By Stuart Kellermyer
After being glued to the Webcast of the Founder’s Cup surf competition at the WSL Surf Ranch all weekend I find myself conflicted by what I saw and heard concerning this incredible achievement in hydrodynamic technology. The wave looks amazing and I would give my right testicle to get a chance to spend the day surfing it. I am confident I am not alone in my yearning for the opportunity to do so. The surfing on display by the worlds best was on point as you would expect it to be, given the perfect canvas with which they were provided to perform their art. While in awe of the wave and the surfing being executed, continuingly hearing the commentators talk about this being “the future of surfing” gave me an uneasiness. There was so much of what I enjoy about surfing and surf contests missing.
On the competitive front, there were very important aspects absent from the contest. Not the least of which was “wave selection” being totally eliminated from the judging criteria. With every wave being nearly identical and every surfer getting an equal opportunity to display their skill it can be argued that it was a pure exhibition of wave riding. However, I missed seeing late take offs with the surfer spinning at the last moment, falling from the sky, barely making the drop, then setting an impossible line to grab the wave of the day. Instead I watched professionals standing beside their boards next to a marker identifying the takeoff spot watching the locomotive hydrofoil approach while gaining speed and then calmly stroke into the building wave. To see these powerfully built athletes put so little effort into catching the wave was unimpressive and uninspiring. I want to see the hassling for the first wave of the heat, the paddle battles for priority, and using of that priority to either thwart an attempt at a heat winning wave or to wait to use it for the come from behind victory. In short, I want to see competitive surfing. There was no strategy at play in the Founders Cup, no game plan. The WSL effectively turned chess into checkers.
In my years of surfing, riding the wave has never been my problem. I’ve always found to be the hard part being everything preceding the moment I get to my feet. What makes surfing difficult lies with identifying the lineup, positioning correctly as waves of varying size and speed approach from a variety of angles and then scratching with all your might to catch the wave. There is always a great sense of accomplishment to grabbing a wave no one thought you had a chance at catching or making an improbable drop. Even if you don’t surf the wave to its potential, there is great joy and pride in just catching it. The thrill of the chase is completely eliminated at the Surf Ranch. It is like going hunting at the zoo. Or going fishing at a salmon farm. You get to eat and you can say you caught or killed your meal but in truth it was served up for you and the capture of your quarry was just a self-congratulatory delusion.
In my opinion the greatest aspect of the sport is completely omitted from riding waves at the Surf Ranch. Surfing, to me, is all about nature. Being part of the natural world and all the glory and danger which that entails. There are no Dolphins cruising the lineup, or Pelicans in formation scouting for fish by gliding over the surface of an approaching wave. You will never see a single harbor seal or sea lion. There are no fish jumping or sea otters floating by, cracking clam shells on their chests. No whales breaching. I guess no wild life means no sharks, so there is that and other safety concerns no longer at issue. But being in the confines of this great triumph of human ingenuity removes any sense of humility or reverence for being apart of something greater than yourself. I personally enjoy being reminded how small we are by being carried by an energy developed half a world away and appreciate the reality and seriousness imposed by not being at the top of the food chain.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed the contest because I enjoy watching great surfing and it was near impossible for me to get any household chores done because there was a wave ridden every three minutes. If this is to be “the future of surfing”, as was repeated continually over the weekend webcast, then the fact that they were selling tickets, there were more commercial breaks than I have become accustom to when watching surf comps and it was broadcast live on TV, was not lost on me. The ultimate result of this technology is to further commodify wave riding by forsaking so much of what makes the experience of surfing great. Professional surfing will be commercial TV friendly. You can sell season passes for the privilege to stand in line for the opportunity to ride a word class wave. You can eliminate all the uncertainty of weather and swell. You can sanitize the experience so it is no longer an adventure sport, but just another weekend activity. Is that the “Future of the sport”? Is that what we want the future to be?
When I think about the future being inland surfers honing their skills in a wave tank then crowding my local spot, it gives me chills. An army of Rick Canes who can ride a board but have no knowledge of the ocean and no experience with the politics of a lineup descending on the beach is a recipe for disaster. Over confident hodads getting in the way, drowning or being swept out to sea by the car load.
I know there is no going back now, no closing Pandora’s Box. I just ask if this is the future we want because I’m not sure how I feel. It is possible that I am simply jealous that I won’t ever get to ride that wave, but it begs the question, that when the technology is shared or rather, sold, and there are waves like this popping up all over, will it still be surfing? Or will it just be wave riding because so many elements of surfing have been eliminated? Then again maybe it would be great if all the weekend warriors bought passes and headed inland to the comfort, reliability and safety of a man-made wave, leaving the uncertainty, hard work and danger of surfing to surfers.
Just as the weather radio was replaced by Surfline, there is no escaping technological advancement nor should we try. I guess I’m “Old School” because I still rely on buoy reports and know the optimal numbers for my favorite break. I can honestly state that if I was invited to surf at the Surf Ranch on a day when the swell was Northwest around 295 degrees and eight to ten feet at 14 seconds with east winds…I’d probably still go to the Surf Ranch. However, if I was asked to bust out my credit card for the privilege, there is no chance I would pass on that day at my local break.