Sean Doherty On: Waco, Lemoore And The Founders’ Cup Of Surfing


Three days on from the future shock of the Founders’ Cup we still grapple with the implications. And your correspondent files his report, handwritten, thrown in a bottle and thrown into a forgotten ocean. The world moves quickly these days. Within 24 hours a new wavepool in Waco, Texas had eclipsed Lemoore, California as the epicentre of the surfing world. Say that last sentence to yourself once again. There was of course a touch of irony in Seth Moniz’s Waco flip turning the Founders’ Cup into digital compost. Kelly and his pool have made an artform of stealing everyone else’s thunder.

To be honest, I didn’t really want this Founders’ Cup to work.

There is a smorgasbord of deep ideological reasons why. I’m an ancient mariner. I enjoy surfing in the ocean. I like contests with laydays and sharks with the occasional diamond day as a reward. And for me wavepools represent the potential Disneyfication of surfing and a colossal squandering of resources and human endeavour that could be better applied elsewhere.

But mainly I was hoping the WSL would have to sit there with a knife and fork and be forced to eat the small mountain of marketing gruel they’d served in the lead up to the Founders Cup. It’s been unbearable but not unexpected. As Stu Nettle succinctly puts it, “We are no longer the core.”

I was prepared to be historically underwhelmed and for the most I was.

There was a point there on Saturday afternoon local time, with nothing happening and the pool clearly on the fritz and thousands of surf fans melting in the Lemoore sun and even Joe Turpel beginning to delaminate as he commentated dead air without being able to mention the pool had blown a gasket, that I appeared to be getting my wish. It was descending into farce. The world was watching seagulls in a pool. I could only imagine the scene in the engine room.

I took this as my cue to go surfing. In the ocean.

A small qualifier before we go too far here. I watched two-fifths of feck all. It began at two in the morning, and by the time I got in front of the broadcast I couldn’t find many compelling reasons to stay there.

I’ve got some observations to make from the weekend, which I’ll do in no real order.

The format I didn’t get. Not only the how, but also the why.

Okay, you only get one chance to make a first impression, the first time you’re running an event in the pool and broadcasting it in real time to the networks. On top of this, the WSL are still pushing to get the Tokyo Olympics run in their pool. But instead of running an Olympics-style individual event, a preview of what Tokyo could be with a simple leader board and best wave wins, they instead went with a jingoistic teams event of no real consequence, with no critical moments, and a Byzantine scoring system that few could understand. I could explain string theory more easily.

If there’s nothing on the line you can’t label it “historic”.

They could have had an Olympic showcase, so why didn’t they? Why this strange teams event? Who was pulling the strings here? The WSL the IOC the ISA or the People’s Front of Judea? Even with the ranch open to the public for the first time I could not shake the feeling that there were all sorts of hidden agendas playing out in plain view that straddled business as much as sport. I just couldn’t work out what they were.

Now, the pool.

What!? 😱 @griffin_cola at the WSL Surf Ranch | @jacobvanderwork

A post shared by World Surf League (@wsl) on

While it might be great to surf, it’s far from a performance wave. Not for these guys, anyway. The left was almost retrogressive, producing little but ‘90s floaters and windscreen wipers all weekend. The right meanwhile produced long tube rides that a competent surfer from any beach around the world could have threaded. We’ve long since become desensitised to the magic of the Lemoore tube, and unless you’re going to slide in backward like Griff Colapinto had the week before, it’s becoming a yawn.

Barrel for show, turn for dough.

The business model around the pool might be geared more for the 1 per cent, but the wave itself is definitely for 99. Anyone can surf it, hence its got limitations as a true test for the top end. I imagine Kelly designed in much the way Homer Simpson designed his own car with multiple 40oz cup holders and twin bubble domes. Kelly built what he wanted. A 10-second barrel section here? No worries, Kelly! An air section at the end? Sure thing! It looks great and surfs great, but when you’ve got 20 of the world’s best surfers there it becomes hard to split them apart and really test them.

What would that pool even look like? What’s the ideal wave for separating rarefied surfing talent? You’d rip out both the tube sections for starters, slow it up and steepen it, make it uniform beginning to end before getting the end section to closeout. Essentially you’d simply replicate a snowboarding half pipe (I can already hear the clicking of Dave Mailman’s keyboard).

Or you could just go to J-Bay.

On that note, the “flow” surfers struggled. The three most naturally gifted surfers I’ve seen in my lifetime all looked a little lost at sea. Tom Curren caught the first wave of the morning, and while he got tubed, his first Lemoore wave had none of the pixie dust his first J-Bay wave had 20 years earlier. Parko never got going, but it was John Florence who was the most interesting to watch. He looked kinda wooden and uneasy, and while he nailed a big air, there was nothing instinctive about any of it. These guys flow through irregularities. They flow through the unknown. That’s what makes flow special.

It got me thinking. I flashed back to John surfing the Margaret River right last year, displaying complete mastery of a weird, unlovable wave nobody else came close to even comprehending. But here he was on a wave any Blue Collar Joe can surf and he suddenly looked like everyone else. I thought it said something fundamentally more about the pool than it did about John. The pool needs to be learned. The more resourceful autodidacts in the field – think Gabby, Mick and Kelly – all toyed with it.

Collectively though the unforgiving speed of the wave, the lack of natural cues on the wave itself, and the lack of tub time for the whole field (bar Kelly) saw anxiety levels stifle any kind of epochal group performance. It never got out of second gear, and not even a generous juicing from the judges could mask that. That will all change. The footage of this first event will date badly, as will my critique. The pools will get better. The surfing will get better. It took just a day and one forehand flip for that become clear.

The girls, in real terms, did far better than the guys. You could almost have had them surfing on the same scale. A standalone individual women’s event in the pool would be epic. The highlight for me of the whole weekend however wasn’t in the pool, it was Carissa Moore backstage singing Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams sweeter than Stevie Nicks ever did.

And then there was Kelly.

Man, where to start. It was hardly surprising he looked right at home out there. I’m not sure what his wave count would be, but he’s got a silver airstream van on site he sleeps in, and I can only imagine how many whole days he’s done out here on his own – up and back, up and back – becoming one with the machine. Depending on how much you buy into the concept of Kelly orchestrating all of this – the pool, the WSL, the long game – but with his body breaking down he’s now re-engineered the whole game to somehow keep himself in front. He’s now not openly courting the idea of trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics; if they run it in his pool he’ll be the favourite.

Watching the final wave of the whole event, with Kelly – who’d believe it! – needing a Hail Mary nine-point-something to win the contest for the Stars and Stripes, the crowd lining his pool, chanting his name, I wondered to myself just how many times this scene had played itself out in his imagination over the years. Kelly didn’t get the score, but did a ceremonial victory lap on the ski with the crowd chanting his name. I imagine he’s had the dream before.

“Kelly! Kelly!”

Kelly lying in bed, eyes closed with a smile on his face, his lips silently mouthing his own name.

“Kelly! Kelly!”

Suddenly it’s 2008 again and he’s in a Portuguese hotel and Stephen Bell is shaking him awake. “Kelly! Kelly! You’ve got to get up and surf your heat mate!”

Sean Doherty