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We promise this won't (really) hurt.

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That Time We Surfed Kelly Slater's Wavepool

Author’s note: Media personnel were forced to sign NDAs before surfing the wavepool last November, but that embargo ended on January 31st, which is why you are only reading about this now.  

 

Bugs! Bugs are how you know you’re going to Kelly Slater’s wavepool. These bugs don’t even bite you (although they will), because you’re inside of a car and they’re out, but they still leave their mark. When your windshield is nearly 50 perfect of insect corpses, you know you’re getting close.  

Of course, this sort of observation can only be made after visiting a place twice. Were bugs to batter your windshield on a singular visit, it could be written off as a seasonal thing or a freak occurrence. But two times? That’s a pattern. A bloody, hard as hell to clean off your windshield pattern. So I can say with relative certainty that bugs on my windshield = a trip to Kelly Slater's wavepool.

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Did you know Kelly's Wave Ranch has a spot on Google Maps?

Photography Lyon Herron

But it’s hard to say if I was more or less excited to visit Lemoore this time around. The first time, of course, was when Morgan Williamson, Lyon Herron, Matt Kurvin and I snuck up to, and eventually walked inside of, Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch during its inaugural event last September. Because we were expressly prohibited from attending the event, that visit had an adventurous and slightly naughty flavor about it, which really added to the fun. We also ended up watching the contest from a cherry-picker and partying with Eddie Vedder, so in many respects that trip would be tough to beat. 

This trip, however, promised the one thing that our first could not -- an opportunity to actually surf the wavepool. And isn’t that really what it’s all about? After two years of watching, talking about, writing about and generally obsessing over this creation, we would finally have our chance to ride it. This was equal parts exciting and terrifying, and thank pete the Tachi Palace and Casino was there to calm my nerves in the night leading up to our Media Surf Day. 

The morning of:

Mine was one of the last cars into the Surf Ranch compound that morning, which meant I was relegated to the Adriano de Souza parking spot. Naturally, the spaces reserved for John Florence, Filipe Toledo, and Steph Gilmore were taken by the early arrivers, while spots named after Buchan, Lima, and de Souza were left for the laggards. Oh well.

My locker. Keep out.

I then unloaded my gear into the Ranch’s gorgeous locker-room and found myself surrounded by The Inertia, Surfer Mag, The Surfer's Journal and several surfing podcast producers. And as happy as I was to meet these folks, to puts names to faces but mostly faces to names, they weren’t the people I really wanted to speak with. Because in Lemoore, California, on this very day, was surfing’s one true historian -- Mr. Matt Warshaw. And considering the breadth and depth of Matt’s surfing knowledge, I was more than eager to hear his take on the wave. 

When I finally caught up with Warshaw, he was pulling a Slater Designs Omni off the locker room rack. 

“What, you didn’t bring any boards?” I asked him, only halfway serious. 

“Uhhhh, actually no,” he replied. “I’m starting to feel a little silly about it now, although I didn’t really have any boards to bring.”

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Pick your poison.

Warshaw then explained how he basically quit surfing seven years ago, primarily because, after 30-plus years of committing his life to the sport in a hyper-obsessive fashion, he figured it’d be nice to take a break. Plus, he’d already done just about everything he wanted to do in the sport, so the motivation just wasn’t what it used to be.   

In 2011 Warshaw sold or donated the majority surfboards, moved up to Seattle with his wife, and forced himself to stop looking at the surf forecast. This was difficult at first, but over time Warshaw adapted. “Nowadays I hardly feel a twinge of guilt when I miss good waves,” he told me. 

But the wavepool was different. This would be a truly novel experience, even for a guy who’s done and seen it all, which led Matt to fly alllll the way from Washington for just a few promised rides. All of which is to say: Warshaw was stoked. 

 

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Warshaw and Goggans patiently await the swell.

It was decided that Team Stab would be the first group in the water. Our squad, which consisted of Sam McIntosh, Ashton Goggans, Morgan Williamson, Shinya Dalby and myself, was anxious to say the least. 

In a pre-surf huddle, we concluded that Sam McIntosh should have the first go. He was the reason any of us were there, really, and seeing as how the first wave of the day was regarded as the cleanest and best, it only seemed fair that he should get it. I went on the back of the ski for that ride, both to witness and document the moment, which did not disappoint in the slightest. 

Yes, I genuinely thought Sam had fallen on account of being so deep. Also please excuse my yells, it was an emotional day.

Every surfer is guaranteed two waves per session -- one right and one left -- meaning that in a five person group, you’ll have eight opportunities beyond your two waves to pick of another person’s scraps, should they fall (and they will fall). And by some strange law of fate, there’s typically one guy per session who ends up catching way more waves than everybody else.  

In our session, that guy was Asshat Bonghands.  

That motherfucker caught six out of the ten total waves in our first session. Every time somebody fell, Ashton would just magically appear in the perfect spot to spot to snatch it, which became really annoying for the rest of us. I remember in one instance, before the next wave was set to arrive, I forced Ashton to switch spots with me because I was sure the next rider would fall right in that zone. I think you can guess what happened next.  

The rider, AKA Morgan, fell attempting a layback maneuver just as the wave passed me, leaving Ashton to catch what-should-have-been my wave a mere 50 feet down the line. Ugh. 

Adding to my frustration was that, as the last surfer in the queue, I had spent 40 minutes paddling aimlessly around the pool, catching nothing, and subsequently suffering from half-numb feet. When it was finally my turn to surf, I was sure that I’d fall on the drop or make some stupid mistake. It just seemed like that kind of day. But by the grace of Jah, I survived my first wave and even scored a little barrel. It was relieving to know I wouldn’t go home empty-handed. 

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Fun fact: Morgan wore his wetsuit for eight hours straight this day.

While the next group hit the water, I spent my hours soaking in the jacuzzi, exploring the wavepool grounds in a souped-up golf cart, and devouring their scrumptious breakfast parfaits. The Ranch was once described by What Youth founder and surfing purist, Travis Ferré, as surfing's Country Club. That a spot-on analysis in my opinion. But despite the Ranch’s luxurious nature, the whole place is really organic to its core, so you end up feeling less icky about the whole thing. It should also be said that the facility’s gorgeous exterior hides nothing but an impeccably engineered sporting arena. 

And I’d say that Sam McIntosh, more than anybody else I spoke to that day, was captivated by the pool’s design. 

“The sheer engineering and perfection of everything just blows my mind,” Sam told me, as we walked along the pool’s side wall, watching another group take their turn. "It’s the most extraordinary design -- the way the water funnels through these channels and comes up to the walls just so.”  

Sam McIntosh is a man who appreciates the finer things in life, but only when there’s substance beneath the beauty. For instance, his Porsche Cayenne may be pretty and fast, but it also offers ample space and security for his family of four. Extravagance and function, just like the wavepool.

Ummm.... yum.

Over lunch (which was fucking delicious, by the way) we were put into new groups, which was totally fine with me. Although I enjoyed surfing with my company-mates in the first session, they were also some of the best surfers at the pool, which meant they were less likely to fall, which meant I was less likely to catch any scraps. In the wave pool, you want to be paired with the worst surfers possible as to bolster your wave count. This is not so unlike ocean surfing, when you really think about it.  

Plus it was nice to get away from Ashton. That bastard. 

By sheer force of will I was able to convince my group that I should get the first wave of the session, despite being the youngest and least accomplished media member of the bunch. On top of getting that first-wave cleanness, the wavepool operator bumped the settings up from CT-2 to CT-1, which essentially made the wave steeper and faster than in our first session, all of which led to the longest, roundest tube I would get all day and then another great left on the way back. With those rides under my belt, I was able to surf the remainder of the session with a lightness of mind, body, and spirit. This may or may not have had something to do with the six total waves I caught. 

That’s right folks, I was the new Ashton. And damn did it feel good!

I spent the day’s final session, which featured Morgan, Shinya, Warshaw and a few others, on the back of the jetski. This is a heavy call, but I might have had just as much fun riding shotgun and filming my pals as I did surfing the waves myself. There’s something truly exciting about calling out sections and seeing others' stoked expressions after a good ride. Though he wasn’t there at the time, I could feel Raimana’s presence riding along with me.  

If I had to pick a highlight, it was probably watching Matt Warshaw get what he referred to as his “first barrel in seven years”. Not his best barrel; his first barrel in seven years. And considering how he rode the thing, with his clean shimmy-step and knock-kneed stance, you’d think the old man had just hopped off a plane from Salina Cruz.

Which made me think: Surf trips, even to somewhere as close as Mexico, are damn expensive. You have flights, board fees, transportation, accommodation, etc. etc., the sum of which will almost always cross the $2,000 threshold.  

But how much would it cost to get a wave at a for-profit version of Kelly Slater’s wavepool? 

After asking a few of the WSL staff, I was told that one wave costs between $10-18 dollars in energy costs alone. When you factor in the price of land (KS Wave co. allegedly paid $6.5 million for its 80-acre Florida lot), construction, machinery, staff, etc., and then you consider the number of waves they can actually produce (12 per hour), you start to realize that $50 or even $60 per wave would be a realistic number, cost/benefit-wise.  

However, it was also revealed that KS Waveco was considering new designs, like one where a single train could produce three consecutive waves, as opposed to just one. Ideas like this, or even something as (theoretically) simple as trimming the time between waves (currently: 5 mins) would help them both in terms of energy output and profitability. 

We also learned that between December 2017 and February 2018, the pool would be closed for “remodeling”. This means that the next time we see a wave break at the Ranch, it could be completely different from the one we rode last November. Crazy.

 

Name your surf media pencil pushers!

On my six-hour drive home, I had ample time to contemplate what this all meant, you know, in the grand scheme of things. As platoon after platoon of Lemoore’s Bug Army pinged against my windshield, I went into something of a trance, nearly crashing on multiple occasions but eventually realizing this:  

  • Wavepools are not the future of surfing, but they will play a major role in surfing’s future. 
  • In the coming years we’ll learn a lot about wavepools’ financial viability, along with their ability to attract non-coastal, non-endemic masses -- the results of which will greatly affect the broader culture of surfing. 
  • Above all else, wavepools are just really, really fun. I’d recommend the experience to anyone. 

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