After surfer's death, a debate over Jet Skis

Apr 4 2011 - 9:49am

Death is always near for the surfers at Mavericks Beach , which is why the daredevils who ride the monstrous breaks would like rescuers with potentially life-saving Jet Skis to be closer still.

The question is whether environmental laws should be changed to protect the safety of a group of thrill-seekers.

A bitter debate over regulations limiting the use of Jet Skis erupted after the death of Sion Milosky, who died March 16 after wiping out on a monstrous wave at the world-renowned surf spot near Half Moon Bay.

Milosky's body was found by a surfer who commandeered a photographer's Jet Ski, which was not supposed to be in the water at the time, according to rules of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Mavericks waters off the San Mateo County coast are part of the federally protected Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a 275-mile coastal stretch that contains some of the world's most diverse ecosystems.

Regulations protecting the sanctuary prohibit, with some exceptions, Jet Skis and other "motorized personal watercraft" -- which have been used to save surfers' lives.

Years of frustration with the ban came out when Jeff Clark, the former Mavericks contest director, blasted sanctuary officials following Milosky's death, accusing it of placing "no value on human life." The law, he said, "needs to be broken."

But sanctuary officials say the law permits personal watercraft in rescue situations and would even allow a Jet Ski patrol under the proper authority, but surfers haven't taken advantage of these safety allowances.

"They are blaming us for public safety issues," said Mary Jane Schramm, spokeswoman for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, which manages the Monterey sanctuary. "It's their choice. It's their judgment" to be out there.

The restrictions on personal motorized watercraft were first adopted in 1994. Maria Brown, the superintendent of the Gulf of the Farallones and Monterey Bay National Marine sanctuaries, said the rules are necessary to protect marine mammals, seabirds, invertebrates and plants.

At the time the regulations were being reviewed, Brown said, even surfers voiced concern over their own safety by threats from fast-moving motorized vessels.

Craft such as Jet Skis not only flush birds and scare wildlife, Brown and others said, but they could ram into marine mammals that feed on the surface near the shore. There is also pollution from the exhaust fumes.

Schramm said controlling Jet Skis is particularly important along the Peninsula coastline this time of year because there is a harbor seal rookery in that area and it is breeding season. Sea otters are also seen in the area, and gray whales are currently migrating along the coastline, which extends from Marin County to San Luis Obispo.

Schramm said sanctuary officials have bent over backward to accommodate surfers. When the rules were adopted, she said, motorized watercraft were restricted to four zones in the sanctuary, not including Mavericks. Then, in 2009, a new seasonal zone was established to allow tow-in surfing by Jet Skis at Mavericks in December, January and February. The caveat is that the watercraft can only be used when the National Weather Service declares a high-surf warning, a designation that is standard during the famous Mavericks surf competition.

Clark and other Mavericks habitues argue that the seasonal zone is no help to people like Milosky, who was surfing after the competition window had closed and after the tow-in season had ended. Nor did it help Southern California surfer Jacob Trette, who nearly drowned at Mavericks in January when there was no high surf warning. Trette, who was unconscious, was picked up by an illegal Jet Ski, the owner of which risked a $500 fine.

"In the case of Jacob Trette, we were lucky to have someone there who knew CPR and a surfer who knew how to operate a Jet Ski," Clark said. "This situation last week was just tragic. There's no wildlife hanging out there when there is 50-foot surf. I wish we had a Jet Ski patrol out there. It might have made a difference."

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