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Old 01-22-2012, 08:32 AM
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Default 2008 K38 Towsurfing Review

2008 Personal Watercraft Safety Review for Tow Surfing

March 15, 2005 when I first posted this online, later updated it with current photos

Ghost Tree December 4th, 2007 Photo by Mark Kraft

2008 Personal Watercraft Safety Review for Tow Surfing

Ask me how I know?
Shawn Alladio

An increase in Tow Surfing related boating incidents in the Central California region the past several years, coincides with the growth of the activity of towsurfing. This water sport has emerged with the advent of newer vessel technologies and exploration into the extreme world of sports, which has in the past 5 years leveled out from the realm of prominent professional athletes, to the invitation of mainstream participants.

The growing pains experienced by the activity of towsurfing have been brought up in public safety meetings, legislative circles, and become a focal point in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Management Review (MBNMS). Is it a safety issue or an environmental impact issue? It depends what team you play on.

All things considered every single life activity could be broken down with 'examples' of negative and positive impact. How best to manage a new sport that traditionally doesn't speak the language of the surfing community for association benefits and stewardship of future access or legislative support? This is the paradox of the towsurfing community.

The public safety agencies I work with are not against the towsurfing activity but they have raised concerns about the participants level or preparedness and perception of risk according to their water skill ability. There is good reason for these concerns, just like any other activity, such as bicycle riding, kite boarding, driving a car, or any other functional use of equipment, accidents can and will happen. A towsurfing team needs to realize that they may not have the luxury of getting emergency assistance and they must be prepared to self rescue, especially in remote areas.

K38 PWC Towsurfing review with Don Curry at USCG Station Monterey

Surfing itself on the professional level dictated the need for sponsorship support and media coverage. This rang even truer for towsurfing. Many teams will not go out without the support of a film crew or some type of documentation of the excursion. Is this the new world vision of this generation where every facet of our life is entered in digital coding, and uploaded for our friends and family in our online blogs and albums? Scientist do it, bird watches, mothers, nature enthusiasts, artists, we all are attracted to imagery, but first we need a subject. What we used to know, has shifted to a technology world of fast correspondence, increased exposure and the elmination of once prized 'secret spots'.

However, towsurfing or boating education did not seem to be the primary focus, nor understanding of the rules, and just what were the rules? Who made them, enforced them and was there really ever a 'gentlemen's agreement'? Those who did seek out training probably had 'safety first' as their main concern, while others 'trialed and errored' on their own merits. Since there are no laws stating that there has to be on water skill training or physical ability checks, anyone can enter into the towsurfing ring. Even a six foot wave has power, imagine an untrained boat operator in twenty feet of surf with others operating in the near vicinity?

The kingdom of big wave surfing owes itself to two people, primarily Bill Sharp for his marketing ability and creative vision for starting the K2 Challenge in 1998, won by Taylor Knox on a 52' wave at the ISA Reef World Team Championships. And for Gary Linden contest director at the Reef @ ISA event, who launched many a big wave surfers career with his contest vision and example, the tide turned in 1998 and it hasn't gone low yet. 1998 was the pivotal year of towsurfing, as it was for big wave paddle surfing, one guard had channeled into the next. The media saw the big wave arena through the eyes of the K2 Challenge and the race was on, but the racers hadn't realized what would come next.

Even though Laird Hamilton had set the current mythological impact of the greatest waterman in our times years earlier, nobody could come close to his lofty experiences, he aimed to the next best level along with the Strapped Crew. There are many other great influences such as the prestigious Eddie Aikau event, and the glory of the Strapped Crew who set the mark the rest of the world wanted to touch.

The XXL Big Wave Awards in 2008 have seen record entries in their iconic awards program. Submission are via media formats. The big wave theme has circled the globe and locations have been exposed all over the coastlines of continents. It is an inspirational time for big wave enthusiasts, but not for the purist, who surfed just because they could. Now, those with less talent are lamented by the pioneers, as only a motor has changed the wake to fame. The 'Code' was originally paddle in first, then pull on the rope. That image has disappeared, and a new and completely different sport has evolved and splintered from surfing itself. It has become a conflict of use issue, and in some areas a safety issue.

I am only one person who is a part of this movement combined with many. When towsurfers began to clip their lanyards into a personal watercraft, that is when they walked 'into my house'. It was not the other way around. I was driving a personal watercraft when they hated them or even knew what they were. I have also been an original offender 20 plus years ago and learned my hard lessons at the expense of others, long before any towsurfer had got their first bruise. It was then that I began to pay attention to my behavior. I realized that by having people watch my operational behavior I could influence them to either become competent operators or kill themselves.

Which did I want to be held responsible to in my soul? How did that change for me? Only one way, admission to awareness and education, coupled with discipline. A very difficult mixture to embrace.

However with this change many big wave or towsurfing locations and the safety concerns needs to be addressed by the towsurfing community, which has not become a collective consciousness of this user group. Too many are busy throwing rocks at one another and placing blame elsewhere instead of stepping forward, taking the heat and making a difference no matter what the opinion is.

Community outreach and education; who is going to assume this position? Is the towsurfing community waiting for government involvement to tell them how the pursuit of big waves is going to be allocated, to whom and when, to formulate a ban? And is it possible that prejudice exists from federal stewardship of Marine Sanctuaries, Reserves or Preserves are not working in partnership with the concerns of these recreational boaters and they have simply thrown their hands up in despair?

Is it possible to bring a group together with a sense of self preservation and will they resist just about any attempt for this unity? For years I have worked with PWC related political and educational issues worldwide. I have never witnessed a user group so bent on self destruction in terms of sport conservancy as the towsurfing collective. They resist many opportujnities for guidance or suggestions, much to the dismay of not only myself but my colleagues. Or is it that they are just waiting for the final bell to toll and trying to grab as many waves now and not care about future towsurfing generations. Is it that selfish or just growing pains? Will this be their ultimate defeat? I have been through this within the PWC community, one reason I am a partner with the AWA, the American Watercraft Association. There is strength in numbers.

I drove to the USCG station Monterey Bay along with Don Curry and we provided a PWC overview for the USCG Station Monterey with Federal jurisdiction in the Monterey Bay waters for boater related concerns. Back in December when I went to the Monterey Bay area to investigate related PWC events from agency and USCG distress calls and a recent drowning to see if any certified K38 operators had violated any operational rules and would I address renouncing their certificate(s). What I found was that one ingredient was missing: The buddy system is flawed, situational awareness and emergency preparedness are sorely lacking.

Other agencies such as NOAA, Fish and Game, California Harbormasters, Port Authorities, State Parks, Lifeguard agencies, Fire Rescue, law enforcement and volunteer Search and Rescue groups have seen an increase in emergency calls during the big wave swells this winter, for beachgoers, boaters and towsurfers. Due to the nature of risk associated with water related activites, the National Safe Boating Council has establishes new standards for certification through boater education. Boater education certification is now valid for a period of 3 years. When the mandatory titling comes from the USCG and all US boats will be documented federally, eventually mandatory education and even licensing will occur nationwide over time. K38 will comply with these new boater edcuation standards as the changes are implmented by these governing associations.

K38 has established boater edcuation standards in compliance with the National Association of Boating Law Administrators and the National Safe Boating Council. These standards are to ensure the safety of boaters and to reduce liability issues. If you have taken a K38 training course and have a successful level of completion with a certificate, you are expected to uphold the standards you were taught and to abide by all boating laws, rules and regulations. That knowledge has been invested in you. Essentially you are a boating steward now and there are certainly things you are responsbile for. That includes the assumed risk of your passengers while underway. You are responsible both as the owner and or the captain of your vessel for the safety of all passengers on board you boat. This includes with insurance, injury, accident or death.

Is it relaly possible? A distress call was made for a towsurfer who had lost his partner, several PWC's became disoriented in the fog, another towsurfers PWC had failed and he was adrift alone, another had a serious laceration. When a distress call is made to the USCG, Channel 16 alerts all USCG stations via radio to the nature of the distress, the location and alerts other vessels in the vicinity to render assistance if possible. Immediatley all public safety agencies are alerted.

There are a series of related events that need to take place for an accident. If you could stop frame each sequence you could see what led up to the problem at hand! Would you be able to change or stop anything, decisions, actions in hindsight? 'Ask me how I know', rings true when I look back at all my own poor choices that placed me in harms way and my equipment. Rember what I just said, each step to a disaster has a certain element that keeps moving forward, sometimes its best just to 'stop'.

Ghost Tree Rescue over Rock Boil Photo: Mark Kraft

Working with these agencies for field service training relative to personal watercraft use for rescue and patrol, there are not too many incidents that go unnoticed or unreported in the media. This is due to several factors, one the high surf warnings often bring people to the coastline to watch the heavy water action, and secondly, many towsurfers rarely towsurf without video or camera capabilities, from either professional photographers/film makers or from the general public. People change when a camera is focused, behavior is altered and adrenaline is a strong motivator. These are not bad things, but all things must be managed for balance. Cameras are making heroes out of idiots. When a mishap occurs and its placed on a film for entertainment purposes, it sets in action an acceptable mode of behavior. There is no such thing as a dead hero.

Lower level surfers who were looked down upon by the elite quickly came to the shoulder on a PWC and began launching a media career. The public draw to the mystique of big waves also encouraged the behavior, and many wonderful and inspiring images have been produced as well as horrific instances of near fatal miracles. Competitions are not bad, in fact they are incredibly motivating and personally self gratifying. But a person should never place thier life at risk or others unless they are capable of the level of risk associated with the activity.

And remember, when a rescue call comes down, the lives of the rescuers are placed on the front line. They have families to come home to at the end of the day. Everytime they go out in to the field, they place their life in harms way to help save yours. And it's not one person. Multiple agency response is typical, the resources, manpower and expense can be tremendous. Know Before You Tow!

Internet searches within 24 hours after any swell will produce amazing photo albums or images from various locations tracking the powerful images of this new aquatic motorized sport. Many countries now are heralding their own big wave heroes conquering local breaks, the army is growing. It is a migratory sport, but are those who migrate good stewards of this sport? Are they responsible users representing a code of boating ethics or are they bringing their behavioral problems to other regions, training locals and contaminating surf zones?

2017- RWCA All rights Reserved Information submitted not to be used for training.
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Old 01-22-2012, 08:33 AM
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Who would you call the enemy? Yourself or them, or me? Be concerned about the enemy within, the one that does not care, the one that does not hold themselves accountable or reflect on their influence on others. Be very afraid.

Don and I went over the various safety concerns, and equipment that towsurfers should have on board, and where the storage of these items would be located, and the basic functions and features of various personal watercraft for on duty staff. This will help them with PWC vessel inspections and operational awareness. They had questions about the safety gear and the driving needs, why is that? Because they understand the team ethic and that edcuation save lives, they train all the time to serve you in a time of need.

The LIfe They Save May Be Your Own.

USCG Station Monterey Towsurfing PWC Review

Throughout California's harbors, the local agencies who respond to water related incidents have seen an increase of towsurfing related launches prior to sunrise and during times of fog or low visibility. This can lead to search and rescue calls if a tow team finds themselves in danger or has not prepared for their boat emergency equipment properly. You can now be billed for any Search and Rescue that is deemed a liability issue for agencies, and this is spreadin worldwide. Your preparedness is imperative more now than ever. But do not hestiate to call if you are in need!

Officer Authority-Compliance and Assistance
In California, every peace officer of the State, City County, Harbor District or other political subdivision of the State has the authority to stop and inspect vessels to enforce local boating laws when there is probable cause that a violateion exists. Peace officers also have the authority to terminate voyages, escort boaters ashore, or order boaters to the nearest moorage if an unsafe condition is found that cannot be correcte don the spot. Boat operators must immediatley yield.

A prudent mariner is well prepared. A prudent mariner undertands risk and does their best to minimize the risk, this is done by pre planning! Everyone involved in the activity of towsurfing will experience a catastrophic event within thier career, either loss of equipment or personal injury or witness such. Insurance companies are seeing a rise in towsurfing related claims not consistent with the recreational public. Many towsurfers are just plain lucky because the personal watercraft of today are designed so well, they are just plain 'forgiving'.

California does not have mandatory boating education as of 2008, however I recommend you take not only online courses, but hands on training programs.
These are National Association of Boating Law Adminstrators (NASBLA) approved boater edcuation programs. Do not miss taking this online course! Print your certificate upon successful completion. In California persons convicted of a on water moving violation must take a court ordered boating safety class!

It is imperative that you have a functioning GPS and understand how to operate it properly, including spare batteries.

It is recommended that you have a compass on board either your vessel or on your person. It will do you no good to have a radio stored in your PWC if you have become separated with it in the water. Communications are a must, a cell phone, a marine band UHF hand held radio (use waterproof bags or containers), a sound signaling device attached to your PFD, an aerosol fog horn, hand held flares, proper strength and length rated vessel tow lines,

An agency vessel will not use a tow line that is given to them from a boater, they will not trust the integrity of the materials. The USCG is not 'vessel assist', they are not on duty to provide services for vessels who need a tow, only for people or vessels in distress. If you have another tow surfing vessel/team in your area, the buddy system applies at all times. Many towsurfing teams do not look out for one another, nor have proper communication in case of an emergency, what to do or who to call in case of an emergency.

File a float plan with a family member or a friend with your location of operations, give them a timeframe you want them to call the authorities.

Do not launch in fog, it is against the law, as well as it is to operate half hour after sunset to a 1/2 hour before sunrise even if navigation lights are used. Every person on board must have a properly fitted, sized and functional 'type' of PFD worn at all times.

Lanyards must not be altered and attached to the body of the operator.

More California Boatin Law Basics

You are required by law to file a boating accident report within 48 hours after an incident where there is $500 bodily injury or damage to your boat (PWC) with local authorities. File within 24 hours of a death, or if there is any medical treatment beyond first aid needed. Especially if there is an insurance claim or medical report filed. You can get forms from the California Department of Boating and Waterways, along with your float plan, keep one of these in your vehicle glove box.

  • Teak surfing, platform dragging, or body surfing behind a vessel, or allowing someone to occupy the swim platform, swim deck, swim step or swim ladder for any period of time, except very briefly (such as loading, unloading or docking) is a violation of California law. These banned activities can have deadly consequences because of the carbon monoxide associated with the boat's exhaust that can accumulate in these areas. Participants can be overcome by exhaust fumes and go unconscious which could lead to drowning. Participants are also dangerously close to the boat's propeller/s which could result in an accident. (NOTE: Be mindful that the use of a rescue board can place your airway direct to the exhaust exposing you to carbon monixide)

  • A person on water skis or similar device must wear a properly fitting vest style PFD. Inflatable life jackets and ski belts are not approved.

  • When towing a person on water skis or similar device, the observer must be at least 12 years old and able to observe the skier and relay signals to the operator.

  • You may not water ski from sunset to sunrise - local laws may also restrict skiing at certain times of the day in certain areas.

  • A red or orange 12 inch square flag must be hoisted to indicate a downed skier or a skier preparing to ski, or to indicate that a ski or ski rope is in the water in the vicinity of the vessel.

  • Vessels engaged in diving activity and are restricted in their ability to maneuver, must hoist a blue and white alpha flag that measures at least one meter (3'3") in height and must be visible all around the horizon ONE IS NONE
  • The most chronic problem facing on water time for towsurfing teams is not to have an effective emergency and evacuation plan. How many have never trained with dealing with a severely disabled personal watercraft, or a serious injury or a near drowning situation? Have you practiced to your real world concerns and are you even aware you are at risk and how would you define those risks?

    Kalani Chapman falls in front of Ghost Tree rocks Photo: Mark Kraft


  • Peter Davi drowned at Ghost Tree in December 4th of 2007. He made choices that contributed to his situation. Several people who were concerned about his welfare made personal contact with him to assist him, which he declined. He was a swimmer at this point. There were approximately 20 tow teams in the vicinity reported that day.

    13 tow teams at foreground Ghost Tree in this image on December 4, 2007
    Photo: Mark Kraft

    There has not been a reported fatality anywhere in the globe to date with towsurfing itself. However there have been measureable vessel loss and personal injury. I am also one of these included in this description, I can say 'ask me how I know?' Lifejackets save lives!

    In 1998 I began campaigning in my classes for towsurfers to wear Personal Flotation Devices. PFD's or lifejackets. I was ridiculed for this the same way lifeguards chastised me, why is that? Their comfort level was to 'dive' below the surface of a wave, it was acceptable practice. However, when they 'stepped into my house, their house of boating', they didn't yet realize they were now 'boat operators' and there were laws that overrode their familiar comfort level. It really had nothing to do with me, but everything to do with saving their own life or someone else's.

    There has not been a drowning yet of a towsurfer who has worn a PFD. However there is still strong resistance to this and many are wearing flotation devices that are not rated properly or rated at all for proper buoyancy. In fact, I would like to set the record straight: For the purpose of towsurfing, one must be wearing a swiftwater type of PFD that has extra flotation. Please quote me on this. Why? Because in aerated water conditions your body needs additional buoyancy to offset the air mixture with water. In a court of law this could be easily addressed if you are inside the impact zone with aerated water, you would be required to have the proper amount of flotation. Ask me how I know?

    If for any other, your lungs are not lifesaving devices, they will not hold your body up on the surface, and your wetsuit will do even less, if you have a problem, are rendered unconscious or breathe in water, a PFD will at least bring your body to the surface if you are not wrapped or pinned on an object and you stand the chance of the Golden Hour of resuscitation, if not the first 5 critical minutes. It is the BEST investment you will ever make.


  • No person shall operate any vessel, water skis or similar device while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

  • No person who is addicted to any drugs shall operate any vessel, water skis or similar device.

  • No person 21 years of age or older may operate any type vessel, water skis or similar device with a BAC of 0.08% or greater.

  • A person under 21 years of age or older who has been arrested for operating a mechanically propelled vessel "under the influence" may be subjected to a chemical test to determine BAC.

  • Refusal to submit to a chemical test may result in increased penalties upon conviction. Guilty operators could receive up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

  • A person under the age of 21 with a BAC of 0.01% or more may face a fine of up to $250 and be required to participate in an alcohol education or community service program. The person may also lose their privilege of getting or keeping a driver's license.

  • The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) may suspend or revoke your vehicle driver's license if convicted of operating a vessel while intoxicated.

  • Any person convicted of operating a motorboat under the influence of alcohol or drugs will be ordered by the court to take a boating safety course approved by the Department of Boating and Waterways.

    Shawn Alladio is a National Safe Boating Council certified boating safety instructor, creator of the K38 Way of training that is represented in 12 countries for personal watercraft education through K38 Water Safety: boat rescue training, legislative and event management, IJSBA professional racer, partner in Liquid Militia, mother and friend to many, and not favored by a few (which is fine by her).
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    boating safety, jet ski rescue, k38 rescue, pwc rescue, shawn alladio, tow-in surfing, towsufer, towsurfing, towsurfing accidents

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