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Beach Grit

Lewis Samuels: “It irked me rich fuckwits could own waves like that!”

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

The noted polemicist examines the implications of Surf Ranch!

Some years ago, five perhaps, I spent a night with the one-time most notorious surf writer in the world, Lewis Samuels, then in his late-thirties.
I fed Lewis pastry and crème patissiere straight from the spoon which he described as “gay”. Soon, his mouth was open and he was begging for the eclair, greedily rimming the spoon. He wore a red flannel shirt, some sort of oversized pants and rectangular spectacles usually worn by English women who search for romance in Kenya.
Yesterday, Lew had a story about the Slater-Fincham Surf Ranch published in the American edition of Esquire magazine. It is called “Can Kelly Slater’s ‘Perfect Wave’ Save Pro Surfing” and it is, as if it has to be said, a sharply written four-and-a-half-thousand words.
Earlier today, I engaged Lewis, who is now forty-one, married with two children and (still) works at the noted search engine Google, in a back and forth about the story and the pool.
Before you rode the pool, what was your take on the joint? 
Lewis: Seeing that reveal video for the first time was a “holy shit” moment for me, as it was for most surfers. I’m fairly obsessed with tubes, and I found the perfection of that lip line haunting. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to score tubes – making shitty, selfish decisions that often only eventuate in scant rewards, two-second head dips. So the idea that a lucky few could now go sit in a mechanical barrel for 30 seconds both horrified me and turned me on, and it horrified me that it turned me on. The roll of money in all of it bothered me too. Living in the Bay Area, a fair few people I know have gotten filthy rich, and I’ve consoled myself with the notion that I’ve gotten more barreled than they have. So it irked me that rich fuckwits could literally own waves like that now, available on demand. And a part of me wished I’d played my cards right and made fuck-you money, just so I could be the rich fuckwit with a left like that in my backyard.
The roll of money in all of it bothered me too. Living in the Bay Area, a fair few people I know have gotten filthy rich, and I’ve consoled myself with the notion that I’ve gotten more barreled than they have. So it irked me that rich fuckwits could literally own waves like that now, available on demand.
 
Did you have discussions with anyone about it? 
Who didn’t? For the last couple years it’s been Trump and the wavepool. What else is there to talk about? Because I know Kelly, people kept asking me if I was going to get to surf it. Then Esquire called and asked me if I wanted to do the article, almost two years ago, so there was plenty of time to talk about it while Esquire worked with Kelly’s PR team to get me in there. Luckily they’d built a left by then.
I do think that something is being subtracted from surfing simply by that wave being in existence. In the long run, we might get more out of it than it takes away. But we are losing something – it makes real waves feel less miraculous.

Now, and even reading between the lines in the story, I’m still not entirely sure how you…feel… about the pool. Are you a end of days kinda gal like Matt Warshaw, a goodbye-pro-contests-in-beachbreaks like me or somewhere in between? 

Honestly, I’m still not sure how I feel about it either, even after getting to surf it, and after discussing it ad nauseam with man, beast, and Slater. We live in polarized times, and it seems like most surfers either love or hate the idea of the Surf Ranch. I challenge the notion that I have to be in one camp or the other. It was fun as shit to get to surf it, and I’d love to get in enough days there to really dial in my surfing. But for most everyone it’s just something you watch other people do. I’m certainly not a purist to the extent that I think they’re better off holding the Olympics in Japanese beachbreak. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, I’d rather see them use the pool for the Olympics. But I’m still coming to terms with what it means for surfing, and for me. I know the WSL line is that wavepools are an addition, and they’re not meant to replace surfing as we know it. But I do think that something is being subtracted from surfing simply by that wave being in existence. In the long run, we might get more out of it than it takes away. But we are losing something – it makes real waves feel less miraculous.
 
You write of not knowing whether to feel free or stripped of your identity. Have you examined this thought further? 

Yeah, I feel a bit of both. It is freeing to be stripped of your identity. Have you ever talked to Warshaw about how happy he claims to be now that he quit surfing? For 25 years I’ve been really caught up with getting good waves and I’ve made myself miserable when I miss good waves. It really eats at me. And perhaps it’s better to let go of that identity, particularly now that the Surf Ranch barfs out 100 perfect barrels every day. Good surf means less to me than it used to, and I think that’s healthy.

 
I think it was Warshaw who told me Slater said you’d had enough after your long tube, which you describe as so easy all you had to do was hang on. Did it give you a thrill like an ocean tube? Was it a worthy facsimile of the sea?
Yeah, Slater told me to get out after that one. He felt certain I wasn’t going to do any better than that. And yes, it gave me that thrill like the real thing. Not all the waves are the same in the pool, and that wave was inexplicably better than the rest of the ones I caught. But part of the thrill was just the bizarre circumstances – Raimana and Kaiborg screaming at me from the jetski, Slater watching from the deck – it’s a lot of pressure surfing in the pool, and I was relieved to have gotten a lucky one and not blown it. Or maybe Slater was just sick of me surfing his wave, a sentiment I’m sure your gracious readers will be kind enough to voice in ensuing comments.
I felt compelled to cleanse myself in a wild, untamed ocean; be part of a natural environment again, seals, sharks and all.
Your story concludes, poetically, with you staring at the horizon. Tell me your thoughts as you watched the sun rise, a happy seal swishing about. 
Do I detect a dash of that brilliant, patented Rielly sarcasm in the wording of your question? It makes it difficult to provide an earnest answer. I doubt I was thinking about much. After leaving the Surf Ranch the previous night, I was running on fumes – a couple hours of sleep, more hours of driving, and a lot of expended adrenaline. I felt compelled to cleanse myself in a wild, untamed ocean; be part of a natural environment again, seals, sharks and all. Ironically enough, driving to the beach in the darkness that morning, I hit a deer with my car. It staggered off into the trees, leaving blood and tufts of fur in my mangled fender. I’ll never know whether it somehow survived, or simply wandered off into the night to die alone, felled by a machine it did not ask for or understand.