Eat sandwiches in Jaws while 40ft monsters spit in the background

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The Independent Online
With promising 10-15ft swells increasing in frequency, with conflicting signals from Internet, satellite and Hawaiian soothsayers and the No 1 wave measuring buoy off Kauai vandalised, and with the North Shore rumour factory continuing to churn out ever taller stories of giant waves just over the horizon, the arguments rage on as to the exact whereabouts of the biggest wave.

Just about all coastlines in the world have their proponents, from Fiji through Easter Island to Iceland. A passing Irishman assured me that the best break in the world is to be found in Peru, at the end of a 10-hour trek through the jungle, and the only problem is you have to be equally adept with machete and board. But, even though San Francisco (and specifically Mavericks) is avowed to have been the main beneficiary so far of El Nino, the real debate boils down to a play-off between North Shore (Oahu) and Jaws (Maui).

Jaws, formerly known as "Spot X", adjacent to primo windsurfing venue Hookipa, has only sprung to prominence in this decade. Breaking just a few times a year in the extreme 30-40ft range, it was once considered unridable. But the advent of tow-in has changed all that. Among the elite big-wave surfers, a jet ski (with a driver), a tow-rope and a slimmer, shorter, more manoeuvrable board, has become standard equipment. The addition of a few hundred horsepower to the usual couple of arms, sling-shotting the surfer on to the face of otherwise unmakeable waves (and then leaving him to his own more traditional devices), has made accessible what Mark Foo called "the unridden realm". Thus Jaws has recently usurped the limelight in magazines, videos and, most recently, a glossy coffee-table book.

The advantage of Jaws over the North Shore outer-reef "cloudbreaks" is that it has a deep, tranquil channel where you can sit out beyond the shoulder and eat sandwiches while 40ft monsters are spitting in the background. But now the backlash has begun.

"Real Men Paddle In" is the explicit banner of Dan Merkel, veteran surf photographer and cameraman, the man who made John Milius's classic surf movie Big Wednesday big (mainly with footage of Pipeline and Sunset), and who has just returned to the North Shore from Jaws. With the K2 Big Wave Challenge throwing the spotlight back on traditional paddle-power, Merkel was getting a burrito at Cholo's in Haleiwa when he came out as a powerful adversary of the Maui tow-in crew. "There's eight of them. And they're afraid of a real contest. They're worried they're going to come in second. They won't be king of the hill anymore."

For the past two years, various sponsors - from Coca-Cola to Sony - have been trying to set up a 30ft-plus tow-in contest at Jaws, based broadly on the 20ft-plus Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay model. But the plan has run into a lot of local opposition. The Jaws Eight have staked out the spot and tried to squeeze out any would-be claimants. "They think they own the place," complains Merkel. Dave Kalama, one of the eight, has gone on record (in Outside magazine) as saying that (a) this is the Everest of big wave spots, and (b) the place is too dangerous for a contest. He compares a wipe-out there to being beaten to a pulp by Bruce Lee and then finally stomped on by a Sumo wrestler for good measure. And he claims to be acting out of purely altruistic motives in blocking the event.

"That's all bull," said Merkel. "Tow-in has actually made surfing safer. The risk factor is reduced whether you're at Jaws or not. OK, a wipe-out is still a wipe-out. But the real danger in surfing is not from the wave you're on - it's from the wave coming up outside. If you're out of position, then the next wave is going to slam you. With tow-in, that never happens. The jetski just whips you out of there in a second. Anyone - anyone who knows what they're doing in big waves - can get pulled in."

Merkel argues that the quality of surfers at Jaws is not proportionate to the quality of the wave and is actually lower than on the North Shore. "They're mostly old windsurfers I shot 12 years ago. That's why they want to keep everyone else out, so their little secret doesn't get out."

Tow-in is the steroids of surfing, producing an impressive but unearned inflationary supplement. And it's true that, hanging on to the back of a Yamaha wave-runner, I was relatively happy to get in among the huge stuff, although I nearly had a heart attack when the engine stalled. I should add, to be fair, that I've also seen a tow-in guy nearly have his leg amputated after he got tangled up in the tow rope in a big wave wipe- out.

There is a suspicion that at Jaws the frenzy of publicity has gone to the surfers' heads. A fan of Laird Hamilton (another of the Eight) once said to me that "He makes Brad Pitt look like a turkey." And now Hollywood has cashed in on this photogenic quality of both wave and wave rider by producing a full-scale feature film, In God's Hands, due out early in 1998, starring Jaws and the Eight and revolving around the adventures of a tow-in crew. Merkel is predictably scathing: "It had better have someone who can act in it, too."

But what really riled Merkel was that the Jaws Eight were demanding a percentage from photographers for taking their pictures. "I'm never going to pay anyone a cent for putting them on the cover of a magazine. Their sponsors are already paying them. They ought to be paying me."

There's long been a symbiotic relationship between surfers and the photographers who immortalise their ephemeral aerials and off-the-lips. The irony is that just as the tow-in heavy mob have been seeing off potential rivals, so too Merkel - the champion of the open society where Jaws is concerned - also has his own final solution to the population explosion problem among photographers: "There's way too many goofballs these days. Real Men Used to Focus. Now they're all using automatic. As soon as I get my big wave pictures in, I'm going to send them to the magazines for free. It'll burn out the opposition. This time next year, the beach'll be empty, you'll see. I'll have the place to myself."