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Bad Vibrations 

Surfers battle enviro-surfers over a proposed jet-ski ban that would protect wildlife -- but threaten big-wave surfing at the legendary break known as Maverick's

Wednesday, Sep 3 2003
Frank Quirarte is on his way to Maverick's, the storied big-wave break 20 minutes south of San Francisco, when his truck -- license plate: MAVSRFR -- blows its radiator. It's a bright, broiling day along the coast, and Quirarte waits for the tow truck to arrive in a steamy pizza parlor in downtown Half Moon Bay, sweating through clothes befitting a photographer for Surfing Magazine: flip-flops, shorts, Quicksilver T-shirt, black wire-rimmed glasses. He's just turned 40, and his hair and goatee are sprinkled with gray. "We're experienced surfers, experienced big-wave guys, and we know when a guy's going to die," says Quirarte. "So we go in and get him and drag him out, whether he likes it or not. If he doesn't have a surfboard, doesn't have a way in, there are so many variables that can get him. Hell, there are sharks out there.

"Nobody else wants to be out there," he continues with a chuckle. "We're just sitting there, and we do it for no pay."

As Maverick's has gained popularity since the early 1990s, so too has the use of motorized personal watercraft -- small boats with strong thrust that change directions and speeds quickly -- to tow surfers past and into its gigantic waves. Some surfing purists consider it cheating (and disruptive), but Quirarte, who landed the first shot of a so-called tow-surfer on the cover of Surfer Magazine, believes personal watercraft have become indispensable not only to surfers, but also to the photographers, filmmakers, and boating enthusiasts who double as rescue personnel when winter storms roll in, and the break at Maverick's gets huge.

"It's a whole little tight community, and we take care of ourselves," says Quirarte, a native of Pacifica who dedicated himself to shooting Maverick's after a stint in the Air Force during Operation Desert Storm. (Some of his photographs accompany this story.) "That's why this whole thing cuts right to our heart, because there's people who are coming up against us who have no idea what goes on out there, no clue, they've never even been out there. And the one guy who has -- Mike Kimsey -- we don't understand where he's coming from."

Kimsey is a member of the San Mateo County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a respected national organization that blends love of the sport with environmentalism. A veteran paddle-out surfer who has braved Maverick's, Kimsey chairs a Surfrider committee that has, over the past few years, set its sights on securing a ban of personal watercraft from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which includes Maverick's. The issue goes far beyond big-wave riding -- environmental groups argue that the small boats pose a threat to marine life throughout the protected waters -- but many surfers suspect Surfrider's tenacity stems from a disdain for the tow-in subculture that approaches vindictiveness. Kimsey, however, says it's "painful" to have to speak against longtime friends and insists San Mateo Surfrider supports the ban purely out of obligation to the environment.

"Ask anyone: How does it feel to be unpopular alone? Does anyone ever enjoy that?" says Kimsey, a man with sad eyes beneath a head of curly gray hair. "We thought that if the environment was to be an equal concern with satisfying our friends, the compromise was not even, for both our friends and the environment. Yes, it's been painful, and yes, it was hard to do, but I think for the better, because everybody is more aware now of the environmental issues."

Quirarte's not so sure the debate has been a healthy one. "The thing that gets me is that everyone's friends. I'm friends with the harbor guys, I considered myself friends with Mike Kimsey ... then as soon as this started, I became an a-hole from hell because I own a jet ski. It makes me sick to my stomach that we can't just all talk about it. I don't know how that fight started, but it didn't start with us."

The fight, however, has gone on for so long, dragging so many interest groups in its wake, that it has moved into a realm where compromise -- even among old friends -- seems unlikely to satisfy everyone. "The decision on tow-in surfing could set a precedent for other marine sanctuaries around the world," says Sean Smith of the Bluewater Network, a San Francisco environmental organization that has argued strenuously for a ban. "The issues are much larger than Monterey Bay and Maverick's. It's amazing; this touches all levels, it really stirs people up. Add in the marine sanctuary, and it's a blockbuster issue."

But contrary to the clichéd vision of personal watercraft use -- overcrowded country lakes constantly abuzz with spinning, jumping jet skis -- tow-in surfing at Maverick's is an intermittent affair, and tow-in surfers are a ghostly breed, emerging in the pre-dawn hours of deep winter days when the waves are too large, churning, and unpredictable for paddling out. If, for the first time, Maverick's bends to the will of regulation (in the form of a permit system that would limit the numbers of days and boats), the one-of-a-kind spot will surely shed some of the daredevil spirit and innovation embodied in its nickname -- a high price to pay, tow-in surfers say, for environmental concerns that seem long on potential threats but short on documented evidence. Indeed, it's hard to see how sporadic tow-in surfing poses a greater threat to the well-being of seals than, say, the trigger-happy tendencies of salmon fishermen, or the discharges of the cruise ships, freighters, and oil tankers that constantly stream across the Maverick's horizon, heading to and from the Golden Gate.

Then there is the safety issue. Maverick's worldwide reputation as a big-wave mecca draws surfers who aren't qualified to test it. There may well be significant public support for a ban on personal watercraft in the marine sanctuary, but a ban is highly unlikely to deter the hard-core adrenaline freaks who surf there, and it's downright foolish to imagine all of them surviving the next winter's storm at Maverick's, which breaks a half-mile out to sea, without volunteer rescue craft nearby.

"The funny thing is, we've drug Mike Kimsey in on two occasions," Quirarte says. "He didn't argue with us then."

To his credit, Kimsey acknowledges the story. "I'm one of these brutally honest types of people," he says. "One time at Maverick's, when I had to dive under a big wave, the wave broke my board, and they came over and said, 'Well, would you like a ride in?' 'Sure, I'd like a ride in.'"

He sighs.

"So I guess I'm a hypocrite. I'm not out there anymore, so it's easy for me to take this approach."

"He's not in a good spot." A photographer wearing an orange beanie, bobbing like a cork as the shoulder of a wave passes beneath his tiny boat, trains his telephoto lens on a nearby surfer paddling out through the gigantic waves that have descended on Maverick's. It's the afternoon of Nov. 21, 2001. The water looks like steel, and the waves arrive quickly and snap like jagged teeth. "Uh oh -- look at this, look at this," says the photographer, watching as the thick lip of a wave slams with brutal force on the helpless surfer, who couldn't paddle quickly enough past the break point. "He's caught," the cameraman says, before snapping off a few frames of a surfer who has been able to drop in on the wave. The downed surfer has disappeared beneath the churning foam.

"It caught me and I was just down – way, way down," a pale young surfer says into the camera during a cutaway from the most harrowing moment in 100 Foot Wednesday, one of the recent, and best, surf documentaries to capture the savage beauty of Maverick's. "I felt like I was in the womb. I opened my eyes, and it was nothing but darkness and noise.

"I was trying to shimmy up my leash," he continues, referring to the lifelinelike strap that connects a surfer's ankle to his board. "And the more I shimmied, the thinner the leash got, so the deeper I knew I was going."

The wipeout had so disoriented the surfer that he tried to surface in the wrong direction -- down, toward the ocean floor. Finally fighting to the surface, sans surfboard, he could only make it to some nearby rocks, where waves threatened to sweep him away again.

Two-way radios crackle:

"Where's he at, Don? Where's he at?"

"He's outside of you, way outside of you. He's in the rocks!"

But soon, he's washed off the rocks, back in the water, waving his arms for help. And from the left side of the frame, a single rider on a jet ski zooms into the hissing cauldron, hefts the surfer out, and roars away before the next wave crashes.

Surfing as a ritual and a sport can be traced to the 15th-century Hawaiian Islands, and was popularized in California at the turn of the last century by Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku. One of Hawaii's favorite sons and the first "beach boy" in recorded history, Kahanamoku grew up riding 10-foot planks over the lapping waves of Waikiki Beach, and his exhibitions of surfing prowess up and down the coast of California planted the seeds of a love affair between state and sport that would explode in the 1950s and '60s. By that time, innovations in surfboard design and wave-riding techniques in Hawaii had enabled daring surfers to trade the reliable calm of Waikiki for the unpredictable monsters that pound Waimea Bay. Big-wave surfing was born, and by the late 1950s surfers were taming some of California's larger breaks, using the same no-frills technique -- ride fast and straight down the "face" of the wave, hugging tight to the walls to avoid the crashing lip -- that enabled the Hawaiians to emerge from Waimea's barrels unscathed.

According to generally accepted legend, Alex Matienzo, a surfer who explored coastal breaks from Pacifica to Santa Cruz in the 1950s and '60s, was on the Pacific Coast Highway when he spotted waves off Half Moon Bay and rode out to test them with a few of his buddies. During the session, his friend's German shepherd, who had been left behind on the beach, popped out of the water next to him, and Matienzo had to paddle the pooch back to shore. When the surfer and his friends departed, awe-struck by a long day of riding the enormous wedgelike break, they christened the place in honor of Maverick, the precocious dog with an affinity for joining humans on surfboards.

Big-wave surfing is the province of a few surfers powerful enough to steer the requisite longboard -- usually measuring 10 to 12 feet -- as it threatens with every heartbeat to dig into the wave or flutter out of control; the break off Pillar Point Harbor did not draw many of these daring visitors for more than a decade. While surfing the nearby and tamer Ross' Cove, though, Jeff Clark of Half Moon Bay spotted the bigger waves closer to the harbor. In February 1975, at the age of 17, Clark caught the ride that would change his life. But he kept it to himself for the next 15 years, finally deciding in January 1990 to invite a couple of surfers from San Francisco to join him down south. They were amazed by what they found at Maverick's, and word gradually filtered north to S.F. and south to Santa Cruz.

"Jeff knew how good it was, and he wanted to share it with his buddies," says Don Montgomery, who in 1991 became the first photographer to publish a shot of Maverick's. A 1992 article in Surfer Magazine exposed Maverick's to the wave-obsessed world, and writer Ben Marcus summed up the spot as "gloomy, isolated, inherently evil. The reef is surrounded by deep water, and lies naked to every nasty thing above and below the Pacific: Aleutian swells, northwest winds, southeast storms, frigid currents, aggro elephant seals and wilder things that snack on elephant seals ... Maverick's radiates danger."

It is not the kind of place you find by accident -- you can't even see it from Highway 1, unless you know exactly where to look. You have to wind through the back streets of Half Moon Bay, around Pillar Point Harbor and its stone jetty, past surf shops and construction yards, modest bungalows and diners. The road ends in a dirt parking lot beneath a sheer cliff topped by a U.S. Air Force Radar Station (and an uninviting barbed-wire fence); a dusty trail snakes from the parking lot around the cliff base, ending at a warning, in block red letters: "Danger -- extremely hazardous waves."

This is not an empty threat. In December 1994, a legendary big-wave surfer from Hawaii named Mark Foo -- one of the Hawaiians who had heard about the new break in California and found it as breathtaking as the waves back home, albeit colder -- dug the edge of his surfboard into a medium-size 18-to-20-foot wave and fell into what looked to be a routine wipeout. So routine, in fact, that spectators on the cliff thought subsequent wipeouts by other surfers appeared far more life-threatening, and nobody realized Foo hadn't rejoined the lineup. But his surfboard had shattered, and about two hours later, a chunk of board floating near the shore drew the notice of photographers and surfers in a small boat. Underneath the purple-and-yellow board was Foo's body; the cause of death was later ruled to be drowning.

National media outlets descended on Maverick's in the wake of Foo's death; Clark readily emerged as the surfing spot's blunt, flint-eyed spokesman. When questions abounded over what would become of the surf spot, Clark famously declared, "Maverick's takes care of itself."

And since Mark Foo's death in 1994, Maverick's has not claimed the life of a surfer.

Bob Breen, who for 30 years has been the naturalist at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, just a short walk up the beach from Maverick's, works out of a trailer not much bigger than a college dorm room. The shelves surrounding his desk are crammed with fish tanks and fossils; the far wall is dominated by the shoulder blade of a sperm whale that washed up on the beach in 1975. "These are things we've collected over the years," says the mild-mannered, soft-spoken Breen, wearing his green-and-khaki ranger uniform tucked into woolen socks and heavy boots -- appropriate footwear for splashing through tide pools. He peeks out the door and spies a group of schoolchildren returning from the beach, where a confluence of streams, driftwood, and rocks creates a habitat rich with marine life. "Those kids have buckets," Breen says, scratching his white mustache, "but I don't think they've taken anything."

Of late, Breen has been on the lookout for more than just grade-schoolers sneaking out with algae and stones. He's concerned about personal watercraft users zooming through the reserve and unsettling the colony of harbor seals that "haul out" -- for rest, recuperation, or nurturing young -- on several rock clusters lying offshore. (Sea lions, elephant seals, and sea otters are also regular visitors.) This year, Breen counted 11 pups born among the 130 seals that make their permanent home in the reserve, and the birthing period is an especially vulnerable one, when mothers readily abandon their young at the first sign of danger. "Her strategy is to save herself, to be able to breed next year," Breen says. "I've seen it happen. An eel fisherman flushed out two mothers off the rocks, and the next day we found a dead pup on the beach. I'm not sure what happened to the second pup, but the mothers did not return to them during the time I observed."

One day last September, Breen says, he saw a single rider on a watercraft shoot out of the waves at Maverick's and zoom several times toward the Moss Beach Distillery Restaurant, a historic landmark on the craggy bluff overlooking the beach. But, he adds, he doesn't know of any instance when a PWC user from Maverick's disturbed the marine life at the reserve. "I've seen them close to the haul-out rocks, but I don't have any direct evidence they disturbed [the seals] or flushed them out of the rocks with a PWC," Breen says. He adds: "But it's a global picture, and there's lots of documented evidence."

Much of the evidence supporting the proposed ban of personal watercraft from the Monterey Bay marine sanctuary comes from the San Juan Islands in Washington, where a 1998 report prepared by the San Juan County Planning Department helped persuade the Washington State Supreme Court to uphold a ban on personal watercraft from the marine sanctuary there. "The ordinance is consistent with the goals of statewide environmental protection statutes," the court found in reviewing voluminous reports on watercraft impact. "[I]t would be an odd use of the public trust doctrine to sanction an activity that actually harms and damages the waters and wildlife of this state."

Several other scientific reports -- although not many in California -- have measured the impact of small watercraft on water quality and marine life, and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, stretching from Marin to Bodega Bay, has instituted a ban. A study by scientists with the Chicago Zoological Society -- which found that bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Sarasota, Fla., are less likely to be startled by the approach, sound, and behavior of conventional boats, as opposed to jet skis -- is frequently cited as a harbinger of similar threats to dolphins in Monterey Bay.

"Jet skis have been shown to elicit greater behavioral impacts on marine life," says Sean Smith of the Bluewater Network. "They can access near-shore waters that conventional boats can't. You can spin doughnuts, jump wakes, and the unpredictable nature of jet skis means animals can't anticipate where they're going to go. If these near-shore environments are no longer safe havens, [the animals] won't be able to feed, they won't be able to rest or rear their young -- the whole population could be threatened.

"Industry will claim there's never been a documented case of a jet ski that's struck an animal," Smith continues. "But just because they're not killing them, the mere harassment can be just as bad. Flushing out of resting areas means a significant loss of energy, which can also lead to death."

And because life in Monterey Bay is so prized and diverse -- of the 116 federally listed threatened or endangered species in California, 26 reside in the sanctuary -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has long been struggling to regulate personal watercraft in the waters it governs. In the early 1990s, NOAA, spurred by widespread public support, first sought to implement a definition that would enable the agency to ban the craft, but the industry struck back, filing a lawsuit in federal court that accused the administration of unfairly singling out small boats. An industry win was overturned on appeal, and NOAA was allowed its ban of personal watercraft from all but a few special offshore zones. It was a hollow victory, however, because technological innovations -- including the advent of more powerful, less polluting engines that could support a three- or four-seat craft -- rendered the regulations out of date almost as soon as they were implemented.

"We've gotten a very consistent stream of phone calls over the years from people reporting sightings of these crafts outside the allowed zones," says Rachel Saunders, a NOAA spokeswoman. "In most of the cases, those craft didn't fit the definitions, and so were legally operating. It's been 10 years, the craft have changed, but if you're going to have a regulation, it should be effective. We've always been interested in updating the definition."

Knowing the time had come for NOAA to redefine its ban, Surfrider's San Mateo Chapter, spurred by the environmental concerns of Mark "Doc" Renneker, an oncologist and paddle surfer who was one of the first from San Francisco to ride Maverick's, began pressing the issue. (Renneker was on an international surfing trip during the reporting of this story and could not be reached for comment.) Although Surfrider's national directors say they support the actions of their individual groups, they have not shown any particular zeal in pursuing the issue nationwide. And during a similar controversy over tow-in surfing in Hawaii, the local chapter, chaired by legendary big-wave rider Peter Cole, sided with the pro-watercraft camp, helping to hammer out a compromise on usage. "People keep making a big deal out of the Oahu chapter," Mike Kimsey says. "God bless those guys, Peter Cole is one of my heroes, but we felt the Monterey Bay was a very unique environment, with far more concentrated populations and more endangered species."

Frank Quirarte rolls his eyes at that argument. "'Our ecosystem is completely different,' he says, but out of this side of his mouth, he's adopting studies on PWCs from Florida, from the north, from Lake Havasu. It's ridiculous," Quirarte says. "If you look at all of their writings, it's all about potential problems, potential this, potential that. I've been out there on jet skis for six years now -- when is this potential problem going to happen?"

Inside the University of California at Santa Cruz Inn and Conference Center, hotel employees are tearing down partitions to expand the grand ballroom, trying frantically to accommodate a crowd that has swollen to more than 400. It's a warm late-July evening, and most of the folks look like they've come straight from the beach, arriving in vehicles sporting surfboard racks or boat hitches, wearing baggy Hawaiian shirts, boardshorts, or summer dresses, their faces and limbs baked a deep, lasting brown from another season in the sun.

The turnout is huge for this meeting of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, an obscure but influential group of volunteer policy-makers that recommends regulatory changes to NOAA. The sanctuary stretches a shoreline length of 276 miles from Marin to Cambria, attracting all types of Californians who make their living -- or their lifestyle -- on the water, and the ballroom is filling with a quintessential cross-section of boaters, environmentalists, anglers, commercial fishermen, marine biologists, surfers, beachfront residents, industry representatives, and assorted government officials. Homemade signs abound: "Save our schools," says one, with a line of fish swimming across it; another reads, "It's not a freeway -- it's a habitat." A schoolteacher strides up the aisle with a guitar; later, she'll induce the audience to clap along to a song, "Protect the Ocean," that she wrote with her students.

The list of people wanting to speak is more than 100 names long by the start of the meeting, which will stretch well beyond six hours. People address many of the proposals before the council -- sites for a visitor's center, restricted zones for fishing, a host of ecological protections -- but by far the most controversial is the recommendation to ban personal watercraft. Morgan Reed, an environmental science major and volunteer with Bluewater Network, regales the crowd with tales of motorboats disturbing the quiet of her grandmother's lake, and says: "Jet skis in the sanctuary are as inappropriate as smoking in an operating room. Jet skis are about adrenaline -- not peace and serenity."

When Kimsey speaks, he submits 600 e-mails from Surfrider members across the country who support the ban on watercraft, then reads a finding from NOAA staff members that says watercraft have the potential to inflict "physical damage and behavioral modifications" on wildlife. "You don't have to hit a sea lion in the head to get his attention," says Kimsey, who earned a master's degree in biology from UC Santa Barbara. "If you come near enough to him, you can convince him to take his family and go elsewhere."

The pro-PWC camp, meanwhile, consists of a few boating safety instructors -- who argue that the issue is about operator behavior, not vessel design -- but the voice of tow-in surfers remains silent until nearly five hours into the meeting, when Frank Quirarte approaches the podium and slyly notes: "I think the lack of pro-PWC enthusiasts who have spoken tonight is a direct testament on how many PWC users are in the sanctuary." His colleague Don Montgomery, who directs boats to fallen surfers from a perch on the cliff overlooking Maverick's, poses a pointed question to the council: "Would NOAA put more importance on the possible protection of marine life than on the saving of human life?"

But in the batch of recommendations it forwards after the July meeting, the advisory council does not consider the role of personal watercraft -- and volunteers like Quirarte and Montgomery -- in search-and-rescue missions at Maverick's. A few weeks after the public comment session, alerted to the startling oversight, the group holds a hastily arranged conference call to discuss its stance on safety vessels that aren't operated by government agencies. "The conversation went round and round, and they didn't reach a consensus, except a consensus to further examine the issue," says NOAA's Rachel Saunders. "Everyone was in favor of enhancing safety, but conversely, there were concerns about providing a false sense of security to surfers. We're not in the business of regulating surfing."

Montgomery is astounded. "I was really struck by the fact that the SAC committee had no idea whatsoever that PWCs have been involved in saving lives out there, every single year. They had no clue. Surfrider Foundation wasn't going to tell them that.

"In my mind, it's purely personal and selfish," he continues. "There are guys that surf Maverick's who don't have the ability to tow in to waves that are bigger, and consequently, they're out of the limelight now."

For a controversy that's being monitored around the world, the Monterey Bay personal watercraft battle still feels most personal to those who've made Maverick's a source of local pride. "I think this is a little bit of backlash against the hype [about surfing Maverick's]," Quirarte says. "But that doesn't make any sense, because this community -- from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco -- has really embraced Maverick's. They love it, it's something they can claim as a unique place in the world, and when we see a problem, we're the first ones to address it."

But now it's in the hands of the advisory council and NOAA, which are still reviewing a number of issues regarding personal watercraft use -- enforcement, permitting, safety operations, and exact definitions of the craft to be banned from the sanctuary. Under the latest recommendation, tow-in surfing would be allowed at Maverick's only when the waves reach 20 feet, and only in the early-morning hours on a permit basis, for up to 20 craft at a time, with exceptions for contests. Mike Kimsey considers this a good compromise with a pretty small impact on the environment, but also adds that he's been around too long to be optimistic about satisfying all the involved parties. "This has got to go through NOAA and Washington, D.C.," says Kimsey of the years-long process that will involve environmental impact studies and further public comment. "Who knows what's going to happen with the politics?"

But all politics, as they say, is local, and the controversy's impact on Maverick's is already plain to see.

"Some of those guys who surf with Doc [Renneker], we saw them the other day and went over to say hi, and they wouldn't say anything, just kept their hands down," says Quirarte, shaking his head. "And I thought, 'Oh great, this is as bad as junior high school.'"

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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