns, Tasmania

Enforcers: Mikey Brennan, Marti Paradisis, James and Tyler Holmer-Cross, Zeb Critchlow

Rules, According To Marti Paradisis: “It’s not official. Anything that is above 10 feet, it’s gonna be pretty hard to get into while paddling. There are some days where it’s full tow, but then there will be the odd paddle wave and there might be one or two people out there waiting patiently and paddling. If I paddle for a wave, I’m gonna go because, fuck, I’ve usually been waiting for two hours. Generally, if you’re paddling for a wave on that type of swell, the person towing will see you paddling and not bother. Ultimately the paddler has right of way.

We’ve been towing it for so long now, that it’s only on very rare occasions you’ll see two people on the same wave, and those occasions will come about generally when it’s really crowded and everyone is getting edgy for a wave. The locals know if someone has gone already, and if we want the next wave, we are gonna go no matter who’s towing. There’s definitely times where we’ve had to pipe up. If there’s a crew that are towing and getting too many waves, we let ‘em know to chill out a bit. If there are 10 guys trying to paddle and two tow teams that are racking up wave after wave, you sort of just say, chill out. Then there’s the issues with crew that are paddling, where you get crew paddling deeper than the locals and they might be getting a few waves but as soon as they start moving deeper it starts pushing everyone deep and out of position. Then a bomb will come through and the few crew that know where the takeoff position is, will go to paddle for the wave and end up paddling through arms, legs and leg ropes and shit. That’s where it causes grief. If you’re paddling for an eight to 10 foot wave and potentially about to get the barrel of your life, you don’t want to get your arm caught in legropes. It’s normally really peaceful in the line up and I get in my zone and just feel good out there. If someone is paddling for a wave, you get the fuck out of their way – there are no excuses. But it does happen, so you’ve just got to let people know it’s not on. We say it once and they get the idea. There’s been a couple times when I’ve paddled one and ended up with someone towing on the same wave. In both circumstances, we didn’t hit each other and I made both waves and it was all sweet. But if I had fallen off due to the fact that someone was towing and I had injured myself, it wouldn’t go down too good.

It’s really hard to explain; It’s such a fine line between someone being able to paddle into a wave and someone easily whipping into it, so it’s the paddlers who are always gonna be in the harder situation, because you don’t know whether you’re going on that wave until you are pushing yourself over the edge. By the time you make that decision and they make their decision, it’s either both on the wave or the tow person kicks out nice and early and leaves it up to you to decide.

You can’t go out there towing if it’s just a paddle day. It just doesn’t happen. There’s this size where the tide’s coming in and it doesn’t break on the take off, but the end bowl still barrels, so you do get those in-between days on the high tide when sets will come through and they won’t be able to be paddled. You can whip into them and backdoor the end bowl, which is really fun to do and that happens. If it’s a constant paddle day, you might get a crew that will sit out the back for hours and hours hoping that a wave of significant size will come through, but generally you won’t really have any type of issues on those days. The issues are when you get four skis trying to tow and 15 crew paddling and it’s all a bit of a nightmare. People start losing their cool and try to push you deeper. It turns into a fucken shit fight.”

TE 009

Your Shipsterns host, Marti Paradisis, feels the spray of a wave to which he’s dedicated a whole lot of iron, juice and foam. “It’s such a fine line between someone being able to paddle into a wave and someone easily whipping into it, so it’s the paddlers who are always gonna be in the harder situation, because you don’t know whether you’re going on that wave until you’re pushing yourself over the edge,” he says.


Stu Gibson

TE 010

Albee Layer, pictured here, is without peer when it comes to knifing the inside bowl, a fact Stab has made a great amount of noise about in recent vintage. But isn’t it something to consider Jaws from behind the peak? Tom Servais delivers an angle, captured from the left, that offers a closer perspective to that of the surfer.


Tom Servais

Location: Jaws, Maui

Enforcers: Albee Layer, Shaun and Ian Walsh, The Skullbase Crew

Rules, According To Albee Layer: “When I first started paddling it, the rules were iffy because there were tonnes of guys still towing it every swell. That was kinda weird. But then, after one more winter, no one was allowed to tow if there were even a couple of guys paddling. There were a lot of clueless people that used to tow-surf Jaws. They didn’t show up once we started paddling. We didn’t have to say anything. They knew they were outnumbered. The few good guys who towed, once they realised they couldn’t tow, a few of them started paddling, and others kinda just disappeared. There’s a few guys who I’m sure are very bitter about it, but for the most part they don’t talk about it. In the beginning, people were really bitter, but now you can’t really say anything. At the beginning they were saying, ‘oh, they’re blowing it, everyone is falling.’ Now you sound like an idiot if you say that when you see the waves Shane Dorian is catching. Eventually they just accepted they were wrong.

The very first couple of sessions we kinda had to gang up and tell them not to. We were doing both at the same time and we were like, this is ridiculous. We’re capable of paddling a set, there’s no reason for the tow guys to be out here. That was the only time where a couple of guys were snapping a bit. Besides that, the only other time it got annoying was with windsurfers, ‘cos they can catch the wave from as far out as they want. We had a couple of sessions where they were just circling us and it got to a point where we were like ‘you guys, that’s enough.’

I think they’re all paddle days from this day forward. There hasn’t been a day yet where no one has paddled. There will still be a tow day every now and then if it’s really, really big and really, really windy. There was that one swell last year during the Eddie, when there were a few teams towing. I was paddling the right for a bit and Will Skudin was on the left and Derek Dunfee went out for a bit. That was kinda fine ‘cos there were so many waves and paddling that big you’re only gonna get one or two waves in an hour, if you’re lucky. There were a few tow teams and it still worked, I wasn’t telling them to go in or anything. Days like that are the only days when you can tow, because there’s pretty much no one around to paddle. That’s when they can co-exist fine – otherwise, it’s pretty much all paddle. If anyone tried to tow there would be a few guys telling them they can’t, really quickly. The Walsh brothers and their Skullbase Crew run safety out there. It’s part of running safety to tell guys not to tow if it makes it unsafe with jet skis ripping through the lineup and pumping wake where a bunch of surfers are trying to paddle and take waves.”

TE 011

There was a time when Laird Hamilton and his Strapped crew were the only men in this lineup. That time has very much passed. Nowadays, it can get as crowded as Waimea. Which makes it all the more important to follow the rules. Jaws doesn’t do second chances.


Tom Servais


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