“It was not the religious sort of experience one hopes for.”
That was Pulitzer Prize-winning author, New Yorker staff writer, and bona fide surf junky William Finnegan’s take on his first go at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in the video above. Sitting along the outer ring of the pool as a reporter, Finnegan, as any surfer worth their salt would, spent hours ogling the feat of modern technology.
On an impromptu invite from Kelly Slater to get in the water himself, Finnegan quickly accepted. Unlike the experience he’d romanticized, the whole thing felt rushed. No opportunity to get your bearings. A booming voice counts you down, and it all comes at you at once.
That’s perhaps the single most relatable thread that binds countless stories of average Joes (or even average Joe pluses) gaining coveted admission to the Surf Ranch’s reclaimed wood gates. And it’s only felt when you’re there sitting on your board and spin as a wall of water approaches. The knowledge that a machine is about to serve up the perfect wave and all you have to do is seize it is anxiety-inducing. You’ve mind surfed countless videos. Spent hours, maybe days thinking about what you’d do to this wave, and where, and when. Then it comes and instincts take over. Bad instincts honed on crumbly beach breaks, warbly reefs, and wonky pointbreaks. Before you know it, you’ve fallen at the first barrel section and the wave spins off without you. Disappointment ensues.
Whether Kelly Slater Wave Company’s artificial wave technology is good or bad for surfing is tangential to the irrefutable claim that it’s singlehandedly changed surfing forever. And it’s particularly poetic that Finnegan, who successfully bottled up the one-track-minded pursuit of perfect surf for general public consumption in his memoir (which I heaped tremendous praise on, read here), would unpack its meaning.