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Surf Jet Ski patrol tests uneasy waters

15 watercraft allowed at acclaimed surf contest

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Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 11:34 am

A high-tension truce over personal watercraft that some say pits the safety of surfers against the protection of marine life came to a head last week on the eve of the Mavericks surf contest opening ceremonies.

Two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agents confronted a group of three surfers. The surfers were wearing wetsuits and standing by personal watercraft at Pillar Point Harbor, and the NOAA agents warned them it would be illegal to take out the watercraft that day. At the time, contest planners were working on safety plans and moviemakers were on the water shooting footage for the feature film, "Of Men and Mavericks."

That sparked an angry response, according to the government agents. One surfer reportedly began yelling insults, daring them to issue a citation if he went out. The NOAA agents say they were soon surrounded by about 15 men.

"It was a mob," said NOAA special agent Nicholas Call. "We're not out here to write tickets. Our main concern is the wildlife in the area. That's the main goal of our agency."

The NOAA agents were out at Pillar Point Harbor on an unrelated investigation and the encounter with the surfers was a coincidence, Call said. That's when they noticed the personal watercraft in the water.

Mavericks regular Adam Replogle was among those riding a personal watercraft for the filming that day. He explained the high-surf day was a rare opportunity to practice before the Mavericks surf event, and that it's unreasonable to ban them when they can be used to save lives.

"We've been having friends of ours pass away out there," he said. "The state or the feds aren't going to put anyone out there to rescue you, so we've got to do what we can."

The exchange touched on a larger conflict and the role of personal watercraft in the marine sanctuary. Bringing Jet Skis out to Mavericks is no simple matter. The surf spot is located right in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, a region specially designated to protect seals, otters and other marine life. Some wildlife advocates maintain personal watercraft can churn up the sensitive habitat and that the resulting commotion is inherently bad for animals. Some surfers counter that the machines have changed and do not pollute or damage habitat as they once may have done.

Last month, Mavericks contest organizers and oceanic groups finalized details of a one-day permit to allow 15 personalized watercraft at the Mavericks contest. They will be used to tow, film and - if necessary - rescue surfers. Mavericks organizers are expected to sign the new arrangement sometimes this week.

"Surfers are people who love the ocean," said Jessica Banks, spokeswoman for the Mavericks organizers. "It's one of those things where it's hard to say we're contaminating the ocean, when we're trying to save lives."

Both surfers and ocean advocates can point to other recent examples to make their case.

Surfers rallied to bring back personal watercraft this year after the death of Hawaiian surfer Sion Milosky, who wiped out at Mavericks in March and couldn't be found for a half-hour. His body was found after another surfer went out on a personal watercraft to search.

Officials with the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary say witnesses saw a Jet Ski run over an otter at Mavericks in 2008. The otter's dead body was found later when it washed ashore.

"Primarily, it's a matter of wildlife disturbance," said Mary Jane Schramm, a spokeswoman for the Farallones sanctuary. "There's harbor seals out there, there's otters; even whales can migrate through that area."

Aside from the deal during the contest, personal watercraft can be taken into the sanctuary only for a rescue, but a high-surf warning must be issued first by NOAA.

Balancing the concerns of both groups, the new agreement for Mavericks sets up rules for how the small watercraft can navigate out to the surf break. A specific pathway has been designated for how Jet Ski drivers must steer from Pillar Point Harbor out to the Mavericks Point.

At least four observers will be stationed at the contest to make sure drivers are following the rules to the letter, Schramm said. r

Editor Clay Lambert contributed to this story.

Welcome to the discussion.


  • Will posted at 10:33 am on Sat, Jan 14, 2012.

    Will Posts: 1

    If they think a jet ski churns up the marine reserve, they should see what 30'+ waves can do. You don't see much marine life near the surface close to the shore in those surf conditions anyway. More and more people are surfing Mavericks every year, which means there will be more accidents out there. At least these lunatics are willing to go buy there own equipment, and risk their own lives to save a fellow surfer, and not rely on public lifeguards. Also, I'm sure their jet skis are well maintained in tip top running condition, so pollution can't be that much of the issue, unlike most of the boats in our harbor. People will continue to surf out there with or without rescue. Sadly, the more surfers that lose their lives out there, will only contribute to the growing popularity of the spot; Which would bring more spectators (and more trash) to our marine reserves. Let these guys be. Go pick on Hollywood out there (they have more money anyway)

  • EGrez posted at 1:36 pm on Wed, Jan 11, 2012.

    EGrez Posts: 1

    Jeff Clark surfed this break for years without any backup whatsoever. There is inherent risk to surfing here and that should be considered before paddling out. I feel that the personal watercraft make many surfers take risks that they wouldn't normally because of the false sense of security. The personal watercraft are used in rescue, but I have also seen them excessively used to carry surfers out to the lineup instead of having them paddle out. I do believe that surfers love the rush of surfing on the ocean, but it is an untruth to say that every surfer respects the ocean and its eco system.


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