Surfing: Oregon Style
On a borrowed board, his bare skin chilled in the water off Bastendorff Beach, Ollie Richardson caught the first wave that ever came his way.
The 9-year-old had to share the surfboard — and later a wetsuit — with his older brother. But that moment of speed and adrenaline was entirely his.
"I felt like I was going 100 miles an hour," Richardson says. "And since then I've wanted more and more and more."
Twenty years ago, Richardson, his brother and their dad had beaches around Coos Bay all to themselves. They built a bonfire to keep warm and — clamoring out of the water every 20 minutes — passed around a surfboard unearthed from a cousin's garage.
Today, Bastendorff is likely to host a score of surfers when the waves are up and the wind is down. Many more are packing their boards to "secret" spots known only to surfing initiates and local residents willing to hike the headlands through mazes of salal and moss-hung firs. Rain isn't a reason not to surf here.
"It's cold ... it's fickle," Richardson says. "When it gets good, it's as good as anywhere ... It just doesn't get as good as often."
In this environment of jagged coastline battered by wind-whipped whitecaps, die-hards like Richardson are thriving on a new twist in their sport. Called "Tow-in Surfing," this new type of surfing puts boards behind Jet Skis — and surfers atop some of the planet's gnarliest waves.
"It's indescribable what it's like," says Dan Hasselschwert. "You don't even trust that this is what you should be doing."
Tow-in surfing originated at some point in the last decade, when somebody in Hawaii — the birthplace of surfing — got the idea of using a motorized watercraft to tow a surfer out to the waves. Surfing magazines, Internet sites and videos brought the concept of tow-in surfing to a larger audience.
"They were trying to find a way to surf waves that were bigger than anybody had ever surfed," Hasselschwert says.
Half an ocean away in Lincoln City, John Forse had the same feat in mind. In 1995, he piloted a Zodiac into surf breaking over an off-shore reef known to locals as "Tackle Buster."
"I turned around and started paddling for this wave, and I had no idea how big it was," Forse says. "It blotted out the horizon."
Forse couldn't match the wave's speed — accelerated by off-shore winds — and "blew out the back." Not to be defeated, Forse bought a WaveRunner and tried to convince other local surfers to take a ride with him.
"Nobody would touch it," Forse says. "I can't tow and surf at the same time ... It can't be done without a partner."
In 2003, Forse convinced some professional surfers to make the trip from California to Oregon and tow in. Despite being experts, they were sweating, Forse says. But after catching a 25-foot wave, Forse realized that towing in was the only way to surf.
Two years later, Forse, now 60, founded an elite surfing invitational at the Tackle Buster spot, which is also known as Nelscott Reef. Unlike other competitions, which are scheduled for a certain date and time, the Nelscott Reef Tow-in Classic is held when the perfect surfing conditions present themselves, which means high on-shore pressure, no wind, stable weather from sunrise to sunset and, of course, giant waves. When satellite data and weather reports confirm the arrival of perfect waves, 20 teams are given 48-hour notice to get their boards to Lincoln City. The perfect waves arrived in December each of the past two years.
The Nelscott Reef Tow-in Classic has churned up a controversy among the state's surfers, because just one Oregon team has been invited each year.
Hasselschwert, owner of Ossies Surf Shop in Newport, went so far as to hold a protest party during last year's invitational, calling it the "worst possible scenario" for Oregon surfing.
"He (Forse) tried so hard to exclude people that it became this big drama and this big story," Hasselschwert says.
Absent of assembling his own competition, Hasselschwert is dedicated to helping novice surfers learn to safely and responsibly learn the sport. His shop specializes in tow-surfing equipment and will offer excursions once Hasselschwert obtains the necessary charter-boat license.
"What we've got is really special," Hasselschwert says.
A former middle-school teacher, Hasselschwert, 32, purchased a WaveRunner in 2004 after spending one too many sunny days stranded on the beach because the surf was too big. Since then, he's launched the craft just as often in the rain, even in snow. Oregon's winter weather, which churns the ocean into white water for about a quarter-mile offshore, makes surfing practically impossible without the means to tow in, Hasselschwert adds.
He and Richardson, both Newport residents, teamed up when Richardson, 29, mentioned that his dad had purchased an old tow board, distinguished from standard surfboards by foot straps and extra weight. About twice as heavy as standard surfboards, tow boards are built for speed. Newer boards are 51/2; or 6-feet long and look to shrink to the size of wakeboards, Richardson says.
The surfer grabs onto a handle similar to those used in water-skiing and holds on tight. Once the Jet Ski crests a wave, the surfer lets go and rides the face. Just before the surfer gets tumbled by the churning white water, the Jet Ski driver, following behind, picks him up. On a good day, the team can repeat the routine as many as 50 times, Hasselschwert says.
"None of that can even happen unless you have a really experienced driver that knows what they're doing," Hasselschwert says.
"Imagine how in sync the surfer and the driver have to be ... to catch this moving wave when you can't stop and talk about it."
Just assembling the equipment to start tow-in surfing is no small task, Hasselschwert says. Plan on spending about $10,000 for a decent WaveRunner and then another $3,000 to $5,000 for all the accessories, which must include life jackets, flares, a fire extinguisher and other safety paraphernalia. State certification in boater safety also is required.
"A guy told me, 'It's a fun sport; bring your wallet,' " Hasselschwert says.
A rescue sled also is a good idea, Hasselschwert says, adding that maintaining the WaveRunner should be the highest priority.
"You're putting this machine in the utmost life-threatening situations."
Hasselschwert and Richardson tow-surf about a half-mile to a mile offshore, in waters where great white sharks are almost sure to make an appearance.
Forse was attacked by a great white in 1998 while surfing near Gleneden Beach.
"That's always in the back of our minds, too," Richardson says.
But instead of 12- to 15-foot waves, Hasselschwert and Richardson are riding 40-footers. Surfing faces like that, Hasselschwert says, is "almost like getting away with something. There's nobody out there to really regulate what you're doing."
For that reason, Hasselschwert, who teaches a surfing class through Oregon State University, doesn't recommend anyone — even experienced surfers — attempt tow-in surfing without taking a lesson.
"If you'd bowled for two years, I'd call you an experienced bowler," Hasselschwert says. "But the thing with surfing is: you can't just re-rack the pins and do it again.
"Learn the rules before you go out there."