Ryan McDonald

Surfing in the Material World

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Bianca Buitendag throws buckets of spray for Team World at the Founders’ Cup earlier this month. The Founders’ Cup was the first public event at the WSL Surf Ranch, a man-made wave in Lemoore, Calif. Photos by Ryan McDonald

The Founders’ Cup brought perfect waves and thousands of fans to the WSL Surf Ranch. Will it change surfing as we know it?

by Ryan McDonald

Joel Parkinson, a square-jawed Australian and surfing’s 2012 world champion, was sitting in the water, waiting for a wave. And waiting.

In the ocean, waves tend to come in “sets,” groupings of larger breakers appearing in succession. The time in between is called a “lull.” The lengths of sets and lulls vary from spot to spot and swell to swell. But as early as the first year of Junior Lifeguards, budding surfers are taught to count and measure them to understand what is happening in the ocean.

None of this should have mattered to Parkinson, who was more than 100 miles from the Pacific. He was floating in a 14-acre lagoon in Lemoore, Calif., 35 miles south of Fresno, which until recently was known mostly for dairy cows and a Naval Air Station. It was Day One of the World Surf League’s Founders’ Cup, the first-ever public event at the WSL Surf Ranch, a wave pool capable of producing a 45-second, high-performance ride.

The ride at the Surf Ranch originated with a decade of dreaming and tinkering by Kelly Slater, surfing’s winningest competitor and the closest thing the sport has to a global icon. In December 2015, just days after world title had been decided in Hawaii, Slater shocked the surfing world by releasing video footage of a reeling barrel that instantly made previous attempts at man-made waves all but irrelevant.

But about 3:20 p.m., part way through Round Two of the Founders Cup, as Parkinson waited for the machine to deliver the second of the two waves he would ride for Team Australia, the wave pool seemed to be experiencing a lull. Minutes lumbered by in near silence. Eventually, a voice crackled over the loudspeakers that line the edges of the wave pool to announce that “routine calibration” to the wave would require a short delay. Parkinson stepped out of the water and made his way to a shaded portion of the competitor’s area to avoid the intense Central Valley sun.

Almost exactly one hour and two more announced pleas for patience later, Parkinson got back in, and proceeded to notch his best wave of the competition thus far. Parkinson, who possesses one of surfing’s most lauded styles, later said that the prolonged delay had left the water so calm and produced a wave so perfect that he felt almost hesitant to execute his trademark carves, as though he were a first baseman taking batting practice in sight of a stained-glass window.

Three-time World Champion Mick Fanning stays focused during a backside hack.

The Founders’ Cup wrapped up the next day, with Team World narrowly prevailing in a byzantine competition format. No points on the WSL Championship Tour were awarded to any of the competitors, and that was kind of the point. The contest was named in honor of the “founders” of professional surfing, a group of surfers who nurtured the sport’s competitive roots.

The history of professional surfing over the last five decades is one of instability. Contest models and overseeing organizations have come and gone. Title sponsors like Smirnoff and Bud Light gave way to Samsung and Michelob Ultra. But the most dramatic change is the move away from contests in places with lots of surfing fans but mediocre waves, like Huntington Beach, to contests in places with few people but stellar surf, like Indonesia’s G-Land. In his 10-year stint at the helm of the Association of Surfing Professionals, the predecessor to the WSL, former world champ Rabbit Bartholomew deemed this vision the “Dream Tour,” with the goal of putting “the world’s best surfers in the world’s best waves.”

“We just hung on to make surfing great again,” Bartholomew said in a panel discussion, to empathetic groans.

For the WSL, The Founders’ Cup was the next great step, nothing less than a showcase for the future of competitive surfing: “a prototype event for a prototype wave,” as announcer Joe Turpel incessantly reminded the crowd. Six months after Slater’s video dropped, the WSL purchased a controlling stake in the Kelly Slater Wave Company, the corporate vehicle behind the wave pool. Three months later, the International Olympic Committee unanimously approved adding surfing to the roster of sports for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The IOC has confirmed that, at least for 2020, wave pools will not be used, and that the surfing competition will take place at the beach breaks of the Chiba Prefecture southeast. But national teams are already booking the facility for training, with the Australians headed there next month.

Slater and the WSL deliberately chose not to frame the Founders’ Cup and the wave pool as a replacement for “ocean surfing,” a phrase that until this month had seemed about as semantically necessary as “snow skiing.” And yet in almost the same breath, Slater said that he had modeled the wave pool on the ultimate symbol of surfing discovery: Cape St. Francis, the supposedly perfect wave that Bruce Brown, Robert August and Mike Hynson unveiled in the original “Endless Summer.”

“A bit bigger. And going over and over,” Slater said of the difference between the two.

Pool of dreams

Fans mostly ignored bleachers set up for the event in favor of crowding along the west wall, the Surf Ranch equivalent of a ring-side seat.

Wave pools have been around for decades, and even the idea of a contest in one is not new. In 1985, the Inland World Surfing Championships pitted legends like Mark Richards and Tom Curren in a contest at Dorney Park’s Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Penn.

“This is exactly what I had envisioned when I scheduled the Allentown event, only the waves weren’t quite as good,” said Ian Cairns, a former president of the ASP.

The Allentown event was a notorious bust, but in recent years rapid technological progress has led to a kind of wave pool arms race. In the summer of 2015, several months before Slater debuted his wave, Surf Snowdonia, a wave pool in the United Kingdom, held what was then the most high-performance contest on an artificial wave. The wave had a broad open face for maneuvers, but lacked the deep barrels the Surf Ranch would display. Days after the Founders’ Cup concluded, American Wave Machines, a company founded by Manhattan Beach native Bruce McFarland, released a video edit of pro surfers tackling a wave pool in Waco, Texas that produced airs and barrels that some compared to the Surf Ranch.

McFarland’s technology could have ended up in the South Bay. In 2012, then-Body Glove president Robbie Meistrell pitched the Redondo Beach City Council on opening a wave pool in Seaside Lagoon. The pool would use technology from American Wave Machines, where Meistrell served as chairman of the board. The council seemed enthusiastic, but the idea went nowhere.  Slater said that he decided to locate the pool in Lemoore in part because of the cheap land, and because the absence of surfers in the area would allow him to develop the project in secret.

Slater’s wave was the product of a collaboration with Adam Fincham, a professor of engineering at USC. Fincham, a surfer himself, studied how waves develop and interact with structures and surfaces. His initial design called for donut-shaped pool in which a surfer could ride an unending wave that rotated around a central axis.

In its current form, the Surf Ranch generates its wave by pulling a hydrofoil, which weighs more than 100 tons, in a straight line. The submerged hydrofoil is attached to a blue, train-like structure that moves along the east edge of the pool. The train is pulled by overhead cables, and produces a left-breaking wave when it moves south, and a right when heading north. The cable is routed at each end through a boxy, gray structure that resembles a gondola boarding area at a ski lodge. The drag of the hydrofoil produces a perfectly shaped wave that varies between barrel and maneuver sections, based on the variations of the surface underneath. According to the WSL, the machine’s settings can be adjusted to produce more than 50 different waves.

The WSL’s constant messaging about the revolutionary nature of the event and the technology made it easy to miss some of the small wonders unfolding all over. Jumbotrons mounted on scaffolding gave announcers the chance to play John Madden and diagram maneuvers. Although the event was a sell-out, stands at the north end went mostly unused as thousands of fans crowded along the 700-yard west edge of the pool, where they had a far closer view of professional surfing than they have ever gotten.

Gary Feinstein, a photographer who started his career with an internship at the Daily Breeze, was shooting pictures on the first day of the contest for the Hanford Sentinel, a Central Valley newspaper where he has worked for more than 30 years. Feinstein said that the Surf Ranch, which sits on land that once held a seldom-used water skiing park, had transformed the area.

“It brings in tons of business. The Indian casino down the highway is sold out,” Feinstein said of the Tachi Palace, where competitors were staying. “The Hanford Airport has had to put in extra runway space for Lear jets.”

Andy Vidak, who represents the area in the California state senate, appeared at the Surf Ranch the day before the contest. Vidak, a Republican who owns a cherry farm about seven miles from the facility, wore a cowboy hat as he presented WSL leadership with a certificate of commendation. He touted the way the event let men and women compete on the same stage, and its environmental credentials. (The Surf Ranch participates in PG&E’s Solar Choice Program, which allows customers to receive as much as 100 percent of their power from solar energy.)

The pool’s location in the Central Valley means that many of those who make it work are not surfers. Event security, many of whom were working the event to raise money for the football team at nearby Reedley College, seemed unfazed as world class athletes drifted by. An employee of the surf ranch, who was tinkering with some of the audio-visual equipment the day before the contest started, told me that they recently let some of the facility’s full-time staff give the wave a try, with a coach there to give them pointers. It was his first time surfing.

“About the fourth or fifth wave, I stood up and rode it,”  the employee said. “They dialed it down a bit for us.”

Ocean-minded

Stephanie Gilmore, captain of team Australia, nabbed some of the deepest barrels of the event.

Armed with Slater’s wave technology, the WSL plans to bring surfing to a broader audience and stoke to the land-locked masses. “This is probably the biggest game changer the sport of surfing has ever seen,” WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt said of the Founders Cup the day before heats kicked off.

Goldschmidt came to the WSL after a career spent in other professional sports leagues, including the Rugby Football Union and the NBA. She recounted the experience of trying to get friends from the sports business to tune in to the webcasts of WSL events, and how the vagaries of swell and wind and tide made this difficult. The event will be on at some point in this 12-day period; just keep checking in at 7:30 a.m. local time, which may be in the middle of the night where you live, she said, tongue firmly in cheek. “Now, you can say, ‘At 8:02 a.m., a world-class wave will be breaking.’”.

The reaction to the pool from those not in the employ of the WSL has been less adoring. In May 2016 surf historian Matt Warshaw wrote, “I need to recheck my calculations, but Kelly’s wave pool makes surfing 75 percent less interesting. It turns surfers into gymnasts.” Of course, many of those who lamented the wave pool as surfing’s equivalent to opening Pandora’s Box also acknowledged they would be unable to resist the chance to surf it. After Warshaw joined a select crew of surf journalists to tackle the wave, he told the online surf publication BeachGrit, “I would have opened a vein for another dozen waves.”

The back-and-forth on the subject is rooted in the peculiar relationship between surfing and surfing contests. Debates about whether it’s even correct to call surfing a “sport” have been around longer than fiberglass. But whichever side one stood on, the discussion was always rather idle. Despite surging popularity in recent years, surfing remains a backwater, more notable for its mystique than actual interest in watching it. (A seven-minute, ride-free clip of surfer Mick Fanning landing a blow on a great white shark’s nose and furiously thrashing to safety during the finals of a contest in Jeffrey’s Bay South Africa is the most widely streamed WSL video on the internet, racking up more views than any competition by orders of magnitude.)

This can be hard to imagine after a morning of near-combat in the El Porto parking lot, but the truest measure of surfing has always been depth, not breadth — what writer William Finnegan calls its “disabling enchantment.” Finnegan, a staff writer at The New Yorker whose surfing memoir “Barbarian Days” won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016, writes of the way the pursuit of waves can make adherents skip work and neglect relationships.

This obsession does not disappear even when surfing becomes a career. In an appearance at Pages Bookstore in Manhattan Beach in support of “Barbarian Days,” Finnegan pointed out that competitors at the Pipeline Masters — the most prestigious event in surfing, and the concluding contest of the competitive calendar that sometimes decides the winner of the world title — will often get back in the ocean shortly after closing ceremonies if the waves are good. It seems ridiculous to imagine the winners of the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup heading back to the field or rink. And as the final scores of the Founders’ Cup were announced and fans streamed for the exit, many of them apparently indifferent to the closing ceremony, the pool sat idle, and it struck me how odd, even inappropriate, it would be for a competitor to try to ride another wave after a contest at the Surf Ranch had concluded.

Although prolonged watching of the Founders’ Cup could be numbingly repetitive, it finished with as much drama as possible, coming down to the final wave of Slater himself. He threaded several barrels, but fell on a finishing air, and Team U.S.A. came up just short. Even doubters would have to acknowledge the excitement that awaited the final lurch of that hydrofoil. The sense of it-all-comes-down-to-this made it feel more like the final possession of a March Madness game than a surfing contest.

Mission Accomplished? Slater and the WSL have undoubtedly created something special, but it is probably not the best way to evangelize for the magic of surfing. Stephanie Gilmore, the captain of the Australian Team who has nabbed some the Surf Ranch’s deepest barrels, said that the wave could actually have the paradoxical effect of making surfers more conservative. At least until the technology is more widespread, perfection will remain something to seek out.

“The feeling of falling off this wave and seeing it run down the line without you on it is so heartbreaking,” Gilmore said. Her face pinched slightly as she said it.  “Which is so funny because you know there’s going to be another one just like it. But I just couldn’t live with myself if I let too many go.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Sophie Goldschmidt became CEO of the WSL the same week that Mick Fanning was attacked by a shark during a 2015 contest at Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa. In fact, her hiring was announced in 2017, around the time a shark sighting at Jeffrey’s Bay (with no attack) caused a brief delay in that year’s contest. 

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