The History of Tow-in Surfing

Tow Surf |Photo Credits|

Tow-in surfing is great proof of how mankind will always find a way to, well, make waves. This time, bigger waves — more than 30 feet. Before the 1990s, catching giant waves was already an idea that floated among surfers but paddling out into the ocean to ride powerful swells was an act of defiance against Mother Nature.

So when did tow-in surfing start? 

It wasn’t until the winter of 1992 in North Shore, Oahu when three surfers Buzzy Kerbox, Dave Kalama, and Laird Hamilton had a brilliant idea of defying the barreling waves by being towed by a jetski into the open sea. 

The added mechanical power, hence the term “tow-in”, enabled the surfers to catch 30 to 50 feet waves with special surf fins. While the rest was history, modern tow-in surfing involves personal watercraft (PWC) connected to a tow-rope that pulls the surfers out to the break, then pulls them to catch waves they normally would not be able to ride by just paddle, the rope is dropped, and the surfers get the ride of their lives.

Beach and Boards Fest |Photo Credits|


Tow surfing is not an individual sport. It’s a team of one skilled PWC driver and a surfer who can swap roles and can look out for each others’ backs while in the water. Tow-in surfing is often reserved for the pros who can paddle their way against larger waves on a wider surfboard with futures fins. 

Riding the new wave of surfing

The idea of being pulled by a boat to catch bigger waves in the middle of the ocean has always been an idea that fascinated many surfers in the 80s. In fact, rescue watercrafts with tow-lines are a common sight as they pull surfers out from subsequent waves in popular surfing destinations in Maui and Tahiti. Mike Doyle even tossed around the idea of how surfers can use a tow-line to be hauled into the middle of the sea, but it took decades for a group of dudes to actually give it a shot. 

Tow-in surfing was seriously catching waves by 1994 and surfers were determined to ride bigger and wilder waves. It created a new category in surfing and is attracting more riders who have the urge to ride waves they can’t catch by simply paddling in to. Waves of epic proportions were now easier to ride than ever.


Beach and Boards Fest |Photo Credits|

New tech advancements in specialized watercraft, tow-lines, surfboards, and even in futures fins made the sport extremely popular and for a while, tow surfing became the new norm. Famous tow-surfing spots like Praia do Norte (Portugal), Todos Santos (Mexico), Jaws (Maui), and Shipstern Bluff (Australia) that were previously deemed as unsurfable began hosting large-scale competitions. In 1998, Ken Bradshaw broke a world record when he conquered an 85-feet wave at the Outer Log Cabins. 

Tow surfing drew the ire of environmentalists that were against the water and noise pollution brought by watercrafts. The risk of crashing into a wall of water as high as a building is always present.


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