The Surf Ranch. Photo: Glaser
The Surf Ranch. Photo: Glaser

The Day the Dorks Took Over

A day at Kelly Slater's Surf Ranch, according to a non-professional surfer

Am I late to the party here? What did I miss?

Sorry, but when the wave pool media embargo was lifted two days ago I was deep in the South Australian desert, a long way from the nearest functioning wave pool. I'm tapping this out from the passenger seat having taken a quick detour down the main street of Snowtown. We stopped outside the bank, of course, morbid curiosity and all.

But I digress.

As you might have heard, the dorks of the surf press got invited to surf the Lemoore wave pool back in November of last year. At the time I wasn't sure why. For weeks I imagined we were being gathered together, everyone who'd written something mildly disparaging about the wave pool, and that one of us would get sucked into the gears of the thing like Augustus Gloop as a warning to the others to stay on message.

Turns out, the WSL's Dave Prodan had engineered the whole thing. Partly, I think, because he knew it would be impossible for any of us to write an unkind word about the tube machine once we'd been brainwashed by it, and partly as a cold war thawing between the WSL and the surf press. The main reason, I realized, was made clear when Dave showed up on the day with his board and wetsuit.

Outside of the fine print on the NDAs and waivers, indemnifying the owners of the Surf Ranch in the event of a Gloop-style incident, the details of the visit were light. We boarded a plane from Sydney with little idea about who else was invited, how many waves we'd get, and whether Kelly would be there. All this we hypothesized at length on the road trip down from San Francisco--"we" being myself, Vaughan Blakey, and our Samoan attorney, Kim Sundell, who wasn't surfing but had come along to Lemoore for moral guidance, largely inside the adjacent Tachi Palace Casino.

We pulled into Lemoore at about 7 p.m. with our party already rendezvoused at a Mexican restaurant on the main street. A quick scan of the room revealed the SURFER guys--Todd Prodanovich, Grant Ellis and Pete Taras--Nick Carroll, Marcus Sanders, Chris Cote, Sal Masakela, Derek Rielly and Chas Smith from Beach Grit. It was the Star Wars bar of surf media and they were already celebrating their good fortune. These downtrodden ragtag survivors of the surf media apocalypse had finally been thrown a bone.

Dave Prodan was there, of course, as was Sophie Goldschmidt, the freshly-minted boss of the WSL who by simply being there had chalked up one more surf media engagement than her predecessor. I then started working out who wasn't there, and why. It turns out there was splinter group had formed and were headed to Lemoore the following week. Apparently the Stab and Inertia guys didn't want to surf with the Beach Grit guys, the result of some ongoing war over advertising or shoes or something.

We ate margaritas for dinner, too excited to stomach food of any kind. Tomorrow we'd surf the pool. As our Samoan attorney ran amok downstairs in the Tachi, we placed our heads on our pillows and dreamed of not fucking up our first waves the next morning.

The Ranch is only a 2-minute drive from the casino, both rising out of the cabbage and onion fields of Central Nowhere. The gates swung open and there it was, disappearing into fog. It looked a long, long way away. We suddenly all felt very small, huddled there in awe like the scared, awkward, little snot-nosed kids we were. One of the staff pointed out an Airstream van where Kelly apparently stays when he's in residence. "Kelly lives in there?" Asked one voice, breaking. "Wow."

Much of the bonhomie and swagger of the previous evening was, however, long gone and a quick survey of the room showed some washed out, anxious souls. It was a strange tension. This wasn't a pissing contest. No one wanted to win the day. The battle, instead, was being waged within. The perfect wave asked questions. Some masked nerves by playfully throwing shadow jabs at the others. Some ran straight for toilets, which were appointed with scented candles and orchids and would need a good clean by the end of the day. When they'd held the Future Classic last year with John and Gabby and Steph, I'd written that a truer test of the pool's potential to change surfing would be to send out some of the world's worst surfers, instead of its best.

And here we were.

We got drawn into groups of five and our group paddled out first. We had no idea what we were doing. We were briefed on everything we couldn't do--don't touch the fence, don't catch the wake, don't go snooping in the shed--but few of us knew what we actually had to do. Our surfing instincts weren't much use to as at this point. We got told to spread out the length of the tank, and if the guy falls, you go. Capisce?

Blakey was first up. His long limbs in a brown wetsuit put him somewhere between Mr. Hankey and a Tim Burton stop motion character. As he flew underneath me the first thing that struck me was the brown wetsuit. A terrible idea. The second thing that struck me was the volume of water getting shoved down the pool. The thing clanged and whirred as it was hauled down the track, and I could only imagine the juice it was draining as it did so. It's an industrial operation.

All the while, bobbing around out there waiting for your turn, the anxiety was swelling. Fortunately, someone fell just before me and without having time to think I swung and seagulled one half the length of the pool. The first thing that struck me was the proximity to the mesh fence. You felt you were about to surf through it and be cubed. The second thing was the bottom of the wave itself. There was none. Unlike ocean waves there was no water drawing back toward you, just a huge surge moving down the pool. The end result was a wave somewhere between Bells and Kirra that gave you no hint of what it was going to do. Until you worked out where the sections were, you surfed it blind.

Sitting at the top of the line at marker 31 was where the anxiety metastasized. There was nowhere to hide up there. Sitting nearby on the ski, Raimana sensed it. In a soothing Tahitian lilt he spoke: "Brother, just breeeathe." I breathed. The machine clanged to life and a second later a knee-high wave appeared. As it approached it stayed that size until the very last second when, trained by the contoured bottom, it reared to full height, capped, and swung back at the fence. At this point Raimana started screaming like his hair was on fire and continued to do so for the next 50 seconds.

"Go-go-go-go-go!"

"F&%**@^@&kkkk!"

The approaches differed, but the result was universal. Some surfed sparky and regretted falling, some surfed safe and regretted not doing anything, but by the time we came in at least the tension had melted away. It had been heavy; the only thing that could possibly have made it worse was if Kelly was there.

I walked back in and Sophie Goldschmidt was pointing a camera phone at me.

"It's Kelly. Anything you want to say to him?"

The pool won the first round, but things loosened up by the afternoon. Everyone got tubed. Everyone got a brace. Everyone appeared to be having the best day of their tiny lives, with the possible exception of Chas, who was by this stage nursing a broken wing. Cote won the day. Cote played it cool.

The highlight of the day for me though was the final wave.

Over the course of the day, as everyone else became more relaxed, Nick Carroll was getting progressively more intense. To be fair, unlike the rest of us buffoons, he was the only one who appeared to be doing any actual work, but this pool was really doing a number on him psychologically. Nick was in the deep end, and it was clear there was a Freudian unpacking of the whole experience going on inside his head. Blakey, meanwhile, was the Minister for Good Times who'd drunk beer at lunch and had double the wave count of anyone else. Late in the day a tinny voice announced over the PA they were calling time.

"One more wave."

That wave was Todd's. He was, however, going left and riding a tiny twin that had skipped out on him earlier in the day. I said to Nick, who was sitting strategically on the bowl section, that there might be a chance here. Todd took off and sure enough, as he got to the bowl section was shot in the knee by Chuck Norris and went down. Nick let out his trademark, "Ha!" and swung. He'd failed to notice, however, that Blakey had drifted down the pool and in a heartbeat had swung around and taken off. Nick roared like a stuck grizzly and it got worse for him. With Nick watching from above, Blakey went straight into an outrageous layback he had no chance of making. He fell just as he passed Nick, and the final wave of the day went through unridden.

By the time Nick had sullenly marched back, Blakey was already in the Jacuzzi with a beer. "Yeeeeeeeah Nick!" Nick was mumbling and I could only make out the words, "F–kin’ Blakey!" and "One more."

Everyone climbed into the Jacuzzi of Truth, beers were drunk and secrets divulged before we were ushered off the property, the gates locked and a double dose of chlorine thrown into the pool. Some left for LA. Some for San Fran. The Samoan attorney disappeared into the depths of the Tachi.

My pre-baked notion was that my conscientious objection to man playing god and creating his own surf would wash away with the first tube, and this turned out to more or less be the case. My primal surf brain won the day, but the days after were spent pondering what it all meant. (We drove the following day to Vegas where the contemplation ran deep on the 15th floor of the Venetian). The pool had, we concluded, flipped surfing on its head. In the wild you measure your surfing from the ground up. The waves you scored, the turns you did, the tubes you found. Everything is a gift. With a wave that's starting point is flawless, you measure from the top down. You subtract from perfect. The sections you blew, the tube you dodged, the wave Blakey stole from you.

Man doing what man does, I suppose.

I left there with a chlorine buzz, tinged with just a pang of regret. I, like Nick, just wanted one more. I suppose this was by design. I'm sure there's a threshold point where the buzz of riding this wave will diminish. What's the saying? No matter how hot she is, some guy, somewhere is tired of her shit? But after eight waves I wasn't quite at that threshold yet.

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