The ski and the rope: Towing surfers into the future
Over the last couple of decades it has been easy to predict the path of surfing's development. The intricacies of design have been harder to pick but the purposes of those designs have always been clear. The template of modern performance surfing was developed in the seventies. Lopez opened the door to deep tube riding and a host of surfers, most prominently Michael Petersen and Mark Richards, building on the earlier work of Wayne Lynch and Nat Young, did the same for full power on the face manoeuvres. Aerials were added in the 80s and with that, the basic skill set for several decades was defined.
Yet, looking at current high performance surfing, its trajectory into the future seems less clear than at any time in its history. Deep tube riding has a natural limit somewhere in the foam ball which Fanning, Florence, Slater and others appear to have reached. On the face manoeuvres probably reached a similar point several years ago. The modern professionals have the full set. Which leaves aerials. There is probably some further potential in them but mainly in terms of gymnastics, more complex spins and twists, rather than dynamic innovation. This is not to say that performance surfing cannot progress, only that the improvements are likely to be marginal and, as we have seen in recent years, as much in the realm of consistency as innovation. In some sense then, if my analysis is correct, the radical spurt of development that has accompanied the growth and spread of surfing is over, both at the top and amongst the ranks.
For the vast majority of surfers this probably has little impact on their own surfing. The gulf between what surfers are likely to see at their own favourite spots and the performances of the pros has never been greater. In addition to that relative decline it could even be argued that the overall standard of surfing has suffered an absolute decline as its population has aged and broadened to include a cohort of casual surfers with no real interest in performance.
The other main strand of modern surfing, big waves, has been slower to develop. The early days of the pro tour kept the focus firmly on smaller waves and those riding them. If we take Waimea Bay as an entry point for true big wave surfing, very little happened until the development of tow in surfing in the early nineties. Standards did rise and there was coverage in the mainstream surfing media, but it was a sideshow. The arrival of tow in technology changed that, it was still a sideshow but it was a sideshow that rivalled the main event. Two decades on it is like a support band waiting for its chance to blow the headliners off the stage. The surfers are ready, the boards are ready and the technology of survival has reduced the risk in even the most terrifying of conditions.
In terms of technical development, tow in is the future. It has the potential to pull the two strands together; high performance surfing in big waves. Tow sessions at Teahupoo have already stretched the limits but we are as yet, nowhere near its potential. Whipping surfers into waves with more speed than the wave itself could ever supply changes the game, the speed limits are broken and the potential for performance hugely enhanced.
Those paddling in are deserving of huge respect. They are taking chances that tow in surfers avoid. Two critical danger points in heavy conditions are getting caught inside and taking off too late. Both put the surfer in potentially life threatening situations and both are much less likely when being towed. There are also whole dimensions of wave reading skill necessary to successfully paddle in that the tow surfer equally avoids. Then there is the quality of respect for the ocean that has been intrinsic to the philosophy of surfing since it was first developed in ancient Hawaii. For many of us, even the idea of using a motor driven vehicle in the surf initiates an almost visceral disgust...... but we can't turn away from the imagery that flows from them.
To be blunt, philosophical purity and a highly developed skill set will not be enough. The sheer length of the boards needed to catch seriously large waves handicaps performance. Equally paddle in surfers are inherently limited to the speed that can be derived from the wave itself. Whatever personal satisfaction and peer respect are gained from paddle in, it is the media that will determine the path to the future and the imagery generated by tow in give it a huge advantage. The future has a way of ignoring our preferences and going where it will. The biggest challenges tend to attract the greatest talent and, in surfing, it is difficult to see those challenge anywhere other than towing into the biggest waves possible and producing levels of performance on them beyond anything we have yet imagined. The only uncertainty is in how long it will take to become the main game. //blindboy