And more fabulous observations from the Surf Ranch Pro…
I awaken too early from a strange dream. It’s too dark and too early. I drive to a nearby Starbucks, squinting against the orange glare of the sunrise. The air smells of cattle. I order two double espressos and drink them one after the other as I drive west on the 198 toward Lemoore.
I get off at the wrong exit. It can only get better.
Security wants to take my peanut butter sandwich. I look pathetic and sad and they let me keep it. I walk almost two kilometers before the thing ever begins. I probably walk five or six kilometers before it’s over. I hate shoes, but I wear them, grudgingly. Dust puffs and whorls.
The Surf Ranch remains an awkward venue. There’s simply no way around the 700-meter size of the pool. Security wants to take my peanut butter sandwich. I look pathetic and sad and they let me keep it. I walk almost two kilometers before the thing ever begins. I probably walk five or six kilometers before it’s over. I hate shoes, but I wear them, grudgingly. Dust puffs and whorls.
I’m there in time for the women’s start. This was my only goal for the morning. I wanted to see the women’s heat or session – or whatever we are calling this thing now. The crowd is sparse in the morning and I have my pick of vantage points. I head for my favorite, around mid-pool, along the side. I can watch much of the right and the first few turns of the left. And the turns I see, well, they’re right there in front of me.
Carissa and Lakey come out firing. Steph, less so. In person, the power of Carissa’s turns in the pool is emphatic. But still, I struggle to understand the scoring. Lakey’s barrel on the left looks amazing, but so do Steph’s on the right.
How is it possible to delineate a difference? The commentary keeps telling me how close I am to the action, but in truth, with the walls and the cement, it all feels farther away than it does at the beach.
The surfers look more similar than I expect. The pool seems to offer less space for style, that elusive, but essential element of good surfing. Or at least, of the kind of surfing that I like to watch. I remember how mesmerized I felt watching Steph surf J-Bay. I watched every heat that Steph surfed there. It wasn’t just her turns or maneuvers, the bits and pieces that add up to a good score from the judges. There was all that gorgeous space in between that makes Steph who she is.
Those distinctive elements that define each surfer’s style were harder for me to see on the man-made wave. I wonder if style derives less from the dialogue a surfer has with a perfect wave, than from how they finesse the imperfect and unexpected. And maybe those beautiful spaces in between come from the necessity of waiting for a natural wave to open up and show its true form. With the machine wave, there’s no need to wait. Its form is the same time after time.
I go in search of water and a bathroom and meet someone who is surprised to discover I’m a real person. I’m not sure what to say, but I nod and smile. I later learn that having a female alter ego is a thing among male surf writers. I nod and smile some more.
The women’s event ends. I had begun to get into the rhythm of it, to understand the narratives and storylines, and then quite suddenly, it was done. I go in search of water and a bathroom and meet someone who is surprised to discover I’m a real person. I’m not sure what to say, but I nod and smile. I later learn that having a female alter ego is a thing among male surf writers. I nod and smile some more.
Then I come around a corner and come face to face with Kelly. He’s riding a cargo bike with a rack and an electric assist motor. It’s the kind of thing you’d use to fetch groceries or run errands or carry a bunch of kids to school. Kelly’s cruising around the Surf Ranch on an electric bike. I am super jealous. I want to steal Kelly’s bike. He goes by me too quickly to tell him that I want his bike. I regret this more than I should.
There’s still time to kill before I can watch more surfing. I sit in the shade of the pool’s control tower and flip through my phone. Then I lie down. A cool breeze wafts over me. It’s the perfect spot for a nap. Life is so good right here under the control tower in the shade with the cool breeze. Maybe I’ll just stay right here.
The men’s session begins. There are moments when I understand it, when the Surf Ranch makes sense to me. I’m at mid-pool when Kanoa Igarashi drops improbably from his nose-pick air straight into the barrel. From where I’m standing, it happens almost in front of me and along the cement wall that lines the pool, the crowd comes to life.
Later, when Andino lands two airs on the right, I’m standing in a VIP area. There are shouts of disbelief. Can you believe that shit? Everywhere I go, the crowd seems to get it and to come to life when the surfing does. But the time in between. I don’t know what to do with the time in between.
I drink a watermelon aqua fresca. The food truck came from Los Angeles. Another from Corona (the place, not the beer) sells me avocado toast.
It’s mid-afternoon when I begin to crack. The heat begins to sink me and the stop-start rhythm of the competition has me struggling to stay with it. It reminds me of football, of how there are an orchestrated set of plays that unfold with the clock as the arbiter. I remember how football fails to hold my interest with its slow moving progress down the field and its near-endless replays.
I run into a friend from the coast. He wonders what we’re doing out here. I don’t have a good answer. We lean against the wall that doesn’t turn out to be a wall. I’m here to break the Surf Ranch, I joke. It’s as good an answer as any other.
Later we sit in the pool at the Tachi Palace and try to make sense of what we’d spent the day watching. So much of what we understand surfing to be is stripped away here. There’s no dolphins, no sand between our toes, no infinite blue. The wild, free essence of the thing is lost, rendered a ghost by the machine. And I’m not entirely sure I recognize what’s left.