John Florence, Kelly Slater's Wave Pool, Lemoore, CA. Photo: Glaser
John Florence, Kelly Slater's Wave Pool, Lemoore, CA. Photo: Glaser

The Doherty Report: What’s He Building in There?

A breakdown of what Kelly's Wave Pool event says about the future of surfing, and what our reactions say about us

Okay, so by now, thanks to a wave of curated and orchestrated social media leaks (vetted and not contravening the NDA), you know there was something going down today at Kelly's surf tank in Lemoore. I'm playing catch up on the clips now, having spent the morning surfing in the Broken Head open ocean wave pool, which didn't quite have the uniform quality of Kelly's, but wasn't without its thrills as someone appeared to have released a juvenile great white into it for shits and giggles.

Of course we've been Pavloving for weeks now at the prospect of this highly clandestine event going down, and imagined what it all might look like. Up till now, of course, we've only been drip-fed clips of the Kelly's Lemoore pool being surfed, edited tightly to the wave itself, and today we awaited—like the salivating surf voyeurs we are—for the curtain being drawn back and for all to be revealed. What's he been building in there, hammering away late at night? It's all been so secretive that Kelly could have been mastering cold fusion in Lemoore and we'd never have known.

Actually, we did get an early glimpse yesterday of the revamped, re-contoured, and re-juiced wave when a clip of Caio Ibelli "leaked." On the surface, the Brazilian seemed an odd choice to be the first leak until you realized that as the shortest surfer on Tour, he had the dramatic effect of making the wave look triple overhead. In the same clip we did see, for the first time, the mechanism that stirs the tank, what appears to be a repurposed Metrolink train thundering down the length of the pool, ruining the serenity of the experience while also potentially dragging any shoulder hoppers into the gears.

And then today happened. Maybe the only real surprise was that Kelly surfed. I thought his foot was still a bag of bones but the show couldn't go on without the ringmaster, and there he was, kick stalling into a 10-second tube like he owns it. As the clips leaked and surfers took to the wave for the first time it was hard to get a true gauge on the wave and it's potential. Most of them simply stood there in amazement as the thing barrelled all around them, while others safety turned like it was a Tour final, nobody wanting to be the one who fell. Phil Toledo at least took to the sky.

With some time in the tank they'll inevitably choreograph it to appropriate snowboarding in a half-pipe, but today it seemed the uniform canvas made the surfing more uniform if anything. Maybe a better test—and a PR win countering the criticisms that the whole thing was an exercise in elitism—would have been to have some of the world's worst surfers in there, hundreds of them. That might have been more entertaining, but I guess that will come in good time.

The whole day, as staged as it might have been, was deliberately underplayed. Kelly knows today will be historic, the grand unveiling of surfing's brave new world, so he didn't need to run a million dollar event or blow up a planet with it to prove its capability; he simply needed to have a pool party and invite some friends. Inviting a handful of pro surfing's founders as well infused a sense of history in the making (can we please get some clips of MR, Bugs and Shaun in the tank?).

The online reactions to today can be classified thusly: Everyone with a wristband today: "Mind blown!" Everyone with Kelly's number in their phone and a remote chance of one day getting a wristband: "Mind blown!" Anyone who's ever been tubed in the ocean and has no chance of ever wearing a wristband short of paying for one: "That was pretty sick, but I was bored after three waves."

I think the wave will only remain interesting if a) you are surfing it yourself, b) Filipe Toledo is surfing it, or c) someone is winning a gold medal in it. That's shaping up as the long game. Already, surfers and coaches at the top end with their eyes on Tokyo in 2020 are openly training for the Olympics to be held in a pool.

You may have sensed a gentle tone of cynicism through all of this, but my ideological objections to these chlorinated Death Stars run deep and pre-date Lemoore by a few years. Once surfing detaches from the ocean, the element of the unknown disappears, and a wave costs twenty bucks, for me it ceases to be surfing and becomes something else, a sterile simulacrum. But we all have our dreams and this is Kelly's. He's unashamedly had a vision for "big surfing" for decades now, and today we saw what big surfing might look like, dotting the landscape. Today was historic, undoubtedly, but for now we're not sure what side of history it will fall on.

[Ed’s Note: For a full wrap up of all the social media “leaks,” click here.]

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