I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Lincoln City, Oregon for the Nelscott Reef Tow Classic. On the drive there, I revisited my opinions on tow-in surfing: that the sport bypasses much of what real surfing is about via loud, jet powered watercraft. With tow-ins there’s no paddling necessary at all. No timing your pop-up in order to drop in on the most critical part of a wave. Instead, just whip into a huge wave as early as you like, do fifty s-turns as the swell grows, then fade back into the slot. I simply couldn’t relate.
The sky on Friday morning was eerily rosy and foreboding. An old sailor’s adage came to mind: “Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.â€? Sure enough, the first glimpse of the sea under that dramatic sunrise made my knees rattle. From my perspective driving down Hwy 101, the beach break was bigger than an Indian reservation casino overlooking the ocean.
When I got to the contest site, a small crowd was already gathering along a bluff overlooking Nelscott as tow teams dragged their personal watercraft through thick foam on the sand to the heaving shoreline. Decked out in the latest neoprene and life vest technology, two surf heroes from my youth, Mike Parsons and Brad Gerlach, discussed their plan of attack. Eyebrows raised, Gerr gestured to where he thought a channel might be. All I could see were whitewater walls and crashing closeouts.
A few minutes later, the “contestâ€? began. There was no bullhorn, no loudspeaker announcing the competitors in the heat, just a small judges area on the cliff above Nelscott and a line of spectators along the ridge with cameras and binoculars trained on the outer reef. Nearly a mile offshore, black specks converged on an a-frame peak that dwarfed the competitors, putting the size of the swells in perspective. The surfers looked like fleas on the 40-foot faces. A bug-like chopper hovered over the action.
Having read about tow-in madness in soulful magazines like Surfer’s Path, I was prepared for a circus of engine noise, exhaust, and oil on water, but from where I was standing that morning, I witnessed something entirely different: There was no noise, except the crashing of inside waves and comments from the crowd. The surfers were completely in tune with each other and the ocean, sometimes driving almost a mile up the coast to avoid a sneaker set or speeding into the chaos for a quick rescue after a wipeout. The whole scene felt more like a dance than a contest and I wondered if the meager $7000 purse for first place was really what brought participants to this small Oregon locale from other exotic surf havens around the world.
After watching for a few hours, I walked back down from the vista point on the bluff, passing a beach house with two PWCs on a trailer in the driveway. A sign draped from the balcony read, “Support your local tow surfers!â€? A bearded man with dark skin and huge hands greeted me as I passed. He said his name was Ryan and that he’d been surfing the outer reef all morning, as he and his friends always did when the surf gets that big. As we watched a pro surfer tow into a massive inside barrel and somehow shoot out of it a few seconds later, Ryan explained that it would be impossible to ride these waves without a PWC, comparing the machines to chair lifts that bring skiers to the tops of mountains. I asked why he wasn’t out in the mountainous swells at that moment, showing the pros the ropes in a contest at his local break.
He smiled and said, “We weren’t invited.â€?