Date: 10.11.2017 at 10:41 PM PT
Zach: Like every self-absorbed asshole even peripherally involved in (the business of) surfing, I wondered for months when I might be able to taste the sweet nectar of KS Wave Co. I’d seen enough Instagram posts to know that invites were dipping into the B and C list, and maybe, just maybe, if I greased the right wheels, I might be able to sneak into its pearly gates. Then an email discreetly arrived in my inbox. Sender: WSL VP of Global Brand Identity, Dave Prodan. Contents: Celebration-Dance-Inducing.
“No agenda, just surfing and experience for background….Eventual reporting is fine, but there will be a few month embargo and NDA for all attendees. The idea is to remove any pressure to cover the experience in the immediate and having the public prescribe an agenda to the exercise because of it.”
Whatever the rules, I don’t care. I’m in.
I’d happily sacrifice any integrity, real or perceived, that I may still have in order to surf this thing. This is the dreammaker.
Dylan: Back in early November, I’d gotten to the office early and was ripping through some work when Zach arrived. He asked what I was doing the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. “I’ll be in Kansas City,” I explained of a plan to shoot over to the Midwest for a family holiday celebration. Without thinking I quipped, “Why? Got an invite to Lemoore or something?”
“Actually, yeah,” said Zach with a smirk. I thought he was lying. “Shut up,” I said and went back to my work. “No, like, really,” he said. I told him to prove it, and in a matter of minutes he had an email pulled up that was either a solid fake or totally legit.
The next few weeks were what I imagine a pregnant woman feels in the tenuous first few weeks of pregnancy where they’re at the highest risk of losing their child. Jubilation in a reserved, cautionary way. I only told my wife and a few friends. “We appreciate your continued discretion,” read the invite. And I felt like everyone I told made me one step closer to that fragile invite being rescinded. Not to mention Kelly Slater himself called me out by name on Instagram after I published an article in reference to his very public comments about the death penalty. I still stand by what I wrote. But would that stand end up costing me an invite to his wave? Only time would tell.
The Drive: November 20, 2017 7:30 PM PT
Dylan: The hours spent meandering up Interstate-5 to Lemoore can only be described as a time of strange, unfamiliar anticipation. Zach and I volleyed questions back and forth about the tech, the logistics, etc. to which neither of us had the answers. “How many waves do you think we’ll get?” Zach would ask. “How many waves does this thing make per hour?” I threw back.
Cow dung seeped through the air filters of Zach’s Ford Escape Hybrid like a noxious gas – a weird state of affairs given the anticipatory smells of a surf trip are typically of a salty variety.
Zach: Yes, it was interesting that a good chunk of the ride smells like absolute shit. Again, I didn’t care. At all. Small price to pay. All in all, it took about three hours from The Inertia HQ in Venice to the Tachi Palace Hotel in Lemoore.
Dylan: For coastal dwellers, the California Grapevine is a thoroughfare, not a destination. The backwater towns that are the lifeblood of California’s agricultural industry aren’t exactly what the American psyche dreams up with songs from ‘California Dreamin’ to ‘California Girls’
About 10 p.m. we pulled off the 5 and followed signs for Lemoore. Among a community of ranches, a neon glow radiates from the Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino that towers several stories above anything else around. The parking lot was crowded. We checked in asking if the crowd was normal for a Monday night. “Yeah,” said the delightful concierge.
Zach: Which was a bit of a shock. The place was bustling. Drinks flowing. Slot machines jingling. Capitalism burning brightly in a sometimes-overlooked, important slice of life in America. Which got me thinking that maybe this seemingly unusual infrastructure was a prerequisite for the pool’s existence. The Tachi Palace Hotel has 255 guest rooms, and it reeks of wax, cheap perfume, and tobacco. The ability to stuff about 500+ people comfortably nearby with all sorts of amenities isn’t a bad option for a new development. Check.
Dylan: The hotel is adorned with signs written in Papyrus, a font I despise. Papyrus is the worst font. No more Papyrus. We can all agree on that.
The Night Before | November 21, 2017 2:34 AM PT
Zach: I didn’t sleep at all. I didn’t sleep the night before the night before either. An Instagram video of Travis Rice pulling into a barrel at KS Wave Co. that he didn’t quite escape popped into my feed, and I was trying to figure out what I needed to do to have a successful exit. Everyone started screaming at him when the wave began to speed up. I noticed that. I watched a few clips from the Future Pro, too. Carissa. Filipe. Injured Kelly. I was trying to decipher commonalities that I might apply in a few short hours. But what exactly what would I do? Surf a few hundred times better than I am? I’d certainly try. Everyone would be watching. Would I shine? Would I fold?
I considered that surfing (certainly in this context) was much like sex. It feels amazing, and you want to do it as much as possible. But probably don’t want a bunch of people watching you do it live. Behind closed doors, judgment-free suits me best. But tomorrow, the doors are open. The lights are on. Showtime.
I tossed and turned. I was terrified I’d sleep through the 7 AM wake up. I did not. With a shaky hour or two of shut eye (I’m already a little bit nocturnal, so early mornings can be a challenge), I rolled out of bed and gazed out the window at the shit-smelling pastures. Today, I hoped, I might get barreled like I had never been barreled before. The apple had been plucked and placed in my hand. I just needed to take a bite.
The First Wave
Date: November 21, 2018, 9:04 AM PT
Dylan: The morning of, we didn’t know what to expect. When we arrived, some familiar faces in surf media (eighteen guests in total) and the WSL’s Dave Prodan and Chloe Kojima were gathered at the foot of the pool. Everyone was staring outward as if waiting for a set even though they knew it wasn’t coming until someone turned the thing on.
Zach: Yep, we’d been herded in as surf media cattle ready for the slaughter. ‘Sup guys! You psyched? I AM! I’M FREAKING OUT! THIS IS HAPPENING! THIS IS IT, BABY!
Dylan: Zach and I unpacked our stuff while looking around at what boards everyone else brought. I brought a red 5’10” keel fish and a 6’4″ three-fin bonzer – my whole quiver at the moment minus a log. We were shown locker rooms that looked identical to those at every WSL contest. Kelly’s yellow jersey he wore in the Future Classic hung in one locker in the far corner with presumably a few of his personal items as if to make us even more aware that we were about to enjoy the fruits of his eponymous company’s labor.
Zach: Dylan challenged me to wear Kelly’s jersey in my heat. I did not. That would have been cool. I am a pussy.
I brought a 5’ 4” Hypto Krypto and a 5’ 4” Mini-Simmons my good friend Bryan Knowles of Ride Anything made me. I opted for the Hypto Krypto, and the butterflies set in even before I turned the ignition to drive to the pool. Oh man. I’m tingling. I drank coffee that morning, so I made like three trips discreetly to the bathroom.
Dylan: The group was organized into three groups of six. Zach and I were in the last group, which meant waiting along the concrete border of the pool and watching the first two groups surf.
Seeing the first wave roll through for the first group, made up of editors at Stab, was nuts. “One minute,” a loudspeaker boomed to count it down. A metal cord started to whirr and the water started to ripple. As machinery dragged a foil through the water, a glassy 6-foot wave materialized. Not a single drop of water out of place.
Zach: I had surfed NLand Surf Park in Texas before as well as the Wavegarden in Spain. I managed to get a little barrel in Texas, but it was hard to say how similar the experiences might actually be. I thought it might help. But the waves, obviously, are very different. That much became apparent a few hours later.
Dylan: By the time our “heat” came around, the Central Valley sun was beating down, and we’d seen 24 waves ridden (that’s 12 waves per hour – six lefts and six rights – if you’re counting). I volunteered Zach to go first, and he was a little stunned.
Zach: Oh, man. Pressure is really on. Thanks, D. It’s alright. I can do this. It kinda put me back into the national finals a lifetime ago as a 103-pound, 15-year-old high school wrestler. Everything you’ve ever wanted is right in front of you. You’ve just got to take it. Mom’s spaghetti, baby. You’ve prepared. Everyone is watching. Take what you came for.
But was I actually prepared? When was the last time I surfed a barreling wave? Much less a wave that barrels twice for a solid 10-plus seconds at a time?
Oh. Never. I have never surfed a wave this good.
Okay. Well, improvise. You’re good.
Dylan: One of the lifeguards on duty coached us where to sit based on the numbers on the poles along the fence line. “Around 30 or 32 is where you want to sit if you’re up first. Then everyone spread out pretty evenly. Sometimes you can pick off the end of a right after the tube section between 60 to 65 and there’s a decent bit of the wave left after that.”
Zach: The water was cold. I wore a 3/2 Rip Curl Flash Bomb. It had a hole in it, but I was cold. I sat in the water and waited nervously tingling. I was first to go, and, man, all I wanted was to get barreled. That vision. Suddenly the clinking started.
Clink. Clink. Clink. Clink. Clink.
My heart’s pumping. The MACK truck sized train inside the metal caging speeds towards me. A blob forms and heads in my direction. I spin around and do my best to match its speed.
I drop in calmly. I’m not sure where to be exactly – or when it will start to barrel. I hug the wall and start to stall about a foot too high on the face of the wave. I immediately get clipped.
I just blew my first wave. FUCK.
A ball of self-directed anger wells inside me. Everything I wanted was right in front of me. It was up to me. It wasn’t the wave. Or my board. Or my wetsuit. It was me and my stupid face. I try very hard to put this into perspective after the mechanical violence passes. I’m simultaneously balancing the unthinkable good fortune I have to be in Kelly Slater’s Wave Pool on a Tuesday in November with how I just squandered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I am angry at myself. I want more.
I get a left next, which I surf very conservatively from start to finish. I don’t know how to barrel ride on my backhand. That becomes obvious below.
The gold, at least for me, is on my forehand. Jamie Brisick, a very talented writer, much better surfer, and very nice guy falls in front of me, and I get to pick up his scraps. I enter, but do not exit. I feel a little better. I get a couple more scraps. They feel much more natural.
Dylan is up.
Dylan: The first scrap I paddled for, I made the mistake of trying to stay too close to the fence line, fighting the wave. “Let it take you,” said one of the lifeguards on a jet ski. After that, I successfully got a few scraps until it was my turn.
“One minute!” My heart was racing. Then the whirring cable, then the wave. I paddled and stood up just pumping down the line as fast as I could. I just wanted to feel it out and go straight from start to finish. Even the so-called “turn sections” before and after the roping barreling sections of the wave felt fast. The contrived nature of the whole thing fell away as I focused on just going as fast as possible. “Now!” said one of the lifeguards from the ski as the second tube section started to line up at the end of the wave. I crouched, got some vision, but was too slow as the thing clamped on me. Freshwater went up my nose, and I couldn’t help but smile.
I texted my wife a video of the wave with the very descriptive sentiment, “Having fun!” Her response: “Aren’t you gonna pull in?”
Dylan: With all the debate surrounding wave pools, one thing was clear from our little outing. Not a single person didn’t have an incredible time – pardon the double negative. Point being, one can be diametrically opposed to the future of wave pools in a moral sense. But, given the opportunity to surf one for a day, find me a single person who says they’d refuse the invite and I’ll show you a liar. Or at least someone who took a stupid, pointless stand. Why decline an invitation to a new experience (that barrels)?
Zach: I just wanted more. More, more, more. More of exactly the same thing they somehow figured out how to create. I wanted twenty waves to surf in a row, so I could figure it out better. That wave produced exactly the feeling that I want when I go surfing. To a tee. I don’t often get that feeling puddling around Southern California. You get it 100% of the time when you take off on a wave at KS Wave Co. It felt like a solid swell just started filling in on a perfect reef pass, and you’re in position. Make it happen.
Dylan: I also learned that at most KS Wave Co.’s existing tech only produces 12 waves per hour. I’m not sure how much some would pay to surf it, but at most I expect some to shell out $50 a wave. I’m no accountant, but the pool has to cost more to run than $600 per hour. $100 a wave seems a bit much, but even then that means the Surf Ranch only makes $1200 per hour. It raises questions about the viability of the tech for public consumption.
Zach: The wave we surfed is intended for a relatively small slice of the surfing population. Most everyone who participated (and has been surfing for most of their lives) got throttled at least once or twice. Newcomers to surfing wouldn’t be able to handle a top-to-bottom barreling wave, and I don’t think the intention (at least for now) is to open the place to the public without qualification. The Florida iteration will be interesting, and I left the experience euphoric. It was a dream.
It didn’t hurt that they served us all a decadent sushi lunch and chips, guacamole, and Modelo Especials as we hung in the hot tub and watched the sunset. The experience completely blew my mind. Mostly on account of what an athlete (Kelly Slater) had accomplished (with the help of a lot of talented people). Dude grows up in Florida. Gets really good at surfing. Wins lots of world titles then teams up with scientists to figure out how to recreate a very specific version of the ocean on a farm. Puts an airstream beside it, hires a team to turn on the switch when he’s feeling frisky, sells the thing to another organization he co-owns, and simultaneously operates several other ventures that align perfectly with his passions. If any celebrity athlete is doing life right, it’s Mr. Robert Slater.
I’m 32, and I remember looking at Wilbur Kookmeyer artificial wave cartoons in SURFER as a teenager trying to envision that future. This is it. It’s real. It might be a mutation of the natural experience the ocean offers, but to fixate on that is to miss the point entirely. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that a crew of talented people are gainfully employed to make sushi and keep guests safe at a perfect, barreling wave in the middle of shit-smelling fields in California. But it has been done.
I was on cloud nine for the next week or so. I was inspired to consider what else might be possible. Because that surf ranch was a vision born out of a lot of passion, intelligence, and determination. It’s not one I ever really thought I’d see with my own eyes. But I did.
I’m certain there is more to come.