Stephanie Gilmore
Stephanie Gilmore, million-watt smille.

Live from Surf Ranch: “We don’t have a language for this!”

Final day reflections on surfing's Brave New World…

I’m standing in front of the stage, waiting for the awards ceremony. A perky song plays over the loudspeakers. Steph Gilmore dances in place with a million-watt smile. Though some people have left for the day, there’s a solid crowd gathered. Hay bales covered with beach blankets serve as seating. I’m waiting for Kelly. So was everyone else. 

Free of my cameras’ weight, and the need set up specific positions, I’d wandered more widely today. It was hotter than Saturday, even with the breeze. The left had an onshore. I’m not even sure if that’s how we’re supposed to describe it now. But it was onshore. The wind gave the right a slight texture that wasn’t quite a true offshore.

When construction started on the Surf Ranch, he’d thought they were building a wave to boogie board. Maybe $10 for the day. The reality was a long way from what he’d imagined and he was having fun.

We don’t have a language for all of this just yet.

I talked to Jonathan, a mechanic from the local navy base. He works on the F-18’s that occasionally overflew the lineup. A friend lived a mile or so away from the Surf Ranch in Lemoore and they’d wondered what was behind the fence. By the time he bought his ticket, only Sunday was available. When construction started on the Surf Ranch, he’d thought they were building a wave to boogie board. Maybe $10 for the day. The reality was a long way from what he’d imagined and he was having fun. 

After the morning round, I lost the plot and had to reread the format. I confess, I had a hard time keeping it in my head. During Brazil’s final round, I stood near the team area, designated for athletes and staff to watch the event. They were pure joy. They sang and clapped. Then they sang some more. I decided that I wanted to be Brazilian when I grow up. They made me care desperately about the outcome. I enjoyed the feeling. 

The most popular viewing spot by far was the middle of the pool, where you could see turns on both the left and the right. The low-growing trees that run at intervals along the pool’s edge were also almost certainly a draw. Lots of people brought beach chairs and lounged comfortably. They had the right idea. 

I ran into one of my neighbors from Santa Barbara. He’s Australian and was there with a crew. He likes parties and surfing, and figured why not come out for a chance to combine the two. I ran into them in the VIP zone, but they said they’d walked, like, six miles on Saturday to see every angle. You and me both. 

O’Neill. A surf shop. Another surf shop. Hurley. I read the t-shirts as I walk down the line. Most of the men are in boardshorts. The women are in cute dresses or cut-off shorts. The crowd who buys tickets to surf contests plainly also buys surf t-shirts and boardshorts. There, I did your market research for you. 

I stand in a knot of fans under the trees. Someone surfs by on the right and enters the barrel. A grom watches avidly. “That’s the only part of it I care about,” he tells his friends. He’s already well-traveled. He’s wearing a shirt from a surf shop in Panama. 

I watched Toledo’s last two waves near a group of Brazilian fans. They chanted his name rhythmically. When he fell, they were devastated. 

By Sunday afternoon, sunburn had reached epidemic levels. In the VIP area, there were Sun Bum bottles on the tables. This is the kind of brand giveaway I especially appreciate. Useful, relevant, well-played Sun Bum, well-played.

A thoroughly sunned-out crew from Santa Cruz held down a space near the start of the right. They wore boardshorts from assorted brands, extensive tattoos, and not much else. One wore a Trump hat, another wore two pairs of sunglasses. They waved an American flag with vigor and animation. When the time came for Kelly’s final waves, they heckled good-naturedly, entirely without malice. 

As Kelly surfed his final wave, I sat in the crowd, who reacted to each and every turn. At the end of the right, he went up for a final air. The crowd went with him. They wanted him to win so badly. When he fell, there was a collective groan. No. He couldn’t possibly have missed it. He’s Slater. He always wins. Not always, not this time. 

I watch the awards ceremony. I check my voice recorder. I read my notes one more time. I’m brought past security and through the fencing behind the stage. I wait where they tell me to wait. The waiting is sometimes the hardest part of this job. You have to stay there. You can’t lose sight of your mark. So you wait. I’ve learned eventually the art of patience and the ability to stand in exactly the same place for as long as it takes. 

Slater’s mom is behind the stage wearing an orange shirt with matching lipstick. She chats cheerfully with his publicist. She’s wearing a necklace with a VW bus charm that’s painted with bright-colored flowers. Slater comes over after the awards are complete and the warmth of their relationship glows amidst the chainlink fencing, the dust, and the security guards. 

Slater is pulled away for a quick interview. And then for a photo. Then he disappears into a tent. Still, I wait in the same spot, my feet barely budging at all. 

And then he’s done. It’s time to move. I’m to follow him as we walk from the secure area behind the stage to the Outerknown booth where he’s due to do a signing. It’s not much more than 20 feet, maybe less. The security guard shifts position. We walk into bedlam. 

When Lance Armstrong used to pass through crowds, he’d walk fast, head down, without making eye contact. He was like a ghost, passing through the world as though nothing existed around him. I’d guess the crowds registered with him, but he’d keep walking. 

Slater seems to know he should do it that way, but it also seems as though it’s hard for him to say no. I’m on his outside and I turn to look toward the crowd, to see it as he does. A wall of phones. Outstretched hands. Kelly, can you — 

I move ahead. I reach the booth just ahead of him and the crowd slams in. We’re in a fish bowl. They watch avidly as I ask my questions. Slater loves talking about surfing, but our time is limited. I ignore our surroundings. A videographer moves in close. I hope my my face is clean. 

I tell him about the grom, the one who was so stoked on the barrels. Kelly’s whole face lights up. It’s like I’ve brought him a gift. It matters to him that people like him, I think. I feel like it’s the least I can do. After all, I’m just one more person asking for a piece of him. 

We finish talking and I stand for a moment just off his right shoulder. The crowd pushes closer. Phones up. Hands reaching. 

I walk out of the light, grateful to escape. 

team world founders cup
Team World, led by Jordy Smith, with pool co-creator and US captain Kelly Slater.

Founders’ Cup: “Team World for Win! Yay!”

Down with nationalism. Good for nothing nationalism. A poke in the eye to fascist thugs.  

“How you like me now, eh?” said the Founders’ Cup wavepool comp to the World. Mild entertainment, world-historical event or one more salvo in the propaganda war for the soul of surfing?

Who to believe?

Marcus Sanders writing for Surfline boldly declared that he wasn’t bored. Thirteen out of the seventeen comments below the Facebook posting said they were bored shitless. The Guardian Australia reprinted the almost panic-stricken breathlessness of the WSL presser as a feature in the online sports section. Below-the-line commentators, almost to an anonymous man, woman and child decried the pool as sterile, predictable and  “an incredible and irresponsible waste of energy, water, money and human ingenuity.”

Hacks and ex-hacks elbowed themselves out of the way on the ageing ex-hacks social media of choice Facebook to stridently declare their love for the newly arrived Future of Surfing and decry anyone who thought otherwise as angry,  reactionary, ageing golfers. It was all so very peculiar and hotly contested. 

More contested than the actual contest, at least as far as the last run of Round One went. Was that Run three? I haven’t got the terminology on lock yet. Any hopes that performance levels might elevate after yesterday’s opening day, with it’s expected jitters and allowances made (why make allowances for professional athletes?), were dashed as first Team Australia choked and then Team America, comfortably into the Finals Series produced a lackadaisical performance, mostly down to John Florence who again failed to fire. Kelly came up with two non makes. 

Bizarrely, no one looked fit enough. A recurring very naughty and transgressive thought kept intruding on my viewing pleasure: By God, PED’s would help light this thing up. I kept waiting for someone to launch a clean, distance covering functional air somewhere between the first and second barrel sections, so did Pottz, who boldly went off script to declare, “ I want to see something above the lip.”

Why? Because you are boring the tits off us*. 

Parko admitted, “The left I surfed so safe.”

It was his first make of the event. Futuristic surfing had morphed overnight into our oldest ally “mistake free surfing.”  Kaipo’s hair looked nice. It glistened in the morning sun. Don’t lie, you noticed it too.

Parko’s safety surfing inadvertently led to an unexpected highlight. A tie with Team World. Suddenly in front of the Michelob glass, the Commissioner showed up, looking very perky.

KP! I thought he was at home feeling sad and left out, watching on the telly box or commenting on Facey… probably not allowed… but there he was, explaining the surf-off. Two surfers one going left, one going right from each team. Best wave tally wins. Epic. If I could have, I would have reached through the screen and kissed him. 

Finally, the day, the event, started to fire up. Team World went first. Paige Hareb punched portholes in that insolently irresponsible sloppy and slopey left as she did all event. Jordy fired up and went ham on the right. He probably did an air on the end section, my notes are inconclusive. But it was a score. And a big juicy one. A big fat juicy score whacking Team Australia around the chops.

Wilko looked dizzy and and lightfooted, like a drunk man dreaming about treading on spiders. He fell.  That left Tyler Wright the impossible task of scoring more than 10. Again, she showcased the fact that the girls surfed it better than the men. Why? I don’t know. It was just a fact, one of the few uncontested ones of the whole event. 

And then we were into the finals. Cote was adamant that, “You’re not going to win by surfing safe”, ignoring two days of competition that proved otherwise. In the midst of a lingering camera shot over a half-empty bleacher he declared the event “absolutely sold out!”

Fine, people can choose their own facts these days. 

Medina was magnificent in Heat 1… he smoked that tub up like a pound of weed in the Wu-Tang den. Bourez fell on both. John just looked woebegone trying an air on the back section. Even an ageing hack like me could see that was not the spot for an air. It was between the first and second tube sections. His numbers were terrible. He did not click with the tub. At all, despite the Hail Mary air which won the Quik Big Air comp (another job for KP!). Next Founders I suggest subbing Keanu Asing in for Florence. He would murder that chubby little left. 

All of a sudden, the end game revealed itself to me. It was blatantly obvious, of course. Slater had engineered a dramatic home run in the bottom of the ninth scenario for himself as anchor and last surfer for Team USA. With the points stacked for Heats 4 and 5 it was almost impossible, despite John Florence choking, to not have everything, the glory of domination in his own Creation in front of the baying crowd to play for. 

I started feeling incredible anxiety at this point. Was there an interventionist God, the God of Sunday school? It was a long way back, but I started praying. No, please no. Don’t let him win. 

Lakey got the two points for USA in Heat 2, Kanoa blitzed for Team World in Heat 3. Carissa and Silvana were insane in Heat 4 with Silvana just getting the nod after maybe the first totally legit tube-ride of the event.

It was working! I was sucked in, helpless as a dribbling dementia patient. The tub had me by the the short and curlies. 

The Final Heat was upon us. Everything in play. Jordy started. And crushed. He was the Wagnerian imperious lord prophesied by D.Rielly. Yeah, his lofted alley oop was on the end section but it was a pressure move and he pulled it. 

Kelly will pull out of Rio citing injury. He’s playing the WSL and sports fans for fools. Almost thirty years of rabid support and he won’t show his face now unless the fans pay for the privilege? Do not dig.

Unlike Filipe, who couldn’t stay stuck and once again made the wrong read on the outside section. If Team Coaches are reading, do the big air between the first and section tube sections. Not before the first tube section. You’re welcome. 

I felt so guilty for hating on Kelly so much at that point. Why? For one, because his hoof was obviously fine. He jogged back the whole way bathing himself in applause from his captives, sorry fans. And he’ll pull out of Rio citing injury. He’s playing the WSL and sports fans for fools. Almost thirty years of rabid support and he won’t show his face now unless the fans pay for the privilege? Do not dig. With the pressure maxing out Kelly did what he has always done, cranked up the Kelly factor to 11 and tried to manufacture a score. He did eleventy million weird foam climbs on the left for an eight. 

Last wave Kelly, whaddya got? Seriously, what have you got? It was a moment of genuine drama, even if highly scripted.I can’t even describe his Final Wave, the final wave of the Founder’s Cup. It was weird, it was wonderful, it was manufactured. It was quintessential Kelly. It was not enough. 

Team World for the win. Yay! Down with nationalism. Good for nothing nationalism. A poke in the eye to fascist thugs.  

The court of public opinion finds the defendant – Kelly Slater Wave Ranch – on the charge of failing to live up to the hype of promised progression in performance… Guilty. 

On the matter of whether this is the Future of Pro surfing the jury is unable to reach a verdict. 

*My thoughts not 1989 World Champ Martin Potter’s.

Kelly Slater Surf Ranch
Kelly Slater stands in waist-deep water waiting for a three hundred metre long ride, with ten-second tube. Insane, yes?

Opinion: “The beachbreak contest is dead!”

Goodbye Rio, Portugal, France and Snapper!

At some point this afternoon and tomorrow morning, the world’s best surfers (with the exception of the still-gravely wounded Kelly Slater) will split Lemoore for the four-hour drive or one hour PJ flight to LAX.

From there, it’s fourteen-and-a-half hours via Sao Paulo or Miami to Rio and an hour’s drive to Saquarema for a contest in a wave vastly inferior to the one they’d just travelled six thousand miles from.

Three turns in shifty, shitty beachbreaks will win heats compared to seven hits, an eight-second tube and an upside-down air. Days will go by with no surfing. Some days will run only half a round, others three. Viewers will come and go, mostly the latter.


Despite the sudden blackouts when the machine, covered by an electric blue shroud, didn’t work, the Founders’ Cup has slaughtered the dragon of these rambling inconsistent events in atrocious waves.

Pro surfing, in beachbreaks, is dead.

How can it be anything else?

I slept through most of the first day of the Founders’ Cup and woke to Filipe’s confected ten. I said so in an email to Matt Warshaw who replied, “And we’ve ruined the tuberide.”

As Longtom said in his piece yesterday, “I thought it not possible to score the tube. How could they? When you know it is coming you are basically scoring people for crouching down. They scored the tube.”

Hardly ringing endorsements from surfing’s sharpest minds.

But I know how easy it is to be on the wrong side of history.

To wit,

“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.” — President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company.

“Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” — Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox.

“Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems.” — Marty Cooper, inventor.

“Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cell phone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.'” — David Pogue, The New York Times.

This was the first public reveal of Surf Ranch. And it was television perfect.

In and out in two days. Energetic. Decisive.

Compare and contrast to the drudgery of two weeks in Rio, in Portugal, in France, even Snapper.

In three years, maybe less, we’ll wonder how we ever persisted with those two-week waiting periods just to see surfers struggle with imperfectly calibrated waves.

Soon, a tour will exist and it will be Pools and Reefs, for nothing can replace the insanity of Teahupoo or Pipeline.

But, beachbreaks? They will be gassed.

Strider Wasilewski (pictured) at Surfer Poll.
Strider Wasilewski (pictured) at Surfer Poll.

Rebel: Strider flaunts “offensive” WSL law!

Is Strider Wasilewski our leader?

Yesterday was, in my opinion, BeachGrit’s best day. Jen See and Longtom combined to paint a complete and utterly truthful picture of professional surfing circa May 5, 2018. Honest, nuanced, hope mingling with despair. I wonder if the World Surf League powers read and enjoyed? Or if they were too busy being very excited about what they had wrought?

Flipping through Instagram at the end of it all, it seemed that most of the people there were thrilled by the spectacle. Post after post after post praising Kelly and toasting the future. It made me wonder if it is something one must see live. To get all caught up in the Michelob Ultra buzz.

Michelob Ultra, speaking of, had very nice placement on the step-and-repeat in front of the pool. It is the only branding I can recall seeing during the few moments I watched. I didn’t see any surfers brazenly breaking the new WSL law that no posts should be sent into the social medias implying a product is associated with Surf Ranch. A selection from a leaked WSL email reads:

A useful rule of thumb is that if you look at a potential post and see a product in association with Surf Ranch imagery, or if you see a post at Surf Ranch and assume it is a paid advertisement or contractual commitment with a brand, it is likely to have crossed the line.

But I did see Strider Wasilewski go out of his way to place a water bottle featuring his wonderful skincare company Shade’s logo in a frame. I wonder if this was a dog whistle, as pundits like to call subtle nods to possibly darker factions. I wonder if Strider is quietly beginning the rebellion?

I would follow him. I would post all sorts of implied Surf Ranch endorsed products everywhere. Like Surf Ranch endorsed Cheetos and Surf Ranch endorsed Stella Artois in a can and Surf Ranch endorsed political positions (probably the inalienable human right to keep and bear arms).

I would follow Strider to the gates of hell/Lemoore with a face smeared in Shade.