Paddle Vs Tow: Why The Debate is Dead


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Updated 79d ago

Words by Ireland-based big wave charger, Taz Knight.

It can be dangerously easy to sit within comfort zones. Even more so as we're in an age where the advances in technology aim to remove all risk and hardship from our lives. Pushing the boundaries and testing personal limits are an essential part of building a confident and healthy mind. This is an aspect of sport which leads many to dedicate their wholes lives to its pursuit. Pushing themselves to the limit of what is humanly possible -- and surfing is no different.

From its birth among Polynesian royalty, surfers have continuously pushed the sport to new realms of possibility. No more so is this seen than in big wave surfing. Just 50 years ago, paddling into a wave at Waimea was considered the pinnacle in big wave riding. These days, it would hardly be of note but for historical reasons.

Spot guide: UK and Ireland

First wave tow, second paddle. For Taz, it doesn't matter.

© 2023 - Clem McInerney.

A driving force of this progression has been technology. The same technologies which are designed to save lives, have allowed the crazy few to put theirs at even greater risk. There was a lot of resistance to this at first. Were these technologies destroying the purity of the sport? Was big wave surfing becoming a battle of egos, rather than the personal pursuit it once was? Man against nature? These are some of the questions which under lay the debate between paddle surfing and tow surfing.

Tow surfing opened up waves which had previously been deemed un-paddleable. However, as new limits were set, there were those who wanted to push things further. With improved boards and floatation devices and the rising level of surfing, these tow waves started to see more and more paddle surfers. Conflict arose, but as with all things in the surf world it was quickly solved with some simple unwritten rules; If there are surfers paddling into waves, tow surfing is off limits. But… it’s never that simple.

Sitting on for the ride.

Sitting on for the ride.

© 2023 - Gary McCall.

Such is the case at Mullaghmore in Ireland. It is so close to the edge of what’s possible. Only with the most magical combination of tide and wind, swell period and direction; will it give us that mythical roll-in we all crave. However, even on these days there will be waves that miss the boil and throw caverns from a tow surfer's dream. On the days that are slightly off, there may only be a handful of waves that are paddleable, and then only by the best.

As much as we tell ourselves of our pure intentions, ego always plays a part in surfing

Because of this, a delicate balance has been struck within the local crew. Some days we all paddle, some days we all tow, and some days we do both. There are often days when most will want to tow, but a few are keen to try and paddle, and that’s fine! On these days, paddle surfers are given unconditional priority. Tow surfers will go for waves, give way if caught, and whip if missed. They also provide additional safety for the paddle surfers. With good communication and safety in place, the mechanics are pretty seamless.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of surfing Mullaghmore with some of the world’s best big wave surfers. Seeing what they are able to achieve has broadened my horizons as to what’s possible.

No less than the best and most technical paddle barrels in the history of the sport. It’s this fact that makes it such an incredible paddle wave. No other wave offers a paddle entry into a slab of that size and intensity. Paddling waves at Mullaghmore consistently pushes me to the limits of my mental a physical strength and has led to some of the best moments of my life.

And tow can get you into situations like this.

And tow can get you into situations like this.

© 2023 - Gary McCall.

I used to be a paddle purist. I believed tow surfing was egoistic and didn’t present the challenge I was looking for. Only by paddling were you truly pushing the limits of the sport. But was I not also catering to my own ego? As much as we tell ourselves of our pure intentions, ego always plays a part in surfing.

Competing with those around me allowed me to achieve things I never would have alone. I took up big wave surfing for the joy and thrill of the sport. But the reality is, constantly pushing yourself can be exhausting. From my experiences at Mullaghmore, I now know the days which are too far above my limit. The efforts and risks are too great for me to enjoy the process. Tow surfing turned those days from fear-filled frustration into the joyous days for which I surf. And that’s just it! Tow surfing is incredibly fun! Once you get comfortable, the ways in which one can push themselves are every bit as challenging as their paddle counter parts.

As I transition from a life devoted to surfing to a life pursuing enjoyment, I find myself caring less and less about paddling the biggest, scariest days. I’m definitely still driven to push myself, it’s just I now know when to hold back. We all have personal limits we are trying to push. We all have days which are beyond our ability. We all love seeing our mates get the waves of their life.

There is no reason we can’t use every tool available to have fun in the safest way possible. I’m excited to see the levels reached as we push each other to new heights. And if in doubt, always remember; Froth on and Prosper.