Tom Carroll, 1985

At the World Inland Surfing Championships in Allentown, Pennsylvania

Tom Carroll, on his way to defeating fellow Pipe Master Derek Ho in a wavepool in Pennsylvania. Photo: Robert Beck

Tom Carroll, on his way to defeating fellow Pipe Master Derek Ho in a wavepool in Pennsylvania. Photo: Robert Beck

Finals day of the World Inland Surfing Championships, a fully rated World Tour event held at Wildwater Kingdom amusement park, Allentown, Pennsylvania. Think of the strangest moment of your surfing life. Don't be shy. UFOs, talking sea turtles, double inverted rainbows—everything's welcome. Now multiply that by 10, stay awake 48 hours, drop a hit of mescaline, and you're still just barely touching the hem of the darkly comic four-day fever dream of weirdness that was the Allentown comp.

I was sitting in a chaise-lounge pool chair directly across from where this shot was taken. Hot as Hades. Dripping humidity. Each wave was a tissue-weak replica of the wave before it. Pulsing forth out of a long metal grill at the end of the pool, 15 to a set, one wave every 2.5 seconds. Then a two-minute pause, then another 15 waves. Each competitor sat and bobbed over the little out-flushing swells, counting down, waiting, on the totally unproven belief that the 15th and final wave of the sequence was somehow better than the previous 14. Everybody rode exactly 10 waves per heat. They took turns. Went frontside only. Two-paddle takeoff, a quick hit off the top, a second weaker hit, then grovel toward the shallow end. That was it; no other performance options were available. No, wait a second. A back-seed goofyfooter from Florida named Scott McCranels added distance by pulling himself hand over hand along the coping until his fins scraped concrete.

A mile or two behind the pool, good Amish men with rolled-up sleeves and full beards were making furniture, plowing, threshing, raising barns, and in general behaving in a way so completely opposite of the breathtaking silliness before me that the contrast could be seen from outer space.

Locals had ventured out to watch the contest earlier in the week. At one point during the early rounds there were 500 or so Allentonians gathered around the pool. By finals day, though, the novelty was gone. Kids were lining up for the nearby Kamikaze Speed Plunge slide and crowding around the snack bar. But Tom Carroll here, in the last heat of the event, on his way to defeating fellow Pipe Master Derek Ho, was surfing in front of empty chairs.

Short of the power train exploding and taking out the cream of professional surfing (Tom Curren was there too—made the quarters), the World Inland Surfing Championships could not have been more of a bust. Sure, we laughed it off, even as it was taking place. But really the whole thing was sad and demeaning. Everybody lost.

Everybody except Frieda Zamba. To add a little mixed-gender flair to the contest, Zamba, the reigning women's world champ, was given a wildcard entry. She arrived a few days before the men. Suited up, jumped in the pool, rode a few—and caught the next plane back to Orlando.