Mixed reviews for World Surf League’s artificial wave event

Kelly Slater slides into the green room at the Surf Ranch Pro
Kelly Slater slides into the green room at the Surf Ranch Pro
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A little bit of surfing history was made last week when the World Surf League held its first ever inland event in the sleepy town of Lemoore, California – a place hitherto most famous, in sporting circles at least, for being the home of Tommie Smith, the sprinter who set a new 200m world record at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City before giving a Black Power salute during the medal ceremony. Unsurprisingly, Lemoore doesn’t have much of a reputation as a surf town – it is, after all, located approximately 100 miles east of the Pacific Ocean – but for a few surreal days in September it became the epicentre of the surfing universe, as the best waveriders on the planet descended for a contest like no other.

Developed in secret over a period of ten years by 11-time world surfing champ Kelly Slater, Lemoore is now home to the so-called Surf Ranch – an artificial surfing wave that can send fast, powerful, perfectly formed walls of water pinwheeling down an artificial lagoon for a distance of around 600 metres. It was first unveiled to the wider world in December 2015, when a video was released showing Slater reacting to seeing the wave break for the first time (giggling like a kid at Christmas) and then surfing it for the first time, ripping an impossible number of full-blooded, spray-flinging turns before getting barrelled – twice.

In the years that followed, Slater invited many of the world’s best surfers to come and try out his creation, and the internet was soon flooded with footage of these elite aquatic athletes, removed from the unpredictability of the ocean and instead revelling in the possibilities of a perfectly peeling wave that could be relied upon to do exactly the same thing over and over and over again.

Hopes were high, then, for the inaugural Surf Ranch Pro, but in the end the reviews have been decidedly mixed. In his report for Surfer Magazine, for example, Sean Doherty, sounded almost overcome with boredom. “By lunchtime on day four,” he complained, “the same wave was getting a little... similar... and anything to break it up was a relief.” This overexposure to perfect, predictable waves being ripped apart with godlike precision caused him to fantasise about a malfunction with the Surf Ranch machinery that would create “huge tsunami waves going in all directions, hot dog stands being washed away, things exploding, smoke everywhere, people running for their lives, a scene from a wavepool disaster movie.”

It’s a wonderful image, and it also goes right to the heart of the debate over contests like this one, although I’m not sure if Doherty necessarily meant it to. The thing that makes conventional surf contests so compelling is that you never know what the ocean’s going to throw up next. The rookie world tour surfer, trailing the world champ by nine points with only 30 seconds left in his heat, can suddenly find himself paddling into the wave of the day and a ten point score; similarly, the world champ, having scored a ten on his first wave, might only need one low-scoring wave to progress to the next round when the ocean decides to go flat for ten minutes, leaving him slapping the water in frustration as the clock ticks down.

Much has been made of the fact that the Surf Ranch Pro offers competitors a level playing field, and in an abstract sense it does. However, in a surf contest the ocean isn’t really a playing field at all – it isn’t a passive surface like a tennis court or a football pitch but an active participant in the drama, and to a large extent the surfers are competing against the ocean just as much as they are competing against each other. The footballing equivalent of the Surf Ranch Pro, then, might be a free kick competition between Messi and Ronaldo in which they take it in turns to bend the ball around an artificial wall and into an empty net; you’d marvel at the skill, but after a while one faultless free kick would start to look a lot like another.

Scotland, of course, looks set to get an artificial surfing wave of its own after the Wavegarden project at Ratho got the go-ahead earlier this year, and who knows – in a few years’ time it could be the venue for Scotland’s own inland surf contests. In the meantime, however, there’s plenty of the real thing to enjoy, starting with the Gathering of the Clans on the Isle of Tiree this weekend. Run by the Scottish Surfing Federation, the Clans is a team event, open to surf clubs from all over Scotland. The contest venue will be the stunning white sand beach at Balevullin – a place where, happily, every wave is reliably different.