Andy St. Onge - Part 2
Andy continues his discussion with Brendan McCray on his time at Easter Island and tow-surfing. Read part 1 here.
When was your first trip to Easter Island, and what was it like?
From May through August of 1991 I spent an entire Southern Winter on Rapa Nui more or less by myself. It was the only "surf" trip I ever took, more like an expedition, really. I brought three boards: a 6'10" Willis Bros. thruster pintail (Milton shape); a 7'6" Owl Chapman thruster pintail; and a new 8'10" Owl thruster square tail (originally shaped for Billy Ritchie — once & future "King" of the "Wall" in Hampton Beach). I could have used a bigger gun. The real waves, that justify Rapa Nui as a world-class surf destination, are on the South side of the island. There's some serious surf out there. A rugged, barren coast devoid of any people or houses — totally uninhabited — with only these roving bands of wild horses and crumbling Moai scattered about. It was just me and my Owls, mate.
When the winds were right, I'd hump it over to the Vinapu region on foot from Hanga Roa — about a 4 or 5 mile walk, which took me about an hour or so. There was this bend & rise in the road where I'd get a first glimpse of the ocean. It was not uncommon to find corduroy lines stacked to the horizon with offshore plumes tracing their approach to the rocky shore. An intense mix of emotions would flood over me at this moment; I knew it was time to surf.
The way the reefs are set up, the waves have to be — at minimum — double over-head (6' Hawaiian) or bigger in order to be surfable; otherwise it was on the rocks. Coast looks like it does down at Kaena Point — lava-rock/reef with grooves and coves, which is typically where there might be a channel and some kind of peak. There are places on the Big Island like that, too. And the waves would come in fast & raw with no outer reefs to slow them down or focus the energy, then they violently explode on the near-shore reefs — spitting their guts out in full-on cannon shots.
I ended up surfing Papa Tenga Roa more than anywhere else. There are a number of other quality surf spots (like Vaihu, Akahanga, Hanga Poukura, Hotu Iti, & Hanga Nui — all of which I surfed at one point or another), but Papa Tenga Roa is perhaps the best & most consistently rideable spot on the South side of Rapa Nui. It also happened to be the closest (in terms of walking distance) from where I was living.
I rode Papa Tenga Roa by myself for 3 months. The way the peak marches in and stands up, it looks a lot like West Peak Sunset — a beautiful A-frame pyramid with a major bowl going both right & left. Then it hits the reef. Look out! The major difference between Papa Tenga Roa and Sunset, however, is that where Sunset is a deep water peak, a quarter mile or more from shore, Papa Tenga Roa is about 30 or 40 yards off a lava rock point encrusted with tens of thousands of deadly vana (sea urchins) lying less than 10 feet beneath the surface. You can see them there waiting for you very clearly when you're in the lip about to take off. And the drop is heavy.
The wave jacks and throws hard: top-to-bottom more like Pipe or Backdoor (than Sunset) into a cavernous tube. There's no prone-out option; and you definitely don't want to eat it. You simply had to make every wave you paddled for; and the only way to make these waves was to pick them carefully and charge. Surf smart. You hesitate or get reckless and your worst fears will materialize very quickly. And there was no one — absolutely no one — to help or assist if things went wrong. I was on my own. Over the course of the season I lucked into some great waves and probably some of the most intense tube rides of my life.
Last time I surfed Papa Tenga Roa it was the best and biggest of the entire trip: easily 12'- 15' and flawless WSW swell. Massive and clean: mesmerizing to behold. I almost didn't paddle out it was so breathtaking — truly awesome. But I paddled out eventually. Caught two waves in 2 hours. Picked my waves very carefully that morning — feeling way undergunned on my 8'10".
About 10 minutes before my last wave, I saw the shadow profile of a big Tiger shark in a swell on the outside — twelve or more feet in length — clearly silhouetted in the face of a rising set. I got the message. Caught the next bomb and rode right to the keyhole exit zone. That shark may have been my aumakua that summer; yet it was only at the end that I became aware of its presence.
Many memorable experiences surfing Papa Tenga Roa, but I can't say I miss the place all that much. Too intense & dangerous; you surf down there long enough and your number's going to come up sooner or later. Although the experience was probably essential for me as a developing surfer, not least because I learned to deal in heavy situations — I developed more discipline, focus, and control. If nothing else, I also learned to appreciate the perfect set-ups here on Oahu. I don't take anything for granted. I know how good we have it here.
What's your take on tow surfing?
From 1993 when it began — right down the street — until today, I've had a front row seat to the whole tow or "power surf" spectacle. As far as Oahu goes, at least, I've seen it all; and I am not impressed. The scene on Maui looks more out of control, ridiculous, & absurd. While the opportunity was always there for me to do it, I have never "towed in" or grabbed a rope. Never had the desire — or the need. The machines and gear and most everything else associated with tow surfing are, in my view, repellent; all of it goes against what I value and believe is sacred, moreover natural in surfing.
Tow surfing is, in a word, unnatural — maybe even anti-natural. It's a "motorsport" — not surfing. Add to that all the gear — ATVs, trailers, gas & oil cans, "compression vests," straps, 25' of lines, on and on (thousands of dollars worth of crap) — and it gets pretty silly.
All you need to catch a wave is a surfboard and a some wax, maybe a cord if you really need it, that's it. At the end of the day, I suppose that the only time a ski is really justified or necessary is when conditions are extreme: massive — over 20' — and otherwise inaccessible and impossible to paddle surf (e.g., Cortez Bank). When the conditions aren't super extreme or inaccessible there's no legitimate reason to rely on skis. Although when it comes to rescues and that sort of thing, nothing beats a ski.
Bottom line: Unless it's 25'-30', the outer reefs should be the reserve of the few who have earned the right to surf out there. (That "right" is earned by paying dues over the course of multiple years & seasons) under pure paddle power, gaining experience & expertise that prepares a surfer not only to catch set-waves a mile or so at sea, but make the paddle out, position on the peak, and, if necessary, the swim to the beach — alone. If someone can't or has not done all of this (and more) then that person has no business being out there — ever. The rewards of surfing the outer reefs should, therefore, be the sole reserve of those who have proven that they are prepared to undertake the risks.
While there are those who would certainly dispute what I think is, in fact, the basic truth, there is no reasonable justification for using jet-skis in surf under 20'. None. Overall, I think that jet-skis are not only totally unnecessary, but an aesthetic, even moral aberration, and above all, an environmental tragedy.
Based on almost twenty years of observation and experience, I have found that the vast majority of people are not using skis to ride massive waves that otherwise cannot be paddled into; rather most people abuse the advantage skis give them to catch waves in conditions that a ski is simply not needed, much less warranted. In essence, most people rely on a motorized assist to compensate for their limited, often inferior abilities. To be sure, virtually all of these "power surfers" would never be out on the outer reefs without an engine underneath them and a throttle in their hands. They are charlatans & interlopers.
When a guy who cannot and otherwise has never caught a 10' (much less a 20') wave on his own is using a jetski he is taking advantage of an engine to invade and exploit nature. This is an insult to those who have paddled out there and lined up a peak on their own individual power. To be clear, I'm talking about guys towing into swells when it's 10'-12' — or smaller. Furthermore, these kooks are usually way out on the shoulder, running away from the wave, bouncing around on these ridiculous looking wakeboards. It looks so lame. And it's not only noxious & annoying but extremely hazardous to be anywhere near even one "tow team" — the risk of getting run over is very real.
This state of affairs I am describing has become the norm — indeed there are literally dozens of so-called "power surfers" who don't even surf, properly speaking, all they do is "tow" — even when it's like 4'. Essentially, they are motosurfers; and moto-surfing seems to be on the rise (with jet-propelled long boards coming out now, as well). It's illegal, to be sure, but it's really so much more a sad & disgraceful spectacle; a glaring example of the degeneration of surfing's recreational integrity. Obviously some folks don't care about this sort of thing. But just this past season alone, there were many days when it was barely overhead and I saw 3 or 4 "teams" towing at Revelations. What is the sense of that — other than rapacious greed & expedience? What kind of example or precedent does it set?
We're talking about Hawaii here. And surfing (he'e nalu) is, at the beginning & end of the day, a distinctly Hawaiian activity. Therefore, the Hawaiian cultural tradition as it pertains not only to surfing heritage but also, and more importantly, to the stewardship of the natural environment is very relevant and important for us to consider. The ancient Hawaiians revered nature as sacred. They saw nature, the waves, and the creatures that inhabited the ocean as divine and sacrosanct. Surfriding is, properly considered from the Hawaiian perspective of things, a prayer of a high order; the sea is a beautiful church; the wave a silent sermon (Tom Blake said that). Ancient Hawaiian tradition & mythology clearly tells us this.
To the Hawaiians, all living things animate or inanimate are considered to have mana (spiritual power). Everything in nature is sacred. So, when we carefully consider the quasi mytho-religious forces that once dominated the ancient Hawaiian ethos — representing an admirable vision of ecological attunement — the debate surrounding tow-surfing takes on other, deeper dimensions, especially with a view to nature and the environment.
Ultimately, my opposition to the use & abuse of so-called "personal water craft" (PWC or jet skis) is based not so much on my own personal preferences or subjective view of surfing or what surfing should or could be; but rather on the direct threat that the unmitigated use & abuse of PWC pose to the natural environment. In other words, my disagreement with & disdain of tow surfing is for precisely ecological — not personal — reasons.
Above & beyond human factors, consider what it must be like for all the wildlife that is intimidated, terrified, and panicked by jetskis? Such wildlife (e.g., whales, seals, turtles, sharks, fish, birds, etc.) have called the outer reefs home for millennia. I have seen directly that skis terrorize these wild animals. What is the justification for invading & desecrating their habitat? I think that there is none — at least not in the name of "recreation." Remember: the outer reefs of the North Shore are wilderness areas. The very definition, integrity, and sanctity of these fragile ecosystems are directly threatened by the unmitigated use & abuse of PWCs and "power surfing." We cannot re-create the wilderness — once lost, it's pretty much gone forever. On this perspective (of nature and ecology), the conventional "surfers" vs. "tow surfers" debate is altogether transcended in ways that re-orient our thinking in terms of what is ecologically appropriate and otherwise environmentally responsible. That's the issue — not what some egomaniac surfer desires or believes. Thus, the controversy surrounding "tow surfing" or whatever one chooses to call it is not an academic or even a subjective question; it is not a matter of preference, difference or degree. Tow surfing and all that goes with it represents an immediate and present threat to the integrity of the natural environment — including also the virtue or integrity of the surfing recreational process itself — precisely because PWCs pollute the water and degrade the vitality of the natural environment, which sustains the ecosphere.
Even when there are 60 guys out at Pipe or Waimea — much less the usual 30 or so guys at Sunset or some other spot on any given day — the natural marine habitat is more or less pristine, unaltered & unadulterated just beneath the surface. Without motors and the exhaust, noise, and pollution they produce (leaking oil & gas), much less the physical threat jet-skis pose to wildlife and humans alike, traditional, paddle surfing is a relatively low-impact activity. Regular, old paddle surfing is natural; it's quiet, pure, and simple. One man, one wave. From a few feet under water, surfers seem merely to be splashing around a little. No harm done. No noise, no trail, no wear nor waste of any kind — save perhaps for the residue of some sunscreen and guys taking a piss.
PWCs are, in fact, something else altogether. Just one ski radically alters the ecological balance of things. Imagine the impact of 30 or more jet-skis . . . Like cords, I'd say that surfing — especially in relation to the environment and a sense of ecological responsibility — would be a whole lot better off without PWCs & tow-surfing. As surfers with some sense of ecological conscience and integrity, as well as athletic self-respect, I would hope that we could both recognize and accept that the mechanization of surfing is no better for the "sport" than it is for the natural environment. The time has come to re-examine what we do and why we do it. Moreover, it is time to exercise some serious discretion & restraint when it comes to how we do things & where we do it. We are already seeing a change in both attitude and practice in such regard. Guys like Dorian are proving in the mass media what I've known from the beginning: you don't need a ski to catch a big wave — even at "Jaws." As I said, it's a matter of self-respect, pride, and discretion, really. An authentic surfer doesn't need a motor. People are waking up to the fact that the only guy who needs a ski is a guy who can't catch a wave on his own.
Do you have a music theme/song/artist that runs through your head when you're in the water?
So much music to choose — from Beethoven (e.g., 7th Symphony, 2nd movement) to Miles Davis (e.g., "Sketches of Spain") — but I'll pick one for now:
"The Wheel," Grateful Dead at the Walter Koebel Halle, Germany, October 13, 1981.