Tow surfing and Kirra: A maze of legislation
First published in 2015, the following article explains when and why PWCs are allowed to operate on Gold Coast beaches. The information is timely as similar issues are raised each time there is a solid swell event on the Gold Coast.
“Tow surfing on the Gold Coast? It's a self-regulating mentality.” So said the Queensland Government official when I asked about the current PWC laws. He went on to describe how the authorities have assisted the local tow surfing community.
“We have signs outlining the tow surfing Code of Conduct at each of the boat ramps between the Tweed River and the Seaway.”
Over the last week those boatramps have copped a lot of use as tow surfers have lowered their craft down the concrete incline and into the Gold Coast waterways. Since last Thursday the Queensland coast has been under the influence of a strong trade swell, the result being the closure of all Gold Coast beaches for five days straight.
And that's the signal to fire up the engines; as soon as Gold Coast lifeguards officially close the beaches, the coastline from Point Danger to the Seaway – save Currumbin and Tallebudgera Creek – are no longer a bathing reserve. PWC use is then allowed within the surf zone.
“Yes, we allow it to happen,” says Warren Young, head of lifeguards at Gold Coast City Council. “As soon as we close the beaches the tow surfers are allowed in.”
Young said that he'd worked closely with the surfing community to find a “benchmark” for tow surfing when the beaches are closed. That benchmark is the Queensland state government's Transport and Main Roads (TMR) Tow Surfing Code of Conduct drafted in August 2010. I was told by another official that it took 15 drafts to get the Code of Conduct right. This betrays the fact that tow surfing in a surf zone on a closed beach crosses multiple levels of government and hence multiple government departments. The stakeholders are many and they're not just surfers. Yet, as Warren Young told me, “Professional surfers have a lot of sway in this town.”
The Code of Conduct is a standard seven page document outlining PWC regulations. It piggybacks onto the TMR's standard rules and regulations for PWCs but with one notable exception: PWC operators do not need an observer when tow surfing. This exemption was drafted following consultation with the surfing community. Young appears to work closely with the tow surfers and is sympathetic to their plight. “All the young surfers who want to be professional, their parents buy them skis so they can get more waves. It's the way it is here.”
Elsewhere within the Code of Conduct speed and distance restrictions on PWCs are defined: The personal watercraft operator must not operate the watercraft at a speed of more than six knots within 200 metres of all paddle surfers in the water.
For those unaware a speed over six knots is almost always exceeded when towing a surfer into a wave. Yet despite the explicit definition the legislation is rarely enforced. The reason, I'm told, is that the TMR are a state department and the Code of Conduct pertains to local laws. Therefore, the local authorities must police it, meaning the Queensland Water Police and lifeguards. I'm also told that local authorities - the lifeguards in particular - aren't pressured into enforcing the laws. “Their job is to manage the beaches and save lives. They have better things to be doing than policing PWCs.”
During the last swell event on the Gold Coast no infringements were issued by either the Water Police or the lifeguards. “The self-regulating system was working fine,” said Warren Young, who then described the shuttle system surfers used at Burleigh Heads where surfers were ferried to the take off, dropped off beyond the lineup, then the ski would zip down to the end of the wave and wait for the surfer to catch a wave and they'd meet up. “It's an ideal system,” says Young.
While watching Kirra on Swellnet's surfcam last Friday I noticed a similar system in place. A small armada of skis were waiting at the end of the wave to connect with their buddies before shuttling them back to the top of the point. During that small window of observation self-regulation appeared to be working.
Since then, however, videos and photos show some PWCs, and even one Thundercat*, bucking the self-regulating system and towing surfers into waves apparently within breach of the 'distance off' laws. The Swellnet forums have also been a site for complaints with few people knowing what the actual laws are. When I asked Warren Young he said he was unaware of said transgressions. He'd had no complaints from the public either therefore there was nothing to investigate.
At this point it's worth considering personal ethics. Are the complaints coming from people fundamentally opposed to PWCs despite signs a self-regulating system could work? Were those people even in the water? The lack of complaints to Warren Young might suggest so.
To those recreational surfers hellbent on prosecuting PWCs the multiple government situation offers an alternative. Despite the lack of local enforcement, tow surfers can still be charged under state government laws if they're within 60 metres of a paddle surfer**.
However, that alternative evaporates very quickly with the tyranny of distance. The state government authority, in this case Maritime Safety Queensland, aren't 'on site' the way the lifeguards or Water Police are. There's no-one there to police their laws.
The situation is confusing and complicated. The Code of Conduct includes a law that ostensibly wont be policed, and the state government has a law that can't be policed. The overlapping legislation has left recreational surfers puzzled on their rights and given tow surfers carte blanche. Although as I saw on Friday and as Warren Young described at Burleigh Heads, some do uphold the self-regulation system. It should be commended whenever possible.
Still, the odds are stacked against recreational surfers who don't own a ski or choose not to use one on principle. The state official agrees, “It frustrates the crap out of me. The Code of Conduct is five years old, tow surfing has escalated in that time, legislation hasn't kept up.”
Until legislation does change the onus of policing tow surfing falls squarely with the local Gold Coast authorities. In particular the lifeguards as they're closest to the action so well placed to observe. Yet when I put the same sentiment to Warren Young he was less understanding. “Surfing is a selfish sport, isn't it?”
Read that however you like but I wouldn't expect the status quo to change anytime soon.
* Suprisingly, a Thundercat has less restrictions on it than a PWC as it's classified as a vessel.
**127A Transport Operations (Marine Safety) Regulations 2004.
Postscript: The following footage was shot on Monday 19th June, 2017, at Currumbin by Luke Workman: