Towing Into The Madness Zone

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - December 31, 2008
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Keali‘i Mamala at Puaena Point in 40-foot surf: go fast and don’t look back

Hitching a ride has a different meaning for surfers these days, especially during the winter months when the ocean comes alive and massive waves show up at North Shore breaks. The energy - and madness - intensifies when those “tagging along” are whipped down the face of a 25-foot monster.

“It’s an extreme sport and definitely not for the wary,” says longtime North Shore surfer Betty Depolito when describing the tow-in surfing technique. “Just doing tow-ins is nuts, but these guys make it look easy.”

Big-wave legends Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, Dave Kalama and Michael Willis often are credited as the pioneers of the big-wave discipline that surfaced in the mid-1990s. Since then, thousands have caught the bug, towing partners with personal watercrafts into waves once forbidden to ride.


For the past six years, Oahu’s North Shore has hosted the cream of the crop in a world-class event. The holding period for the fifth annual Bank of Hawaii/Atlas Sales North Shore Tow-In Surf Championship 08/09 is under way and continues through March 31, 2009.

“This extreme big-wave event requires a minimum wave height of 25 feet Hawaiian scale for it to be on,” says Depolito. “That’s 50-foot faces.”

Depolito is the media coordinator and co-director of the oneday event. She says contest organizer and executive director Alec Cooke, aka Ace Cool, is confident there will be at least one “XXL”-sized swell in the next few weeks.

“We’re hoping the event will be held at Outside Avalanche or Puaena Point,” says Depolito of the two outer reef spots that break outside Haleiwa Harbor. “But we’ll move the event if we have to, depending on the surf.”

In 2006, Makua Rothman and Ikaika Kalama paired up to win the last event in 20-foot surf at Puaena Point. “That’s Hawaiian scale, so that’s 40-foot faces!” reminds Depolito.

This year’s format will feature four tow-in teams in each heat. With 32 two-man teams seeded into the main event, the field has opened up to allow more local and international teams to participate.

“We’ve invited surfers from Ireland, Chile, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Tahiti, California, Oregon and all over Hawaii,” says Depolito. “These are some of the best big-wave riders on this planet.”

Tow-in surfing has grown in popularity, but that’s not always a good thing. Too many people in the ocean on personal water-craft can be dangerous. In an effort to control the feverish growth, all tow-in surfers are required to complete a course offered by Hawaii’s community college system. The program started in September 2003.

“The course is not going to teach you how to drive, but is going to teach you respect, which is important to know,” says tow-in surfer Buzzy De Mendonca.

As of March 2007, 765 people had completed the mandatory tow-in course with more, so to speak, in tow.


“The competitors in this event understand the dangers,” says Depolito. “They respect the ocean and their peers, and watch out for each other. It’s always safety first, so this mandatory course is a positive thing.”

This year’s event is being dedicated to the late Jimmy Hall of Hawaii Shark Encounters. Hall was an extreme athlete who died in 2007 in a base-jumping accident near the Arctic Circle.

“Jimmy was a friend of the contest - we used his boat as an official boat,” says Depolito. She pauses and continues, “He was the extreme guy out here, a wonderful guy, who is missed” - someone who understood the thrill of being launched into a moving mountain and enjoying every minute of the ride.

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Most Recent Comment(s):

Kudos to Midweek Hawaii for listing Michael Willis in the same pantheon as legendary and respectable surfers Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox and David Kalama. It’s awesome to see Willis receive recognition for his great accomplishments and contributions to the sport of surfing in Hawaii.

Though possibly the least known a case could be made that Willis has contributed the most to surfing. Recognized by Surfing magazine as one of the top five surfboard shapers in the world the list of surfers who have ridden his big wave guns reads like a surfing who’s who including Mark Foo, Ace Cool, Ross Clark Jones and others.

Michael Willis is credited for countless successful rescues in extremely hazardous ocean conditions. Amongst the hundred of successful rescues he performed at his own risk, Willis was there to save David Kahanamoku (directly related to Duke Kahanamoku) from the pounding Waimea bay shorebreak. It is well known that Michael Willis also saved the life of Hawaiian big wave legend Titus Kinimaka from Kauai in what goes down as one of the most truely dramatic dramatic successful rescues in maritime history.

In addition to being a big wave legend credited with helping to pioneer the tow surfing movement Willis is one of a handful of surfers to actually surf a tsunami along with Jay Adams and pro surfer Michael Ho. Michael Willis is also recognized for surfing the state of Hawaii’s first, second and only condition blacks (illegal to go on or near the beach let alone surf due to massive waves). On the first code black Willis paddled into history and the largest waves ever surfed at Waimea bay along with his brother Milton Willis, Tony Ray, Ross Clark Jones and Ted Schmidt. On the second code black the Eddie Aikau big wave surfing contest was cancelled due to waves deemed to big to humanly ride. Michael Willis along with his brother Milton Willis, Sam Hawk and pro surfer Cheyne Horan surfed outer Log Cabins and outside Sunset Beach during a famous swell known as biggest Wednesday. It is widely accepted that to this date no surfer has ever ridden waves this larger. To this date there has not been another condition black beach closing issued by the state of Hawaii , Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono.


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