Grant Washburn is conflicted by the change roiling his sport. And that's an unwelcome frame of mind in the world of big-wave riding, where, to paraphrase the late Mark Foo, if you hesitate, your worst fears will come true.

Washburn is a respected local at Maverick's, North America's most consistent and dangerous big-wave break, the place that killed Foo in 1994. Just a few years ago, on days when the break maxed out with wave faces in the 60-foot range, only a handful of guys dared slog into the chilly gray waters 25 miles south of San Francisco, leaving the takeoff spot, almost 1,000 yards offshore, a lonely, spooky place.

"There was a magic to the emptiness of those giant days," says Washburn, a lean man with a face perpetually ruddy from the sun and cold. "No one could see you. No one could hear you. No one knew where you were. It took an hour to get back to shore — if you were lucky. You were out there on the edge of the wilderness."

No more. Last winter, on Maverick's biggest swell of the year, the concussion of crashing surf mixed with a high-pitched mechanical whine, the scent of sea air with the stench of oily exhaust. Two dozen jet-propelled SeaDoos, WaveRunners and their kin hot-rodded through the surf zone. Their riders shot videos, performed rescues and towed surfers clutching water-ski ropes into more and bigger waves than anyone had dreamed of riding back in the quiet days.

That's the thing about tow surfing. It lets you surf as you do in your dreams, sliding into a wave so easily and with such speed that your breathless fear of the drop evaporates and your board responds with an immediacy that makes it seem wired to your brain. That said (often in guilty whispers), it's no wonder that surfers are being towed into smaller and smaller waves at places such as Moss Landing, between Santa Cruz and Monterey.

Although laws exist to segregate motorized watercraft from surfers and swimmers, they're essentially un-enforced. So the paranoia-prone have conjured up images of an armada of jet craft shrieking through the lineup at Rincon, Malibu, Trestles and other sacred Southern California breaks.

This summer, loyalties began snapping. First the surf tribe battled over a proposed ban on motorized watercraft at a Central Coast marine sanctuary that includes Maverick's. Then, the film "Step Into Liquid" spotlighted a tow-related breakthrough that only the cognoscenti had glimpsed: surfers not only getting towed into swells but also doing so on hydrofoils — boards that rise two feet out of the water and slice across waves with such jaw-dropping speed they threaten to leave paddle purists sputtering in their wake.

Like plenty of other big-wave riders, Washburn watches with interest and ambivalence as tow devotees squabble with environmentalists and purist surfers who have no use for personal watercraft. And — for now anyway — he shuns the rope.

Yeehaw cowboys

If tow-in surfing had never been invented, surfers would have locked arms to keep machines out of their playgrounds. Back in the '80s, when renegades on JetSkis started using waves to launch themselves into the air at surf spots along the California coast, surfers despised them more than offshore oil platforms, more than summertime blackball flags, even more than Boogie Boards.

And it's not just the vessels. It's the lingering stereotype of the cowboys who ride them. To Southern California surfers, these are not your typical beach-going inlanders from east of I-5, but from east of I-15. Dweebs who use beer cozies. Who wear neon without irony. Who post online reviews of their machines that read (from ): "After carefully sliding her off my trailer and into the water I think I mowed down 10 ducks with my car rushing to park the darn thing. As I ran back to the dock, there she was. My new juicy Red Headed seductress, just smiling at me, saying, 'Ride me. Ride me hard.' "

Changing tide

Tow surfing's roots can be traced to a single surf spot, almost to a single session. At Backyards on Oahu's north shore, Laird Hamilton and fellow big-wave riders Buzzy Kerbox and Darrick Doerner began using an inflatable Zodiac to tug one another into waves. They soon jettisoned the Zodiac in favor of a 650-cubic centimeter Yamaha WaveRunner, a jet-propelled sit-down craft with the speed and maneuverability to dance through the impact zone. Then they changed the course of wave-riding by moving to Maui and a spot called Jaws, where they started flinging one another into ridiculously huge waves that the surf media, never short on hyperbole, had labeled "The Unridden Realm."

The slingshot speed of towing also let big-wave surfers use smaller boards. To get into a monster swell in the traditional way, a surfer needs a long, fast-paddling "rhino chaser," something in the 9- to 11-foot range. With paddling requirements stripped from the equation, boards could be two to three feet shorter and much narrower than big-wave guns. Feet jammed into straps, surfers began cranking skateboard-style maneuvers on waves the size of supertankers.

Surfers still were reeling from this change when Hamilton and his friends Dave Kalama and Rush Randle began adapting a water-skiing contraption. The "foilboard" they created uses a wing-like keel to lift the surfboard out of the water so it can carve wakelessly across a wave, like a pelican skimming on an updraft. Hamilton calls it "the most efficient wave-riding vehicle in the world. You don't feel the chop and you can actually tap into the source of the wave."

Kalama, for one, believes someone may someday use a foilboard to glide across open ocean, moving from swell to swell, on and on and on: "You can just keep going as long as your legs can handle it."

But hydrofoil surfing can't be done without that initial tow, so its future is tied to the future of personal watercraft.

Fun or foul?

With only so much coast to go around, a clash between tow surfers and traditionalists was inevitable. Many tow teams began motoring out on smaller days to practice and found that a 5-foot day could be even more fun — and far less dangerous — than a 50-foot day. Not everyone's amused, though.

"It's like having someone drive a dirt bike through your campsite," says surfer Doug Kasunich, who says he has had several unpleasant encounters with the vessels while surfing the sand-bottom breaks near Moss Landing. "It makes your blood boil."

This summer, various environmental groups, concerned that personal watercraft churn through the shallow water where seals, otters and other creatures breed, fought to tighten the ban on the crafts' use in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected ecosystem that stretches some 275 miles from Cambria to just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The sanctuary encompasses Maverick's, along with Moss Landing and a handful of less-publicized big-wave spots to the south. The San Mateo County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, the sport's leading advocacy group, joined environmental organizations in calling for a complete ban.

After much haggling and many long meetings, the sanctuary's official advisory committee in August recommended a compromise that would prohibit the scooters from all surf zones other than Maverick's and would allow them at Maverick's only on days when nearby buoys register wave-height readings over 20 feet, a condition that happens only a few times a year. Only certified jet-craft drivers would be allowed to tow.

The new rules, if approved, would mean that tow aficionados could ride Maverick's on giant days, but they would have to travel outside the sanctuary to practice when the surf shrinks.

Regardless of their position on the debate, few surfers think the tow-surfing trend will fade. For one thing, there's money to be made. San Clemente's Mike Parsons won $60,000 two years ago when his partner, Brad Gerlach, towed him into the biggest wave of the year (a 66-footer at Cortes Bank, a reef 100 miles off the coast of San Diego). Parsons, Gerlach and other tow-in pros also have signed on for the Billabong Odyssey, a three-year, $5-million worldwide mission to find and conquer (via personal watercraft) the biggest waves ever ridden. The sport appears to be gaining momentum among foreign surfers as well, with tow teams sniffing out new big-wave breaks in such unlikely places as France, South Africa and Chile.

In March, a Santa Barbara tow aficionado named Eric Akiskalian created the Assn. of Professional Towsurfers, which not only adds a compound word to the English language but also boasts an impressive list of respected big-wave surfers on its board of advisors: Kerbox, Parsons and Peter Mel among them. Akiskalian says his primary goal is to make the sport safer by encouraging would-be tow surfers to take "ocean risk management" courses from certified trainers. He also hopes to sanction an international series of tow-in contests that would crown a world champ each year. His contest rule book runs 61 pages and includes a division for tow kids age 9 and younger.

The sport's longevity, however, probably lies in the test pilots who continue to push big-wave performance levels. Even surfers who would impose a transoceanic ban on all personal watercraft admit to being impressed by what the world's best tow-in teams do in waves that surfers didn't even consider approachable 10 years ago: Hamilton posing like a matador in the maw of a mutating tube in Tahiti; Santa Cruz's Mel carving snowboard turns across a five-story wall of water at Maverick's; Kalama on a foilboard, floating two feet off the surface of a steep face at Jaws.

Chris Evans, Surfrider's executive director, admits that he loves watching the best tow-in surfers elevating the sport. But he has little sympathy for surfers who complain about the proposed Monterey Bay sanctuary ban. "The word 'sanctuary' means something to us," he says. "And we believe in the national marine sanctuary system. Surfing is one of the few things that you can do in collaboration with nature. That is the essential beauty of surfing. What these guys are doing with their engines is not working in that spirit. As a surfer, I'm embarrassed by their position."

"Old fogeyism of the worst kind" is what Bill Sharp, the former editor of Surfing magazine and mastermind of the Billabong Odyssey, calls Surfrider's attitude. "It's not the way their daddy taught them to go out and ride waves, so they don't like to see people doing this new thing and having fun."

Hamilton's take on the anti-tow forces: "I have to laugh. You know what? There are 100 ways to skin a cat. There's body-surfing, Boogie-Boarding, knee-boarding, long-boarding, short-boarding, tow-in and paddle-in. This is all surfing. Surfing is simply the art of riding waves."

For his part, Washburn admits that his ambivalence stems from the fear of temptation. "It's like crack," Washburn says. "A jet ski at half throttle can tow a surfer into the biggest wave he's ever ridden. You come putting in, you let go of the rope and it's just candy. It's so easy. You can ride 10 giant waves in 20 minutes. You're Superman on those things. I think that's why I'm scared of it."

Given surf culture's hard-wired connection to nature, any challenge to the status quo was bound to be unsettling — especially one that came roaring in on a two-stroke seductress.

As Mel puts it: "It's pitting us against us."

Steve Hawk, for nine years the editor of Surfer magazine, lives in striking distance of Maverick's but seldom musters the nerve to strike. Times staff writer Pete Thomas contributed to this story.