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No Embargo: Warshaw and Co on Surf Ranch!

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

"The fact that you can now put those waves on a credit card fucks with everything I love about surfing."

Earlier today, the non-disclosure agreements Chas Smith, Matt Warshaw and I signed with the WSL as part of a deal to surf the Slater-Fincham pool in November expired. These NDAs, which were signed at various points around the lavishly outfitted Surf Ranch on Jackson Avenue, Lemoore, mine as I swam in the jacuzzi with a topless Sal Masakela, promised swift and stiff punishment.

I was thrilled by the notion of not writing and shelved, in the literal and not the drugged, late-night sense, my notepad and pencil.

But, here we are, three months later and no embargo.

What have we got to say for ourselves?

As is the norm in these situations, with no notes and only a few snap shots to revive a memory, a little round-table ensued with me and Chas, who surfed the pool in the first media session on November 3 and Matt Warshaw, who enjoyed the considerable facilities a few weeks later.

DR: Matt, Chas, how did you find out about the invite and what was your mindset? 

Warshaw: Dave Prodan emailed me, and I gratefully accepted. I ran to the medicine cabinet to check our Ativan stash, then emailed my GP for a beta-blocker script. I was excited to a point of nausea. I’m such a fucking head case. I was going to lock in a 15-second tuberide. I was going to sit in the pool and barf into my lap and miss my wave. Both possibilities felt so real. Drugs, I figured, would put a floor beneath me. I kept the vial of beta-blockers on my desk for the next six weeks, and that was comforting. I didn’t surf once during that time. I bought a cheap skateboard from Amazon, and rode the schoolyard near my house on the days when it wasn’t raining.

Chas: I believe I was texting with Dave Prodan at the time and oh how I love him. If I recall I had just written something horrible about the Surf Ranch and my never ever ever wanting to surf it. He replied, “That will make the following offer a little awkward.” And I responded, “I thrive in the awkward!” I adore being proven wrong much more than being proven right. Who wants to be right? I was happy but mostly happy that Derek was invited too and hoping/dreaming/wishing Matt would be in our crew.

DR: I felt no such nerves, ironic considering what would follow. Weak two-foot rights are my bread and butter. My invitation came, first, via Chas, and then, as expected, in a text message from Dave Prodan. I remember walking outside and into a spring morning and feeling weak with joy. The next day I interviewed Matt Biolos on the subject of board design for wave pools with no other objective than to determine what surfboard to take. Now, tell me, first impressions of the joint.

Warshaw: The place was just about exactly how I pictured it. The huge wooden fence, the signage, the food spread, coffee urns, locker area, the whole medium-upscale country club feel. Part of me loved it. Zeroed right in on a locker, poured a coffee on top of my various sedatives. The first wave you see in person is shocking. Miraculous and surreal. The wave seems half-again bigger in person than it does on a computer screen, and it is of course every bit as perfect. But this is also where the experience gets complicated. You have no free agency. You can’t do shit at this point. You can’t jump in a pick off a couple of insiders. You can’t run down the beach and warm up at a different, lesser break. You just watch and wait your turn. The only goal I had was to not blow the takeoff—to not miss my wave, to not catch a rail dropping in. But the first ridden wave I saw, it was obvious that the takeoff is a chip shot, totally easy if you follow instructions—they tell you exactly where to sit, and when to paddle — so I just watched a couple more then went back in the lounge and zoned out. Not watching was better for my nerves.

DR: Talk to me about the size. The joint is bigger than anything I could’ve imagined. Seven hundred yards long! And that takeoff, that chip shot, I found overwhelmingly troublesome. The tense wait, the way the wave stands up and bulges like it’s going to throw and then backs off radically. Very…very…easy to miss. Gerry Lopez fell off on his first wave there. I’m not one for nerves, generally, but I felt like I’d blow a valve and, consequently, found it very hard to enjoy. 

Warshaw: No, the size was about what I expected. Although I thought the left was located in a separate pool running alongside the right. It was strange when I realized they just send the locomotive back down the track going the other direction. So if it’s your turn, you go right, wait four minutes, then go left back the way you came and end up where you started. I didn’t understand that until we arrived and I saw it in action. The whole day we were there, I don’t think anybody missed a wave or shanked a takeoff. Almost nobody made one all the way through, maybe one in 10 rides. But somehow we all had the takeoff figured out.

Watch DR’s first wave here. Commentary by Grant Ellis and Vaughan Blakey.

As far it being hard to enjoy, yeah, I don’t know how many sessions you’d need, how many waves you’d have to ride, before it became enjoyable. For me, anyway. But surfing was rarely enjoyable back when I did it a lot. I loved the intensity, the obsession, the whole huge never-ending project of it all. But no way have I ever plugged into a new spot and felt anything like joy during my first half-dozen waves. Which is how many waves I caught at the Surf Ranch. In the afternoon, on my second and final right, I managed a tube section, the first time I’ve been tubed in years, and that felt great. Then I came out, drifted high, and got pitched, and was furious with myself. So maybe five second of enjoyment, just before and during that little tube. But the overwhelming feeling with regard to the pool, the takeaway, was just . . . I need more! Tons more. I would have opened a vein for another dozen waves.

Watch Matt Warshaw here!

DR: …open a vein for more. How much would you pay for a dozen waves? 

Warshaw: We haven’t touched on deep-down existential crisis the Surf Ranch has thrown me into. In the surfing universe where I live, it is so profoundly wrong that you could buy waves of that caliber, at the date and time of your choosing. Perfect surf is something you dream about and aim for. You plot and steal and suffer, over years, decades, to get yourself in the of perfect surf. It should be more or less as difficult and rewarding as Buddhist enlightenment. Either that, or you get so lucky it’s like hitting the Lottery. Either way, we’re shaped and defined as surfers by the way we have or have not hit upon perfect waves. The fact that you can now put those waves on a credit card fucks with everything I love about surfing. But to answer your question . . . $1,350.00.

“Whereas surfing, real surfing, each wave is a conversation. Action and reaction. I love all the decision-making. How many choices for each ride? Beyond that, how many choices for each session? Where to surf, where to line up, who to surf with, sit inside, outside, down the beach, steal position from that guy, cold-shoulder the other guy, decide to get out after one more than change your mind. God I missed all that.” Matt Warshaw

Chas: First impression? Much more surreal than I thought it would be and also so well designed. The “Ranch” theme carried out very well from the lockers to the bathrooms to the picnic tables. I was stricken by the attention to detail around the pool itself.  Size, it was massive. Much more impressive in person than in video but also quintessentially American. Like a goldfish filling out its tank. Also quintessentially American in that it was, and felt like, a modern marvel. The pool, train, etc. all pointing to the mid-century aesthetic that man can conquer all through since.

DR: Matt, let’s talk a little bit more about your existential crisis. Does it really fuck with everything you love about surfing? And where did you get the $1350 figure? 

Warshaw: Yes. If for no other reason than we’re throwing the tuberide into the discount bin. Kooks will figure out how to ride the tube over the weekend. Ten-second barrels won’t even go into your scoreline at the Surf Ranch Open.

DR: And where did you get the $1350 figure? 

Warshaw: Cause I want to ride a few more tubes before I die, and I’m too old and lazy to chase ‘em down in the wild.

DR: How about you, Chas? 

Chas: I would pay 1200 for 12 waves. A hundred bucks a pop. Not necessarily because I love but because I think it is totally silly to imagine it is worth less. It was much more powerful than I expected. I thought it was going to be weak but that first wave I felt my fins were going to rip out of my board mid-face. Knowing what that damned wave is going to do, each and every time, was… rattling. I found myself pumping awkwardly down the line waiting for the barrel. That damned barrel.

DR: I was so overwhelmed by stress, and a terrible hangover, my mind wandered into some quite sinister places. Not the pools fault, I’ll add. You’ll like this story, Matt. I was suited up an hour before my session and thought a spell in the jacuzzi would cure my hot and cold flashes. I was seated next to Sal Masakela, a gorgeous man from a television show who was eating protein bar after protein bar. No wonder his physique was such. A few minutes before the sesh was about to start, as everyone lined up in the pool, my suit, which had been pulled around my waist, had somehow twisted itself into the neck gusset. The pool’s about to turn on and I can’t work out how to get my suit on! I’ve flown from Australia, I’ve drunk whiskey all night, I’m there, and I might miss my wave ‘cause of a wetsuit malfunction. Dave Prodan coolly pulled it up for me. Now. Question. How would you describe the wave and what wave in the ocean would you liken it to. I tell everyone it’s like three-foot Little Marley, at Rainbow.

Warshaw: The wave is smooth, fast, and incredibly easy to ride in that it doesn’t throw anything weird at you; no chops, no boils, no sections. For me, going left at the Surf Ranch was like small, speeded-up Macaronis. I rode my lefts all the way across, but way out in front of the lip, cause I can’t grab rail. The difference between the pool and Indonesia, in terms of how it feels — and this is pretty disconcerting — is that you only get maybe 15-yards-worth of information ahead of you. So you’re not reacting to the wave, you’re following a set of instructions in your head. “Don’t go high, don’t cut back, don’t tap the brakes.” There’s nothing instinctive or responsive about the ride. The whole thing in fact reminded me of skating pools when I was a kid. Pools are static. Each one is a puzzle that you figure out. Whereas surfing, real surfing, each wave is a conversation. Action and reaction. I love all the decision-making. How many choices for each ride? Beyond that, how many choices for each session? Where to surf, where to line up, who to surf with, sit inside, outside, down the beach, steal position from that guy, cold-shoulder the other guy, decide to get out after one more than change your mind. God I missed all that.

DR: How’s this park gonna make money? Did you do the mathematics in your head? …and…is it about making money? Or something else? 

Warshaw: I never think about the business part as much as I probably should. My only thought is that 98% of the world’s surfers want to ride Kelly’s wave. That wasn’t the case with the other pools. If they can’t figure out how to turn a profit this year, they will next year or the year after. The demand is too high. Olympics and money, in that order.

“The pool workers, who were all exceptional, talked about how they created a happiness Factory a la Willy Wonka. They were right about the Willy Wonka part but none of us are Charlie. We’re all Mike TV and Augustus Gloop. Horrible horrible gluttons. I suppose I’m ok with that now. It’s fine and the same as any other very good wave, more or less.” Chas Smith

Chas: It only works as a loss leader. As part of some bigger shopping/living development. As a stand alone pool the cost would have to be over 1k per person per hour with a four person per hour cap and that would be running with no real profit. But what do I know? We’re looking for bar gigs!

DR: One thing I noticed at the pool was that everyone felt they were …expected… to scream, Best Day Ever and wave their arms in the air etc, but the undercurrent was, maybe a little sadness. It was like a pack of johns who went to a men’s club, fucked everything, the gorgeous gals, active transgender dolls, kinky as anything, everything in the erotic ball park, better than anything you’d be fed at home, but were left with an emptiness. Did you feel? 

Warshaw: No, the analogy is off in two ways. At the Chicken Ranch you’d get everything you came for. Twice, maybe. Not true at the Surf Ranch, where I think you’d always be left wanting. Also, the day after whoring it up I’d be suicidal. Again not true for the pool. Afterwards I was just . . . deflated. The sport that made me is remaking itself at the most fundamental level. I accept that this is happening. Just as I would accept a return invitation to the Surf Ranch. But I’m nonetheless mourning the period—and surfing only has two periods, Before and After Kelly’s wave — where a 10-second barrel could change your life.

DR: Did you notice the lack of power at the base of the wave? That if you’re caught behind a section, even by half a foot, y’can’t get out in front? 

Warshaw: Nah, I found other ways to mess up. But what you say, yeah, I heard other people saying the same.

DR: And why does paid-sex make you suicidal? 

Warshaw: Everything good in life comes from my family. Including the plan ticket to Fresno to ride Surf Ranch.

DR: Happy y’went? 

Warshaw: Very happy I went, yes. Apart from the nerves beforehand, the overriding thought was that surfing hadn’t throw me anything really totally new for years, maybe decades. The Surf Ranch was a huge rush just for being so completely different than anything else I’ve done in surfing. I’m really grateful I got a chance to try it!

DR: Chas, you wrote that wavepools were terrible things before going. Did you change your mind, perhaps overwhelmingly change your mind? 

Chas: I said terrible: And now I am completely indifferent. I was massively depressed for a month after surfing it. The pool exposes your greed and weakness. The pool workers, who were all exceptional, talked about how they created a happiness Factory a la Willy Wonka. They were right about the Willy Wonka part but none of us are Charlie. We’re all Mike TV and Augustus Gloop. Horrible horrible gluttons. I suppose I’m ok with that now. It’s fine and the same as any other very good wave, more or less. But I’ll die happy never surfing one again. Fuck em.

And here’s Chas! (Shortly before dislocating his shoulder.)