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The Though Kitchen - Dedicated to Stirring the Pot

The Big Dance at Nelscott Reef

Posted by Rick | December 16th, 2006 | Filed under Outdoor Sport, Personal Reflection


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.

Nelscott_Shorebreak2.jpgWhen 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.
nelscott inside left.jpgHaving 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€?

16 Responses to “The Big Dance at Nelscott Reef”

  • December 17, 2006 at 6:34 pm | Pamela Clark says


    Great recap of the event. And, love those pictures!


  • December 18, 2006 at 7:36 pm | Asterisk says

    Yo Rick,

    Why wasn’t this guy invited? I’d love to know more about the drama surrounding his exclusion.


  • December 19, 2006 at 8:06 am | Rick says


    I got the feeling that that was an in-depth story in itself – one that would require our spending some time with the local tow-in guys. It does seem like there should always be a spot available for the best local team in any contest, as a courtesy to the guys who surf there every time it breaks. It’s a bit of research I’m planning on doing through the winter… Stay tuned!


  • December 21, 2006 at 1:09 pm | Greg says

    Well-written, Great photographs, I don’t surf, never have. After reading this though, I feel like I’m missing something in my life. I’m from a small part of Middle Earth I call Ohio. Sites like this make me want to sell it all and move out there with only the shirt on my back.


  • December 28, 2006 at 12:02 pm | Rick says


    Thanks for the comment. I only recently took up surfing myself (after moving to Portland, of all places). Now I’m hooked. A word of warning: If you do try it, beware… it can take over your life, cause you to sell the farm and move west, make your wife feel like a widow, and at at the same time provide you with some of the most satisfying feelings of your life.


  • December 28, 2006 at 1:55 pm | Bill Jefferson says


    Great article! In my opinion the Nelscott Reef contest is a wonderful event for Oregon and the Oregon coast (specifically Lincoln City). It puts Oregon on the surfing map. I looked into the same issue of the locals not being included in the event. From several sources close to the oregon surfing ‘knitting circle’, I was informed that Oregon surfers were invited to participate in the tournament, but failed to turn in the applications and pay the entry fees.

    Great work to the contest organizers!


  • December 28, 2006 at 3:33 pm | Rick says


    Thanks for the info on that. I’m going to hook up with Ryan to find out more about the situation. I think that they may also be glad to have a contest that honors their spot once a year. Hopefully next year they will be in it!


  • December 28, 2006 at 4:20 pm | Laura Eberly says

    As a journalist with the News-Times, the paper of Lincoln County (which includes Lincoln City), Oregon, I wrote a story about the exclusion of local Tackle Buster Reef – the local name of the reef – surfers from the Nelscott Reef Tow-In Classic.

    It’s posted at:


    News-Times Managing Editor Gail Kimberling’s editorial regarding the matter is posted at:


    Contest organizer Adam Wagner’s letter to the editor is posted at:


    and Ossie’s Surf Shop owner Dan Hasselschwert’s letter:


  • December 30, 2006 at 12:59 pm | Rick says


    Thanks for all that info. I enjoyed your article and found the resulting editorial dialog really interesting. Anybody wanting to dig deeper into the Nelscott contest controversy should check out those links above!

    Take care,

  • January 2, 2007 at 9:28 pm | Dan says

    Rick, I enjoyed your article, let me know if i can be of any help with telling you reasons local were not included…


  • January 2, 2007 at 9:29 pm | Dan says

    An Oregon tow-in contest without Oregonians?
    Nelscott Reef regulars hope the best locals will represent the state in
    future events

    By Laura Eberly of the News-Times

    A stream of spectators walked up and down the Coast Avenue hill on
    Friday, stopping here and there to peer between the beachfront houses at
    Nelscott Reef about three quarters of a mile offshore, a formation that
    gives rise to the big waves that brought tow-in surfers from throughout
    the world to the Oregon coast last week for the second annual Nelscott
    Reef Tow-In Classic.

    Top competitors had been waiting since Oct. 1 for word that optimal
    North Pacific conditions would provide larger-than-usual waves, and for
    the accompanying green light that meant contest invitees had 48 hours to
    get to Lincoln City for the big wave competition.

    On the day of the contest, passersby walking from the boat launch at the
    bottom of the hill at Canyon Drive Park to the spectator lot provided by
    contest organizer Behemoth LLC near the top couldn’t help but hear the
    upbeat sounds of a live band coming from the beachfront yard of a
    vacation rental located just a few doors down from the contest-
    sponsored lookout, a house with banners hung from the second floor
    deck railing encouraging onlookers to “Support the local tow-surfing

    By mid-day, a crowd of spectators of all ages – from very little people to
    mature appreciators of the big wave riders – had gathered in the yard to
    groove to the band and cheer for the pros out on the ocean while
    standing and sitting next to local tow-in surfers who wait all year for a
    day as big as Friday, and who, out of respect for their fellow surfers on
    the waves, stayed off the reef and watched from the cliff above, many
    wishing they were cheering for one of their own.

    “This is a peaceful protest party,” said local tow-surfer Dan
    Hasselschwert, a regular surfer, of Nelscott Reef – known by locals as
    Tackle Buster Reef – where conditions run from “small” waves of 18 feet
    to larger than Friday’s estimated heights of more than 30 feet.
    Hasselschwert is a local middle school teacher, longtime surf instructor,
    and owner of Ossie’s Surf Shop in Newport. It was he who, with the
    support of a dozen or so local tow-surfers, rented the Coast Avenue
    house for the day of the contest, made up the banner, brought in the
    band, and invited anyone interested to come on over and watch the waves
    from the yard as a way of bringing attention to what numerous local tow-
    surfers perceive as a flaw in the organization of the fledgling contest – a
    flaw they strongly feel can be remedied while the event is still in its
    formative years.

    Showcasing Oregon’s best
    The Nelscott Reef Tow-In Classic, which just enjoyed a successful second
    year, is a professional surf competition for invited participants only. It is
    also the only pro surf competition in Oregon and the only pro tow-in surf
    competition in the continental United States.

    When organizers implement a contest area over a local surfing area,
    protocol within the international surfing community encourages the
    inclusion of selected local surfers who represent the best athletes among
    those who regularly surf the contest break; while the locals may not be on
    the professional competition circuit, they possess the experience of
    having surfed the contest area for years, as is the case with numerous
    surfers of the Nelscott Reef break.

    Behemoth LLC – the contest host organization led by frontman John
    Forse, owner and o
    perator of the Nelscott Reef Surf Shop in Lincoln City –
    invited two local tow-in teams to participate in the inaugural contest and
    again invited two teams to participate in Friday’s event. Because of the
    way the teams were selected, however, the local invitees chose not to
    participate in this year’s contest.

    Contrary to numerous expressions of frustration voiced by area surfers,
    Forse contends “there is no controversy. It’s an invitational. The whole
    thing is an invitational,” he told the News-Times. “There’s no organization
    (in place) that has rankings or anything like that.”

    This absence of some form of consensus selection process was the crux
    of Friday’s peaceful protest and is the aspect of the contest local tow-
    surfers would like to see changed.

    Currently, contestant selection is at the discretion of Forse with input
    from Behemoth LLC partners Adam Wagner and Jim Kusz. During the
    Ossie’s Surf Shop house party on Friday, many regular Nelscott Reef
    surfers said they would like tow-surfers whom the locals believe best
    represent Oregon’s tow-surfing community included in the contest, rather
    than see the slots reserved for locals given to participants based on no
    other criteria than whether Forse believes them to be qualified.

    Inviting locals to participate in surf contests is a tradition “that is done in
    some cases,” Forse said. “However, this is a little bit different
    circumstance than a lot of contests because this is such a dangerous
    sport, there are lives on the line. I’m not going to throw somebody out
    there who I don’t think can survive a wipeout on a 30-foot wave. If they
    think they’re much greater than they are and I don’t think they are, I’m
    not going to put them out there. These waves are dangerous, people die,
    and if somebody misinterprets that as a lack of courtesy – I’m not just
    going to throw a bunch of amateurs out there because they think they’re
    ready and they’re not.

    “Two teams were. They were marginal, but as a courtesy I invited them,”
    Forse continued, adding he feels “there are very few qualified individuals
    around here that belong out there in the first place.”

    Local tow-surfer Ollie Richardson, a longtime surfer and surf instructor
    and teacher at Newport High School, has been tow-surfing the reef for
    several years. He admitted that, on a different note, many local surfers
    would rather not see the competition take place at all.

    “It’s not that we don’t want anyone to come up here and experience it and
    have a great time, it’s that the local people miss out on one of potentially
    only five or six days out of an entire year when it’s good,” Richardson told
    the News-Times. “It was kind of unfortunate, if the contest wasn’t going
    on I would have been out on the reef towing where the pros were towing
    on the local break. We’re losing a day. There could end up being only
    three days where it breaks all day long, and in fact Friday could have been
    the best day of the whole winter season, and the locals couldn’t tow it
    because they weren’t in the contest. It’s a really big issue for all the locals
    around here.”

    Richardson and Hasselschwert emphasized, however, the issue at hand is
    not whether or not the contest exists – both recognized that Oregonians
    seem excited about the competition and enjoyed seeing the exhibition –
    but rather that local surfers’ inclusion in the contest is at the whim of one
    or two organizers and does not necessarily represent the best of Oregon’s
    tow-surfing community.

    “In a best case scenario there would be a non-biased way to select two
    teams from the area to compete in the contest and I think the way to
    choose those teams would be that everyone who surfs out there on a
    regular basis, who knows each other and how they surf, do a poll,”
    Hasselschwert said. “Do a poll of those people, the people who are
    actually out there. They can decide. What’s important is what the group as
    a whole really wants.”

    “To figure out the teams that best represent Oregon and the sport of
    tow-surfing,” added Richardson.

    “For future generations of this contest, there should be a fair, unbiased,
    and competitive way to be included in the competition,” Hasselschwert
    said. “I’d like to see us in the same house with the same band cheering on
    Oregonians in next year’s contest.”

  • January 3, 2007 at 1:24 pm | Rick says


    Thanks for finding us and taking the time to post here. I’d love to take you up on your offer to tell us more about the Oregon tow-in scene, maybe developing a better story (or even movie) about the guys who pioneered and surf Tackle Buster Reef regularly. I’m sure it’s something our audience would find amazing.

    Thanks again,

  • January 9, 2007 at 12:03 am | Dan says

    Sounds good, email me when ever you like…

  • January 9, 2007 at 10:27 pm | Randy says

    Sounds like NAU is about sustainability. Sustainability is about equity and respect for nature. Can “invitation only” and gas-powered watercraft also be equated with sustainable endeavors? Maybe it’s time for Oregon to create it’s own sustainable surf cooperation event?

  • January 9, 2007 at 11:40 pm | Rick says

    A sustainable surf coorporation event. Now THAT sounds cool. My original intent of this article wasn’t to advocate tow surfing (or contests, for that matter) but to give a first-hand account of the event. I did, as I wrote, have a different perspective on tow surfing after watching people do it in person. Is tow surfing more damaging to the environment than driving cars to mountains and riding chair lifts all day to the tops of runs (or chopping down trees to make these playgrounds)?

    I certainly don’t want people towing into waves that I can paddle into, but in situations where gas power is the only way to get into 40-foot-plus waves, I’m undecided as to whether or not I have a problem with it. I’m as open to your arguments as I am to the guys who have offered to let me tag along next time the charge the reef.

  • January 16, 2008 at 9:53 pm | James Lewis says

    There’s something fishy here….

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