Photo: WSL/Cestari

The Tour In a Tub: Surf Ranch Pro Day 1 – Sean Doherty Reports

So yeah, about the pool…

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Where to start?

There’s a lot to unpack here, but fortunately I’ve just woken up here in the dark hours before dawn in Australia to discover the pool in L’Amour is on the fritz and they’re running old replays, so I’ve got plenty of time as some guy in greasy overalls tries and replace some sprockets and get the pool working.

The League, however, did something grand yesterday. No, it wasn’t a fresh episode of Get Sent, they announced that from next year the women will get the same prize money as the men. Yep, dollar for dollar parity with the dudes. The news was greeted enthusiastically around the world… although I noticed the professionally outraged who piled on the WSL when the photo of the young girl with the half-pint prize cheque appeared a few weeks ago had moved their outrage elsewhere on the Internet, mostly to old men burning sneakers.

Nick Carroll and I have been working on a narrative history of professional surfing, and one of the big pillars of this fantastically dysfunctional story has been the shitty hand the sport has dealt the women, decade after decade. Yesterday’s news was big. If the sport turns to dust at some future point, then they’ll always have this – more than the wavepool, more than Get Sent – to proudly hang their hat on.

But – and you knew there was a “but” coming – even in their finest moment the WSL managed to mangle the message. Firstly, I could have taken my “historic surfing announcement” without the extra serving of marketing dolloped on top. The whole league is marketed to within an inch of its life, it crushes everything and almost renders the whole thing unwatchable, but the endless barrage of WSL logoed “Equal by nature” posts kind of cheapened a message that organically, if just left alone to do it’s thing, would have been far more powerful. The message didn’t need to be sold; it would have done just fine on its own. You don’t have to sell doing the right thing. It was big news. Good news.

The other one was hiding the announcement of the 2019 tour schedule in behind the news of the women’s prize money. It seemed even the WSL themselves saw it as bad news. Hours after it broke it was sitting as the seventh item on the WSL’s own home page. They were burying it, because it posed some big existential questions for the tour. For starters there was no Ziff Superbowl in the Mentawais. There was no Pipe opening the season… but we knew that already. The most notable omission, however, was the surf industry. Rip Curl has Bells, Billabong has Pipe, but out of 11 events, that’s it. For the first time in 25-odd years Quiksilver aren’t sponsoring a tour event. There’s some telco and tourist money, but the rest is all Ziff dollars and that’s a lot of checques that need to be cut. Interestingly, Margaret River was there but had moved later in the year, almost out of season for Margarets… but in season for the desert lefts up north. Good luck. That one will be a baptism of fire for the new head of WA Tourism… Brodie Carr, the ex-boss of the ASP.

For the first time in 25-odd years Quiksilver aren’t sponsoring a tour event.

So yeah, about the pool…

I got in trouble after my Founder’s Cup write up back in May. I made a bit of a point that Kelly surfed the last wave of the event, came down to needing a nine to win it for America, Stars and Stripes flags were waving etc. and how it all felt a bit like the whole pool might have been designed with that very moment in mind. Kelly emailed me soon after, less than impressed. The pool wasn’t about him. We sorted out some ideological differences, and I promised to go into the L’Amour tour event with an open mind.

This morning, courtesy of his seeding, Kelly was the second guy in the water.

This event is clearly like no other on every level, and it was going to test everyone involved… but nobody more so than the judges. Suddenly, instead of making sure the best surfer wins over 30 minutes, they have to make sure the best surfer wins over three whole fucking days. The leaderboard sits every wave against every other wave, and creates a monumental grading exercise. They have to judge a wave on finals day against a wave surfed, say, in the second heat of the whole event. Kelly’s heat this morning. I’m sure they went into today saying to themselves, “Okay, let’s play it cool today, we got three more days of this, Lucky Phil Toledo isn’t even surfing today, let’s cap it at sixes.” Then they went and dropped an 8.50 on Kelly’s first right, giving themselves a point and a half to move in for the rest of the whole contest. It was a pretty sick wave, his broken foot that has kept him out all season looked just fine, but considering it’s his pool you’d be worried if he wasn’t The Guy out there.

This event is clearly like no other on every level, and it was going to test everyone involved… but nobody more so than the judges.

Not sure what happened with the pool, but when transmission finally resumed Connor O’Leary was trying some kind of Duke-style tube stance. Connor had turned up a week early and booked some pool time, only to find that he’d been double-booked with a bunch of longboarders and got punted. Practise day yesterday saw each surfer get just two waves, but even so today everyone looked comfortable in the tub. The learning curve out there is steep. The surf journo hacks who looked like a Canggu surf school full of Russians when they first surfed it last year, were, by that afternoon, in their own minds at least, shredding.

Most of the guys we saw today have had a bit of tub time now, and while they’re comfortable out there they’re not quite Kelly-comfortable, and are still surfing on instinct. There will be a horizon with these pool events when they will become completely choreographed. You could almost see it today, some guys went out there with turns in their heads, but it only took one slight Pottz bobble and the whole plan went out the window. What did Tyson say? Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the nose?

The guys who did it in instinct, however, shone. Yago Dora, Seabass, and Hermes sizzled. Others not so much. With none of the top seeds appearing, it felt like it was the pro-am day before the major. And where was everyone? I get it, it’s Thursday in Lemoore, but even the entourages felt skinny. When O’Leary kicked out of a wave the camera panned onto his coach, Luke Egan applauding and you could distinctly hear the isolated audio of him clapping… just him clapping, no one else. Elements within the WSL had argued for two qualifying rounds instead of three, make it all little more consequential, but the surfers won and so we had a day of lower seeds that didn’t really have any vital energy to it.

Blink 182 would have brought the vibes, but Travis Barker has blood clots or dementia or something so the ’90s pop punkers will be replaced by ’80s punkers Social Distortion. And I know how this has happened. Back in another geological surf commentary era, we’d land in a hotel in a foreign corner like Peniche or Papeete and there in the lobby would be Joe Turpel, his acoustic guitar, and a group of doe-eyed locals as Joe would play several renditions of the same song, Social Distortion’s “Prison Bound”, his voice so sweet and gentle that you prayed he’d never actually end up in prison himself.

Photo: WSL/Cestari

Day One of the Age of Equality and the women got the afternoon onshore, but the first couple of surfers made it look pretty good. A world tour consisting exclusively of wavepool events would, without doubt, see Paige Hareb crowned as world champion. The New Zealander is sparky out here, and again one of those instinct surfers who hustles down the line and if there’s a section there she hits it. Bethany Hamilton was a great technical study as the uniform canvas allowed you to watch her weight and unweight her board and unlock how she actually does what she does.

I‘ve argued before that while L’Amour remains a perfect wave, it’s not the perfect wave for this event… for the women maybe, but not the guys. The women surfed free out there today, while the guys at this level need something a little more squared up… and I don’t need to see them barrelled. The only person I ever want to watch inside a 12-second tube is me. But I don’t want to be the guy complaining here, and I certainly don’t want another two-day email exchange with the pool’s founder. This was day one of the tour in the tub, and I checked myself at several times today, reminding myself that one day soon Lemoore will be Allentown.

READ MORE: For more excellent reading on the Surf Ranch Pro, Nick Carroll is covering the event from the scene at Lemoore on Coastalwatch.

Sean Doherty