Format Flips, Aerial Supremacy and Evolution.
The runs are complete, the spelunking done and the rumbling of the hydrofoil now just a reoccurring nightmare for those surfers who couldn’t handle the pressure at the inaugural Surf Ranch Pro. The debate about the validity of the Ranch as a venue for a WCT event will no doubt rage on across forums and in lineups around the world. Something someone said in the water recently helped put it all in context for me.
Imagine The Ranch is just like any other new wave that someone happens to stumble across. It would be hailed as a revelation; an achingly perfect left and right that surfers were desperate to ride and pros were eager to compete at. However, like the other world-class waves on tour – Snapper Rocks, Pipeline, Teahupo’o etc., it only warrants one event. One event celebrates the Ranch as a miracle of human ingenuity, delivers a novel and reliable departure from the volatilities of the ocean and helps push the possibilities of performance. An independent pool tour may evolve, but that’s a different thing. In the context of the WCT one event is cool; any more of Lemoore would be over-kill. That said there is much we can take away from just one event.
The only event that is not Man on Man/Woman on Woman
As Owen Wright suggested after his last ride, “the leaderboard and climbing over the top of people,” offers an alternative form of tension and excitement in an event; particularly when you add seeding into the equation, which gave higher seeds the privilege of knowing what they needed to do to stay alive. Watching world title contenders surf their runs immediately after one another in the early round (before re-seeding) also added a dimension of psychological warfare to the event. As fans we got to see Filipe reacting to Medina’s first rides, knowing full well that Gabby was coming for him in the world title race. The flaws in the format were unfortunately highlighted in the final round (and in the end of the first round) when Medina’s last run proved to be a dead rubber. Instead of Gabby surfing out of his skin to win he was doing a victory lap in a Brazilian cape.
It was anti-climactic, far less exciting than seeing Strider score a few bonus rides courtesy of the re-runs.
There is likely a hidden agenda at play here for the WSL. They are still campaigning for the pool as the Olympic venue at Tokyo 2020. There are all sorts of economic reasons why they want this to happen and it’s likely they selected a format that was easy for Olympic delegates to digest; and that bore some similarity to the formats (think leaderboards) used in other Olympic sports. The current pool format has its merits but I’d love to see another event (maybe just an exhibition event to begin) with a man on man format. Four waves each (2 left and 2 rights) with the best one of each counting and the winner progressing through to the next round. Such a format would add increased and immediate drama to every match up.
No Airs, No Victory
In all of the other WCT events it is still possible to power-gouge and barrel ride your way to a victory, but it seems nigh on impossible to accomplish this at the Ranch. Barton Lynch astutely pointed out that there are other sports with a maximum score based on degree of difficulty (e.g gymnastics, diving, ice-skating). In such sports the criteria clearly states that you can’t get a perfect score if your routine does not have a sufficiently high enough degree of difficulty.
The judges in The Ranch Pro never explicitly stated (not to the general public anyway) that you had to do an air to get a maximum score, but it was almost implicit throughout the event. Only Medina and Toledo and Medina were able to score nine or above and flight facilities gave them the edge.
The success of Miguel Pupo (No. 8) and Kanoa Igarashi ( No.4 ) indicates that there will be specialists whose surfing suits the pool format – most likely light-footed guys with a low mistake rate and a good air game.
The irony perhaps is that the Ranch is intended to create the most level playing field in pro surfing. In fact it would be disingenuous to suggest that it does not offer a major advantage to surfers with extensive aerial repertoires. Does that make it unfair or just progressive, or reflective of the future? There are many surfers who can do well at The Ranch, but as it stands it’s hard to imagine anyone winning there except Filipe and Medina, or Julian on a good day. Perhaps this is an extreme view, but I think it’s fair to say it’s unlikely we will be seeing Wade Carmichael or Willian Cardoso (both of whom have made finals this year in other events not necessarily suited to their surfing) in the top three at the Ranch any time soon.
Salt Water Dreaming
It’s going to be interesting to see what the judges do when action goes back to the beach. Will they embrace and reward a raw power approach because it has more scope in the ocean or will their minds be hung up on the corrupt flips Gabby was pulling in the pool. Will we therefore see an incremental shift towards surfing in another stratosphere because the pool is pushing the surfers to fly closer to the sun and redefining the expectations?
Kelly almost the King of his own Castle.
How many other sports feature a competitor who designs the course and then dominates it? This makes Slater’e third place finish all the more exceptional in a broader historical context. Pro golfers design courses in retirement, but few can boast they’ve competed at the highest level on them.
It’s undeniable that Slater’s knowledge of the pool and the sheer number of hours he’s put in there, give him a competitive advantage. Removing the aerial dimension he probably surfed better than anyone else. However, is anyone really going to stand up and say it’s unfair? Maybe if he was in contention for title.
As Barton suggested, Kelly’s pool is already responsible for giving some surfers a few of the best waves of their lives. (We probably should be giving the engineers a lot more credit too). However, say what you like about Kelly, he still had to sit down and come up with the scheme, obsess over the details and figure it all out. It could have very easily been a fuck up. When you consider the miracle of the wave pool and everything else he has achieved, surfers should celebrate the fact that they can claim one of the most unique humans on the planet as their own.
Having said all that, I like thousands of others was disappointed to hear Kelly say he is not planning on going to Europe. The statement seems to point to one thing. Kelly has stated his desire to have one more full swing at the tour next year. He is obviously confident he will be granted the injury wild card and feels that there is something to be gained by further resting his cursed foot. He will feel validated by his third place finish and is probably already contemplating the possibilities of what that would mean if he was part of the tour, fully-fit, next year. This is Kelly checking out because he still believes he can make an impact next year at age 47. In his head world title contention is only ever solid barrels at Snapper, big Chopes and a win at Pipe away. It’s likely he still scenarios where he could win the whole thing.
We don’t expect mother-nature to evolve because she re-sketches the ocean a different way every single day, putting a subtle kink or change in even the most predictable of surf breaks. However, when it comes to man-made creations we expect evolution and improvement – the motorcars we drive, the houses we live in, the planes we fly in. The Ranch truly is something special, but we may grow tired of its seductions (particularly if we are not riding it) if we do not see it evolve and change over time. Throughout his competitive career, Kelly was a master of reinvention. To keep viewers fixated on his creation he may have to adopt a similar philosophy – bigger, hollower, heavier, and higher.
On questions of human evolution in the Ranch? How long before an outsider gets the pool dialled? E.g. A Chippa Wilson or a Matt Meola? That would be a real wildcard in the mix. How long before we see a genuine Lemoore local? A Rick Caine 2.0? (See Movie The North Shore) who is born and raised on the taste of chlorine and the smell of hydrofoil fuel?
It didn’t Ruin Surfing in The Ocean
I went for a surf at the local beachie after the contest finished. It was crosshore and bumpy, but as the rip dragged like a grade three rapid against the sets it churned some of the waves into dredging pits. It was a lineup full of all sorts of wonderful imperfections and loads of fun. Thoughts of the wave pool did not make me miserable. They did not ruin the surf. If anything the recent viewings only amplified the intricacies of the sea and all the things that make it special. I had a ball. Although I must admit that Turpel’s term ‘spelunking’ was yet to catch on as another way of saying getting barrelled.
Would I still love a wave at the Ranch? Damn right. Anyone who suggests they wouldn’t have fun in both settings probably just doesn’t love surfing enough.