One Swell, Two Approaches: 10 photos of Tow vs Paddle

Matt Rott

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It seems inconceivable that a wave of this abrupt magnitude could ever be paddled and surfed as critically as this. But they said that about Jaws.

It seems inconceivable that a wave of this abrupt magnitude could ever be paddled and surfed as critically as this. But they said that about Jaws.

© 2014 - Calum Macaulay / Cmac Images

It is not so much a case of which is best, rather which one floats your personal watercraft? Here we contrast two approaches to the same Australian XXL swell.

Over the past five years, we have watched in awe ― most of us from the safety of our laptops ― as the newest generation of big wave surfers has once again revolutionised the sport. Where tow-in used to dominate the big-wave realm, these days it’s all about paddle power ― and rightly so. As freaks like Dorian and Healy and Twiggy and the Long brothers have demonstrated, with the right boards and the right preparation, the jet ski has become all but obsolete ― or at the very least has been relegated to safety teams and members of the paparazzi.

As freaks like Dorian and Healy and Twiggy and the Long brothers have demonstrated, with the right boards and the right preparation, the jet ski has become all but obsolete.

After numerous groundbreaking sessions at Jaws and Shawn Dollar’s current “biggest paddle wave” world record of 61ft, it is currently en vogue to declare that “tow-in surfing is dead.” But despite this somewhat paradoxical progressive regression to simplified, human-powered heroics, there are still a few places where tow-in seems to be thriving.

Current Big Wave World Tour champion Grant 'Twiggy' Baker using arm power alone at the Cow Bombie.

Current Big Wave World Tour champion Grant 'Twiggy' Baker using arm power alone at the Cow Bombie.

© 2014 - Jamie Scott / jamiescottimages.com

The simple fact of the matter is that some waves aren’t paddleable. Sure, that was Laird’s excuse for towing Jaws back in the day, and he has obviously been proven wrong. But some waves – “slabs,” as we typically refer to them – are simply too abrupt and mutant to paddle above a certain size. There have been a few outstanding old-school attempts in the 12ft range (Cory Lopez and CJ Hobgood’s paddle bombs at Chopes and Laurie Towner’s freak effort at Shippie’s immediately come to mind), but, for the most part, the upper level of paddleability at slabs seems to float just below the lower limits of what we’ve come to consider “big waves.” Thus, for anyone who wants to surf slabs of the XXL variety, the jet ski still reigns supreme.

Mark Mathews is synonymous with this wave and for good reason.

Mark Mathews is synonymous with this wave and for good reason.

© 2014 - Calum Macaulay / Cmac Images

If any one region remains a bastion of tow surfing, it would have to be Australia. The continent down under cops plenty of swell on its western and southern coasts, but is noticeably lacking in prototypical big-wave bombies. Aside from the handful of reefs around Margaret River and a few down south, there don’t seem to be many waves in Australia that are paddleable when they go XXL. Big-wave slabs, on the other hand, are a dime a dozen, with the most notable including Shipstern’s Bluff, Pedra Branca, Cyclops, Supers, Luna Park, The Right, and a half dozen other holes that will go unnamed here. Perhaps this is why, when we think of Australian big-wave surfing, we’re more likely to visualize Mark Matthews on a tow-board than Jeff Rowley on a gun.

What went down that Good Friday was a classic example of two different approaches to the big wave realm.

WA’s first major swell of the 2014 season was a classic example of the tow vs. paddle dichotomy. Coming in hot and heavy, with perfect winds and a long Easter weekend, the swell was one of the most anticipated the coast has seen in years, and Margaret River’s better known bombies were crowded beyond capacity. Indeed, one left-hand reef in particular was a veritable zoo, with 12 to 15ft sets enticing more than 40 paddlers ― the most the spot had ever seen. If anywhere in Australia is known for its heavy water paddlers, it’s Margaret River. Consistent swell and a number of paddleable reefs have resulted in a surf community where virtually everyone owns a board bigger than 9'0, and no one seemed too surprised when Greg Long, Twiggy Baker, and Jamie Mitchell flew in to tackle what is arguably Australia’s biggest wave ― an outer bombie to the north that is notoriously fickle and windy.

If you say paddle surfing then you think of Greg Long. Off the peak at the Cow.

If you say paddle surfing then you think of Greg Long. Off the peak at the Cow.

© 2014 - Jamie Scott / jamiescottimages.com

Meanwhile, there was another crew in town ― one with their sights set on a different kind of wave. Ryan Hipwood, Dean Morrison, and a half dozen other petrol-fuelled hellmen packed skis and tow boards for a mission down to The Right, where they expected conditions to be all-time.

What went down that Good Friday was a classic example of two different approaches to the big wave realm, with pros and cons on both sides. The crew at The Right packed some of the biggest barrels we’ve seen in the past year ― along with some vicious beatings ― in conditions that could almost be described as dreamy, if not for their nightmarish heft. Meanwhile, the world’s best big wave paddlers ― along with pro bodyboarder Ryan Hardy and a small crew of underground chargers ― faced down 15 to 20ft bombs a few miles out to sea. The session was incredibly challenging, with 25+ knot offshore winds blowing us off the backs of most sets. Only a handful of quality rides were completed, but the waves that were caught were done so under our own power, leaving us with a satisfaction that no tow-rope can provide.

The potential consequences of failure are high wether you are towing or paddling.

The potential consequences of failure are high wether you are towing or paddling.

© 2014 - Calum Macaulay / Cmac Images

It’s hard to know where big wave surfing will go over the next decade. Ten years ago we would have never dreamed that the waves being paddled today would one day be approachable without a rope. Perhaps the next generation of big wave freaks will do the same to our preconceptions about paddling XXL slabs; or maybe we have reached the uppermost limits of paddleability when it comes to below-sea-level mutants. Either way, no matter how broad the chasm between tow and paddle surfing grows, big waves will always be big waves. All we have to do is go looking for them.

Zac Haynes taking the plunge.

Zac Haynes taking the plunge.

© 2014 - Jamie Scott / jamiescottimages.com

Dean Morrison finding a runner at The Right, one of the world's least predicable waves.

Dean Morrison finding a runner at The Right, one of the world's least predicable waves.

© 2014 - Cmac Images

Jamie Mitchell in perfect position for a windy drop.

Jamie Mitchell in perfect position for a windy drop.

© 2014 - Jamie Scott / jamiescottimages.com

Travelling below sea level whilst the ocean conspires to crush you.

Travelling below sea level whilst the ocean conspires to crush you.

© 2014 - Cmac Images

"The session was incredibly challenging, with 25+ knot offshore winds blowing us off the backs of most sets." Author, Matt Rott gaining that experience personally.

© 2014 - Jamie Scott / jamiescottimages.com

Images: Calum Macaulay / Cmac Images & Jamie Scott / jamiescottimages.com
Words: Matt Rott


Matt Rott

Writer and surfer