“Hey, look: There’s a Chevy Volt with a surfboard in it. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that here,” chuckled a local passerby in the parking lot of the college in Lemoore, California, as she ambled over to the bus stop shuttling people to the Surf Ranch.
It was a brisk, early morning as we sat patiently on a giant yellow school bus, hauling dozens of eager surf fans from all walks of life, from the offsite parking lot over to the venue.
The energy inside the bus was oddly quiet with anticipation. What were we about to see? But as soon as we turned the corner to get our first glimpse of the Surf Ranch walls, the passengers began to buzz. They were almost clamoring over each other to sneak a peek of the wave through the windows; the entrance to get into the event was packed.
Most people I’d spoken to prior to the WSL Founders’ Cup didn’t have any expectations to bring to the table. The speculation was endless, but a realistic description of the whole operation was anyone’s guess. However, the buzz was rich, and the hype was electric.
Everyone wanted to know: Would the event itself be able to live up to that hype? Nobody had an answer. But we were all about to find out.
As the venue quickly filled up, the concrete walls lining the pool were shoulder-to-shoulder with eager spectators armed with beach chairs, straw hats and smart phones. It smelled like a water park.
It was quite clear that many of the people in the crowd weren’t surfers, as questions like “Is that Kelly Slater?” (just as Jeremy Flores finished his wave) were tossed out to the collective audience. But that didn’t seem to have any effect on their enthusiasm for the spectacle.
Given the fact that a wave can only be generated every few minutes, there was much down time once competition got underway – which seemed to me like the most difficult logistic to handle. But the announcers did the best that they could keeping the banter lively, explanatory and, most of all, entertaining. But there were moments when the crowd seemed to fidget with boredom (like when a mechanical malfunction halted competition for over an hour … that was interesting).
However, every time the machine fired up, every single person in attendance seemed to quiet down and fix their eyes (or their phones) on the water. In that regard, it was very cool: The downtime only magnified the anticipation and undivided attention whenever the water started to move.
As the competition wore on, the surfers just kept raising the bar. With every single wave as flawless and predictable as the last, my initial concern was whether or not the surfers would be pushing themselves enough throughout the entire weekend (with a fresh approach on each wave) to be able to hold the attention of the crowd.
And while many surfers stuck to the maneuvers that they knew they could pull off (in order to complete their 700-yard, 45-second ride), a few of the standouts that really seemed to be pushing the progressive envelope were South Africa’s Jordy Smith and Brazil’s Filipe Toledo.
One thing that was particularly pleasing was the amount of breathing room at the venue. When the WSL sent out a press release saying that the event had sold out at 5,000 people, I was expecting the venue to be bursting at the seems. But the Surf Ranch property is more than capable of accommodating numbers of that magnitude.
There was a bleacher section with a beer garden and multiple vendors at the north end, and the Festival Village with a stage, live music and food vendors at the south end. Connecting the two was a nice wide walkway along an adjacent water skiing pool with public swimming beaches at both ends. Not too shabby, indeed.
People were napping under trees, others stacking wood blocks that were placed as stepping stones to better their view; the unrestricted freestyle festival vibe was unlike anything I’d seen before revolving around surfing.
On finals day, the energy at the venue – while still quite high – seemed to have settled slightly. People looked like they’d gotten familiar with the venue, the operation of the contest, the pace of the action, as well as the sheer mystique of the once-exclusive Surf Ranch.
While the format and the ultimate outcome of the contest was the topic of many peoples’ conversations, the real magic was apparent whenever a surfer would throw down something that we hadn’t seen yet (particularly the Brazilians).
When Filipe stuck two airs on one wave, the crowd erupted; Brazilian flags took to the air. When Gabriel Medina pulled a cheeky shove-it after a 10-second long barrel at the end of his ride, the bleachers shook from excitement.
Needless to say, the energy from Team Brazil was a level (or two) above the rest … which shouldn’t come as a surprise.
After an intense few heats of competition during the finals, it was Team World that walked away victorious at the first-ever WSL Founders’ Cup – after Kelly Slater came up just short of the required 9.2 score that he needed to clinch the win.
It was cool to follow the scores and keep track of the leaderboard, but not many people really seemed to be too concerned about who won. It wasn’t about the results. We were all just there for the experience of being a part of surfing history. We were all out to witness the first time that the highest level of surfing competition was truly set on a level playing field – which is something unique to the sport of surfing.
“We’re in the middle of Central California watching all of the best surfers in the world surf a perfect 6-foot wave. We would never have imagined that 40 years ago,” said former world champ Peter Townend.
When all was said and done, I must admit, the most disappointing thing about the whole weekend was not being able to surf myself. And I don’t mean surfing the wave pool … I just mean surfing at all. There was plenty of froth that’d been brewing for three days straight, and the only outlet I had was the Blackjack table at the Tachi Palace.
But overall, it was certainly a weekend for the record books in the surfing world. It was a couple of days in the middle of nowhere, hanging out with a bunch of surfers (many with surfboards in their cars), with froth levels through the roof despite the fact that nobody was surfing.
It was unlike any weekend I’ve ever spent away from the beach.
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