Ghost Trees PWC Ban Pits Surfers Against Environmentalists

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One of the surf world’s most contentious debates came to a head a week ago, as federal officials decided to disallow tow-in surfing within the boundaries of three Central California marine sanctuaries.

The ban pitted big-wave surfers, who use personalized watercraft (or PWCs) to propel themselves into waves that are too large to be caught by paddling a board, against environmental groups who believe the motorized vehicles have no place in a marine sanctuary.

The crux of the problem centered on Maverick’s, the big-wave surfing spot in Half Moon Bay, which is one of the premier giant-wave surf zones on the planet, but spilled over to other spots in the area, such as Moss Landing jetty in Monterey Bay and the big-wave break known as Ghost Tree in Pebble Beach.

In these locations, large waves sometimes move too swiftly and with too much energy to be caught using just a surfboard. To that end, surfers use watercraft to gain enough speed to sling a fellow surfer into the wave.

The manner in which surfers ride those waves – using loud, gas-driven, polluting vehicles – often put surfer interest groups at odds with one another.

On a day of large surf at Maverick’s, for instance, it has not been uncommon to see dozens of tow-in surf teams zipping around the line-up on PWCs, a mob of activity no doubt having a negative environmental impact on the surrounding ecosystem.

The ban has been in place in the Monterey Bay sanctuary since 1992, but the new decision expanded its depth and breadth.

Federal officials banned the use of PWCs at Ghost Tree and Moss Landing jetty, but struck a compromise with surfers at Maverick’s. There, surfers will be allowed to use PWCs to ride waves on days that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases a high-surf advisory.

The new rules will take effect in March, making this winter a last gasp for big-wave surfers.