Lemoore, California, is a small farming town located in a semi-arid patch of the state that in its 143 years of existence has heretofore boasted of only four things: a relatively high water table that has made irrigation possible, Naval Air Station Lemoore, home, since 1961, of five F-18 and F-35 carrier wings, the Tachi Palace Casino, home to thrilling slots like “Desert Dawn,” “Buffalo Gold,” and (oddly) “Ocean Magic,” and Lemoore Union High School, onetime homeroom of Steve Perry, former lead singer of the band Journey.
It’s a helluva place for a surf contest. But no, that’s not quite right. Siberut Island in the Mentawai, Punta Lobos in Chile, Skara Brae in the Shetlands, Riyue Bay in China…Seaside Heights, New Jersey; each one of these spots is a helluva place to hold a surf contest. The Surf Ranch in Lemoore? It’s an extraordinary place to hold a surf contest. And why the revamped Surf Ranch Pro, sixth stop on the World Surf League’s 2023 Championship Tour, was the most extraordinary event of the year.
“C’mon, no stoics on the Jet Ski!”
This singular complaint came from Lauren of Santa Cruz, as she leaned against the low retaining wall at the distal end of the Surf Ranch’s “basin,” closely scrutinizing all the action. She was hardly alone; the entire retaining wall, from the take off spot down to the shallow end, was lined with surf fans, blankets and beach chairs laid out in the precious shade provided by the long row of Peruvian pepper trees that line the west side of the basin, hooting, clapping and cheering as competitors ripped past just yards away from where they stood. And not just surfing — the ride back to the top of the basin on the Jet Ski was either a victory lap or “ride of “shame,” depending on how well the performance went, with competitors either smiling and parade-waving to the crowd or sheepishly averting their gaze. Hence Lauren from Santa Cruz’s rather articulate complaint leveled at one of the men’s competitors — and the stoic ski lift following an end-section flub-up wasn’t her only observation.
“He came out of that second barrel a little wonky,” she declared, discussing details of the ride with her husband Joe, a fellow WSL Fantasy League enthusiast. “And he should’ve punted!”
On the surface, this level of fan engagement and excitement at the Surf Ranch Pro, especially as run with its innovative new format, is easy enough to explain: nowhere else can someone with dry feet get so close to world-class surfers riding a world-class wave. Not to mention the “never gets old” sight of that man-made, fully manifested dream wave peeling down the length of the basin; an all-day herd of unicorns. It’s a fantastic event, especially watched live. Yet after spending a full day taking in the entire scope of the contest, I’ve come to the conclusion that in its current incarnation not only is the Surf Ranch Pro one of the most exciting events on the tour, but is as essential to establishing the WCT’s authority as any A+ day at big Pipeline and Teahupo’o.
Consider that due to the uncontrollable, capricious nature of the playing field “lady luck” plays a bigger role in competitive surfing than just about any other professional sport. This is why, since earliest days, contest surfing’s inherent drama primarily derives not from how well a particular competitor is going to ride a wave but by what particular sort of wave that surfer will be lucky enough to encounter during their allotted heat time. This tension is magnified at the aforementioned mega barrels, where the highest-scoring rides are uniform in nature: take off, get tubed, come out. Thus, in almost every case, during contests like these whoever catches the best waves will win. Nevertheless, every heat is still a crap shoot.
This is okay. Surfing is, at its essence, a wild sport, and battling the elements — and being batted down by them — can be a big part of its appeal. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no place in the competitive lineup for an event that eliminates the luck factor completely. A contest where no competitor needing only a three-point ride to advance must instead seethe through a six-minute lull at the end of the heat and be eliminated; no pumping sets in one heat and only one decent wave in the next. But rather a contest based not on whether the surfer will get a wave, but on how well that surfer will ride a wave. A contest that, by providing a completely level playing field (not to mention one that defines virtually every surfer’s idea of perfection) is, at its essence, all about pure performance. And, for the first time ever, objectively comparative performance.
Lauren and Joe from Santa Cruz — they knew this. Sure, beating each other’s respective fantasy surf teams would be fun, but even more fun was watching them critique each of the competitor’s rides as closely as any WSL judge, noting committed rail work, panning repetitive top turns, rewarding flair in the barrel. At the Surf Ranch Pro, this sort of focused appreciation is made possible like at no other venue in the world. Online, too, if you take advantage of the opportunity provided by the Kelly Slater Wave Co.’s incredible technological innovation (i.e. that freakin’ perfect wave, made to order) to focus purely on the high-performance aspects of competitive surfing.
A better format? Not necessarily. But a different format, one that surely deserves its place on a balanced world Championship Tour schedule, whose intent should be to produce the sport’s best all-around surfer? Certainly. As for drama, well, just watch replays of the Italo/Griffin, Carissa/Caroline finals and tell me you would’ve rather watched one of them sitting in a flat lineup, just hoping to get a decent second wave before the horn blows.