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Frank Quirarte is on his way to Maverick's, the storied big-wave break 20 minutes south of San Francisco, when his truck -- license plate: MAVSRFR -- blows its radiator. It's a bright, broiling day along the coast, and Quirarte waits for the tow truck to arrive in a steamy pizza parlor in downtown Half Moon Bay, sweating through clothes befitting a photographer for Surfing Magazine: flip-flops, shorts, Quicksilver T-shirt, black wire-rimmed glasses. He's just turned 40, and his hair and goatee are sprinkled with gray. "We're experienced surfers, experienced big-wave guys, and we know when a guy's going to die," says Quirarte. "So we go in and get him and drag him out, whether he likes it or not. If he doesn't have a surfboard, doesn't have a way in, there are so many variables that can get him. Hell, there are sharks out there.
"Nobody else wantsto be out there," he continues with a chuckle. "We're just sitting there, and we do it for no pay."
As Maverick's has gained popularity since the early 1990s, so too has the use of motorized personal watercraft -- small boats with strong thrust that change directions and speeds quickly -- to tow surfers past and into its gigantic waves. Some surfing purists consider it cheating (and disruptive), but Quirarte, who landed the first shot of a so-called tow-surfer on the cover of Surfer Magazine, believes personal watercraft have become indispensable not only to surfers, but also to the photographers, filmmakers, and boating enthusiasts who double as rescue personnel when winter storms roll in, and the break at Maverick's gets huge.
"It's a whole little tight community, and we take care of ourselves," says Quirarte, a native of Pacifica who dedicated himself to shooting Maverick's after a stint in the Air Force during Operation Desert Storm. (Some of his photographs accompany this story.) "That's why this whole thing cuts right to our heart, because there's people who are coming up against us who have no idea what goes on out there, no clue, they've never even been out there. And the one guy who has -- Mike Kimsey -- we don't understand where he's coming from."
Kimsey is a member of the San Mateo County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a respected national organization that blends love of the sport with environmentalism. A veteran paddle-out surfer who has braved Maverick's, Kimsey chairs a Surfrider committee that has, over the past few years, set its sights on securing a ban of personal watercraft from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which includes Maverick's. The issue goes far beyond big-wave riding -- environmental groups argue that the small boats pose a threat to marine life throughout the protected waters -- but many surfers suspect Surfrider's tenacity stems from a disdain for the tow-in subculture that approaches vindictiveness. Kimsey, however, says it's "painful" to have to speak against longtime friends and insists San Mateo Surfrider supports the ban purely out of obligation to the environment.
"Ask anyone: How does it feel to be unpopular alone? Does anyone ever enjoy that?" says Kimsey, a man with sad eyes beneath a head of curly gray hair. "We thought that if the environment was to be an equal concern with satisfying our friends, the compromise was not even, for both our friends and the environment. Yes, it's been painful, and yes, it was hard to do, but I think for the better, because everybody is more aware now of the environmental issues."
Quirarte's not so sure the debate has been a healthy one. "The thing that gets me is that everyone's friends. I'm friends with the harbor guys, I considered myself friends with Mike Kimsey ... then as soon as this started, I became an a-hole from hell because I own a jet ski. It makes me sick to my stomach that we can't just all talk about it. I don't know how that fight started, but it didn't start with us."
The fight, however, has gone on for so long, dragging so many interest groups in its wake, that it has moved into a realm where compromise -- even among old friends -- seems unlikely to satisfy everyone. "The decision on tow-in surfing could set a precedent for other marine sanctuaries around the world," says Sean Smith of the Bluewater Network, a San Francisco environmental organization that has argued strenuously for a ban. "The issues are much larger than Monterey Bay and Maverick's. It's amazing; this touches all levels, it really stirs people up. Add in the marine sanctuary, and it's a blockbuster issue."
But contrary to the clichéd vision of personal watercraft use -- overcrowded country lakes constantly abuzz with spinning, jumping jet skis -- tow-in surfing at Maverick's is an intermittent affair, and tow-in surfers are a ghostly breed, emerging in the pre-dawn hours of deep winter days when the waves are too large, churning, and unpredictable for paddling out. If, for the first time, Maverick's bends to the will of regulation (in the form of a permit system that would limit the numbers of days and boats), the one-of-a-kind spot will surely shed some of the daredevil spirit and innovation embodied in its nickname -- a high price to pay, tow-in surfers say, for environmental concerns that seem long on potential threats but short on documented evidence. Indeed, it's hard to see how sporadic tow-in surfing poses a greater threat to the well-being of seals than, say, the trigger-happy tendencies of salmon fishermen, or the discharges of the cruise ships, freighters, and oil tankers that constantly stream across the Maverick's horizon, heading to and from the Golden Gate.