"Without the chaos you’ve just got an aquatic gym."
I’ve become obsessed with the Surf Ranch.
The more you think about it the crazier it becomes. It is insane, and it’s making me insane.
Looking at the skateboarding analogy you can see why building a wave version an un-changing handrail assists the technical side of surfing: try the same air, the same turn, the same combo, over and over and over on the exact same section on the exact same wave, you get better at them. The logic is unquestionable.
But great surfing is not quantified by technical precision alone, it involves something less easily defined.
I need to stop right here to clarify that I am not heading in the turgid direction of claiming that surfing is fundamentally a spiritual exercise, of course not.
Most of the time it’s a selfish exercise for joy junkies who fiend after more and more and extreme self-gratification, as I’m sure we all know, is the very antithesis of enlightenment. That whole conversation is as absurd as it is tedious (unless it is being had by the old-timers like Alby Falzon who have genuinely earned the right to go there).
The tedium I am referring to can be attributed to people like, umm, Rasta, Rob Machado etc.
Whether it is in the front of our minds or not, when we are watching surfing in the ocean there are sub-conscious questions being asked before a surfer even gets to their feet: how did they end up in position to get that one?
How often does that spot get like that?
Is there another one behind it?
And if we extrapolate this line of questioning to its limit we arrive at the bigger picture, the elemental forces at play to produce a single wave and the complex systems that animate weather. Now we begin to appreciate that navigating a lineup so to be in the right place at the right time to get that one bomb is not just some trivial element of a surf comp.
It is the seed of the drama. The vital game that precedes the performance itself.
What you gain from the stasis of mechanical perfection and consistency is nullified by the predictability that environment produces, predictability being the enemy of excitement.
Lamenting the loss of nature as a feature in a surf comp is not just some good-vibrations esoteric peace protest. The ocean as a system, or as an arena to complete in, if you want to frame it in the hyperbolic sports-crazed language of the WSL, provides a dynamic chaos out of which unlikely perfect scores occasionally emerge. Without the chaos you’ve just got an aquatic gym.
And there’s another dimension to surfing in the actual ocean, one that specifically relates to competition, the relationships we know certain surfers have with certain waves, and how that affects the way we see them.
You watch footage of Andy or Bruce or any Hawaiian out Pipe or Backdoor and you get this kinda macho rush, not only are they the best out there but it’s their spot and they dominate it, and we all love that narrative, whether we admit it or not.
Or you see Steph Gilmore out Snapper and you have a similar feeling. It’s not necessarily the mastering of a wave but a situation in which a person has invested so much time and intention into a certain patch of ocean that they seem to be rewarded for it, and it’s a joy to witness.
Great surfing involves a level of earned intuition that is developed, knowingly or not, over years of reacting to the unpredictability of the ocean. Maybe that unpredictability is the very essence of our excitement, and not only the thing that fosters great surfing but ultimately defines it.
I can’t help but think of Andy. I’m thinking about any session he had out Cloudbreak, or even the year he won Bells out at that sketchy Johanna rip bowl doing airs where others were doing floaters and cutbacks, where others were hitting the lip or his backhand when he surfed that left shorey at Pine Trees in the Lost vids.
Andy’s unpredictability was not limited to what he did on a wave, it showed in how he caught them. Remember that Teahupoo one where he turned around late with Bruce calling him in and he free-fell into it? Or remember Bruce getting his leggy stuck on a rock when paddling out for that heat at Pipe to requalify?
Couldn’t happen at The Ranch.
Is there sand there?
Do they paddle out?
Those are moments that, try as they desperately may, the WSL could never dream of writing into the behind-the-scenes drama that they mistakenly think the tour needs. The anti-logic is incredible. The ocean itself has always provided us a limitless and unknowable script, one that is immune to human contrivance, and The Ranch just chucked it out for an exercise spectacle, and now it’s warming up for a sex sells reality TV show.
Think back to when pro surfing was still exciting, the 2003 Kelly and Andy showdown.
Kelly has just given Andy that weird pat on the back. They’ve paddled out.
It’s all over the place onshore six-foot Pipe.
You’re scanning the ocean, watching where each of them is, wondering when a waves gonna pop up and who’s gonna get it.
Andy gets the first wave. He’s late, catches an edge after the drop and falls.
A few minutes later, Kelly gets a wobbly cover up: three points.
Behind him, Andy drops into a hollow Backdoor one and comes out and whacks it then gets that novelty cover up: 8.33.
Later in the heat, Kelly gets an under-the-lip Pipe one then holds Andy off a lumpy Backdoor wave.
Andy still hasn’t found a back-up. The ocean is a wind-swept foamy mess. Parko gets a throaty Pipe barrel out of nowhere.
Phil Macca holds Andy off a Backdoor bomb.
Andy is left floating around with dying time and no way of knowing what exactly to do where exactly to be.
He paddles between peaks.
Finally, he finds one, but it closes out before he can do anything.
Behind him, Kelly rolls in at to a bowly Backdoor set, gets one solid turn then it races off and shuts down.
With minutes to go, Andy paddles into one that doesn’t look like much from the take off, but it grows, the first turn is solid, then he pulls up into a foamy cover up then comes out and get that last little floater.
In the dying minutes, Kelly snakes Andy for the best Backdoor set of the final. He pulls in, standing straight up, but it clamps.
The hooter blows and Andy wins his third world title.
Now, imagine if that Final was held at The Ranch.
Great surfing is about finding a line through chaos and watching great moments in surf comps is bearing witness to that pursuit.
Just because Kelly is going a little crazy from forty years of over-obsessing over the micro-details of his performance and has forgotten that there is a bigger story to surfing than the physics of each individual turn, doesn’t mean we should be subjected to watching great surfers master one man’s practice machine.
The only solution I can see is if winners of the Ranch come out and publicly reject its rise to prominence and petition for its removal.
(Editor’s note: Sam Rhodes is the editor of Acetone, “a magazine dedicated to keeping alive alternatives to the internet and computers.”