Lap Land - Our Ocean Pools & The People Who Use Them. Busy Saving the Planet. Are You Connected? Robo Surf.
Surfing Life Surfing Life Surfing Kelly Slater’s robo-churn Wave Pool Most of you have seen some video footage... but what’s it really like? with Nick Carroll Ever since the Kelly Slater steel mesh fence, held up by a Wave Company did its big series of metal posts, 100 in all, reveal two years ago, every each around four metres from surfer I know has been quietly wigging out. They’re wigging because of what the KSWC revealed: to wit, what appeared to be a seriously excellent, and for sure completely artificial, wave. Breaking in a pool. For a long way. Since then, the KSWC and its owners, the World Surf League, have been releasing a slim yet steady diet of carefully curated video clips showcasing their invention. Each clip – slow-motioned, angled just right, and starring Kelly or one of his pro tour compadres – makes it look better and better. Yet at the same time, they have kept the doors to this facility BREAKING NEWS: Not quite the backdrop we’re used to seeing from the beach. the next. Everything is grey, precise and industrial; it looks for all the world like a high-tech watery prison. I was completely fascinated. Never had I thought that anyone would expend this kind of time, money, and human ingenuity on making a wave! Especially when there’s so many of them out there in the ocean already. Around a dozen of us had been invited for the day, mostly other surf journalists. We were organised into groups of four at a time. I was in the second group, which drove me a little bit mad, but at least it gave me a chance to watch. Here’s another thing you closed to any independent It truly is the last place you’d rim, running all the way around can’t tell from the PR – the wave observer. The secrecy around expect to be surfing. And the the pool’s perimeter – maybe destroys the Pool. Like, blows the Pool has been obsessive. truth is, what you do in the Pool 700 metres end to end, and it to bits. As it breaks, the wave Access has been limited to is not surfing, it’s something 150 metres wide. On the inner sets all the three or four Olympic pools’ worth of water in invited guests and potential else again. rim, the wall falls away on its investors. As a result, the WSL When you arrive at the facility open side to a broad trough wild motion. It washes over an Surf Ranch, as it’s officially gates for your session, they maybe two and a half metres elevated area of plastic-coated known, has become the most swing smoothly open to reveal deep, which runs most of the concrete known as “the beach” exclusive surf spot in the world. a small carpark and a neatly way down that side before and surges through several Kelly’s been compared to Willy kept building. Inside the building circling around at both ends channels into the deep trough Wonka in some circles, and invites to his Chocolate Factory are sought far and wide. Well, thanks to a series of odd events, late last year I got the Golden Ticket, as it were. Come visit the Ranch for a day! No expectations! See what you think! Thus, in early November I found myself roaring up the I-5 freeway out of Los Angeles, on possibly the single weirdest and least expected surf trip of my life. The WSL Surf Ranch is set behind an immaculately maintained wooden wall, at a property just off Jackson Road in Lemoore, California. Lemoore is a central valley farm town of around 25,000 people. The town grows cotton and struggles with its water supply. you’ll find a spacious chang- ing room complete with filled board racks, wetsuits, leashes, towels, wax, everything you might want to use during a surf. Everything feels organised, low-key, stylish. A door opens from that room into a hang-out area, then into another room dedicated to the Pool’s design, with bathymetry charts and illustrations of imaginary Pools of the future. Well you would see all that if you weren’t me, because I ignored all that stuff and ran straight to the low-slung wall beyond, and gazed out over Kelly’s modern miracle. Immediately I realised how much of it has been hidden in the videos. The KSWC Pool is contained by a concrete wall, maybe a metre high on its outer and joining up with the body of the Pool. Half way down this side of the Pool is a large control tower set-up. From here they run the Pool, watching an array of sensors, picking up any issues with the machinery or with waterflow, and eventually, pushing the button to make it work. On the other side of the Pool is the thing that does the work: basically a heavy blade or foil, half-submerged and around 12 metres long, and mounted train-like on a monorail track running the length of the Pool. When dragged along the track, this foil forms an exaggerated version of a ship’s prow-wake, in effect pulling the wave from one end of the Pool to the other. The machinery is separated from the body of the Pool by a along the outer rim. Water flies everywhere. Small quantities are blown clean out of the Pool and on to the paths surrounding it. The reverberations go on for a long time, surging up and down the Pool, and take ages to truly settle; even after five minutes, the typical period between waves, the surge is still present. Not only does this effect tend to ever so slightly vary the wave over time, it’s also a revelation. If a single wave can do that in the Pool, how much energy is being distributed through an everyday surfing lineup? Slightly freaking out with excitement, I grabbed my board and waded out to the takeoff point. There was no need to paddle, at least not any further than Metal Pole number 31, 44 FEBRUARY 2018 The Local Voice Since 1991
where I was instructed to wait for the wave to approach. The water itself is fresh and treated regularly to eliminate bacteria; there was a slight wafting of chlorine. Then it got weird. “ONE MINUTE!” came a disembodied voice from a range of loudspeakers up and down the Pool. No waves break in this pool without the control tower’s button being pressed. They TELL you when they’re making a wave. I sat there, trying to remain calm. The machine started. Aside from an initial clank, it sounded like a ski lift – sort of a muted grinding. I gazed down the Pool and watched as a triangle of elevated water appeared from behind the fence and migrated across the Pool. Good God! Here it came! The wave had been described to me by various surfers whom I trust. They’d all struggled a bit to explain the thing, but they’d all called it “legit”. Here’s my quick run-down: The wave has the power of a soft Indonesian location, or one of Australia’s easier pointbreaks. It’s a long ride – about 45 seconds – but it passes quickly, possibly because the pace of the wave is so constant as to be almost hypnotic. Ocean waves change and flex constantly, while this one just proceeds along, controlled by the foil’s movement – as soon as the foil stops, it stops. The wave grows hollower and flatter at different times during the ride, as it encounters different bits of the bottom contour, but the changes happen with no warning: for one thing, there’s no wave in front of you to show you what might be about to happen, and for another, you can’t see the bottom. All the normal “tells” of a surfing lineup are missing. You have to rely on a lifeguard on a jetski, who rides along just inside the wave line, yelling encouragement and advice. Once you get the wave’s timing figured out, it’s a piece of cake, honestly. The wave presents very little physical challenge. There’s no duck-diving or negotiating broken water, or watching for errant waves. If you wipe out, the wave’s gone and there you are, pfft. But there’s one thing about it that I feel many surfers would find extremely challenging: there’s no choice involved. In a normal ocean surfing situation, you make a lot of choices about waves, often for reasons you aren’t fully conscious of at the time. Maybe a wave reminds you of one you rode and liked three months ago. Maybe it scares you even though you’re not sure why. You want to catch a left or you want to catch a right. You just feel like sitting there! In Kelly’s Pool, all that’s out. There’s someone in a tower yelling “ONE MINUTE!” There’s you, by yourself, with three of your mates sitting further down the Pool hoping you’ll fall off. And because you’re getting maybe three or four waves a session, you really don’t wanna fall off. It feels almost exactly like being in a professional surfing contest. I caught a dozen waves in two sessions and drove back down the I-5 to Los Angeles, thrilled yet dissatisfied. The wave is super fun, but is that all surfing’s about? Three days later a small south swell arrived in Californian waters, and I jogged down to Lower Trestles for the early. It was late fall, and the smell of sage was in the air. I could tell Lowers had had an active summer by the sand-line, which changes year to year. A dozen or so surfers were out, most of whom I knew. We told each other stupid jokes; and caught waves when we felt like it. Nick Carroll is a leading Australian and international surf writer, author, filmmaker and surfer, and one of Newport’s own. Email: email@example.com Surfing Life The Local Voice Since 1991 FEBRUARY 2018 45