Why The First Surf Ranch Event is the Most Important in WSL History

Matt Rode

by on

Updated 263d ago

This week has been a long time coming. Ever since Kelly Slater revealed his wave pool three years ago—and then the WSL subsequently bought it—it has been a foregone conclusion that we’d eventually see a public event at the Surf Ranch.

The test event reportedly went well last year (albeit behind closed doors), rumors are swirling about the integration of a wave pool into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and with the addition of the Surf Ranch to the 2018 schedule, the first artificial wave has been added to the world tour since Tom Carroll won the World Professional Inland Surfing Championships in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in pretty terrible ankle-high dribblers.

While tomorrow might not be the big one—that’s scheduled for September—the Founders’ Cup is arguably the most important event of the year for the WSL. After a couple of hard hits earlier this year (including the loss of Pipeline for the 2019 season, and the cancellation of Margaret River halfway through the event due to sharks), professional surfing’s governing body could use a big win, and the first public surf contest at the Surf Ranch is where they need it.

Approximately half of the world tour competitors are showing up for this event, which will run over the next two days in Lemoore, California, and will serve as a barometer not only for the logistical feasibility of a world tour event, but also about how open the surf community actually is to having a pool-based surf contest on tour.

In a sport/community that seems to thrive on controversy, an event in a wave pool is bound to generate a lot of heated debate—and there are fair arguments to be made on both sides. On the one hand, a consistently replicable wave provides an even playing field on which all competitors get to compete on the same platform—much like a skateboarding or snowboarding event—which will put the emphasis squarely on performance, and allow judges and spectators to enjoy a more objective comparison between rides.

On the other hand, it could be argued that actually riding a wave is only a small part of surfing, and that a wave pool does away with the important waterman aspects of the sport, such as wave selection and reading both the ocean and the wave. In addition, the wave that has been created at the Surf Ranch—a long, user-friendly, relatively small (chest-high+) wave that is more consistently offshore on the right than the left—is bound to advantage certain surfers and surfing styles over others.

Regardless of your feelings about the event, there is no arguing the fact that tomorrow ushers in a new era of professional surfing—one in which wave pools will become an integral part of the sport.

The Founders’ Cup features a team-based format pitting squads from Australia, Brazil, Europe, the US, and “the world” against each other. Each team has five members—three men and two women. Each competitor in round 1 will surf six waves—three lefts and three rights—with their top two wave scores out of 10 contributing to their team’s total.

The three teams with the highest combined scores out of 100 will then advance to the final, where each competitor will surf two waves—one left and one right—with their highest of these two scores counting.

The final will be contested in three-man heats. Rather than athletes contributing their entire wave scores to the team’s tally, competitors in the final will receive points based on their placing in their respective heats. The first three heats (two for men and one for women) will allocate 2 points for the winner, 1 point for second, and 0 points for third, whereas heats four and five (again, one for the women and one for the men) will double the winner’s points (4 for the winner, 1 for second, 0 for third). Teams will choose as a group who they want to feature in the later “bonus” heats, which will make for an interesting dynamic. The team with the highest combined score after the final will be the winner.

There will also be specialty awards for the highest total wave score by an athlete (winner gets a Jeep) and best air of the event (winner gets a replica Simon Anderson thruster). The long and short of it is that there won’t be an individual winner—there will only be a winning team

Got all that? It’s a bit confusing, with the format changing halfway through, but the long and short of it is that there won’t be an individual winner—there will only be a winning team. And while it isn’t clear how much of this format will be utilized in the world tour event in September, we can assume that the WSL is looking at integrating at least part of this model into the event, and will use the Founders’ Cup as a test-piece to fine-tune their format.

Here are a few more observations/predictions to get us ready for the Surf Ranch’s first public offering.

Regularfoots vs. Goofies:

Brazil team captain Gabs.

Brazil team captain Gabs.

Normal wind conditions at the Surf Ranch appear to provide for more barrels on the right and better air wind on the left, so the team’s selection of regularfoots versus goofies will be a factor. Interestingly, Australia and Brazil only selected one goofie each (Matt Wilkinson and Gabriel Medina, respectively), while the Europe and World teams only selected female goofies (Frankie Harrer and Bianca Buitendag/Paige Hareb respectively). The USA team hasn’t included any screwfoots at all.

The finals:
When it comes to the finals, expect to see the USA, Brazil, and Australia battling for the win on Sunday—the USA and Brazil because their teams are stacked with young, progressive talent whose approach suits the wave (as opposed to power surfers, who might find the wave a bit small for their bulk and heft), and Australia because of their ladies team.

The women:

Johanne Defay's in as captain for Europe.

Johanne Defay's in as captain for Europe.

Speaking of the ladies, look for them to be the deciding factor in which teams make the final. With everyone getting to surf the exact same wave, the performances of the athletes are going to be under microscopic scrutiny—and the reality is that the top echelon of male surfers are so evenly matched that their waves will likely be judged down to thousandths of a point.

There is a much broader talent range on the women’s side, however, and the world tour has been pretty well dominated by four or five women over the past few years—most of whom are members of teams Australia (Steph Gilmore and Tyler Wright) and USA (Carissa Moore and Lakey Peterson). Look for the biggest differences in wave scores in round one to be on the women’s side of things.

The approach:
With everyone surfing the exact same wave numerous times, things could go two ways with this event. If the athletes approach the Surf Ranch like a normal wave, and all end up doing the exact same top turns over and over, we could be in for a real snore-fest, where the only excitement involves detailed measurements of spray height and barrel depth. After all, when everyone gets to surf an identical, perfect tube section, it sort of does away with any drama or excitement After all, when everyone gets to surf an identical, perfect tube section, it sort of does away with any drama or excitement, and turns barrels into a repetitive setup maneuver for whatever section comes next.

In order for this event to be exciting—and for competitors to differentiate themselves from the rest of the field—we are going to need to see some creativity and customized combinations. Griffin Colapinto’s reverse into the barrel last week was a good start, but the event will need a lot more of that if it is going to be as groundbreaking as the WSL hopes. With a somewhat static, consistent playing field on offer, the athletes should have a chance to play with new lines and approaches, so here’s hoping we see something revolutionary, such as fakie exits from the barrel, or new, never-before-completed airs.

Best ride award:
If this wave was custom-made for any one surfer, its Felipe Toledo. A fast, flawless, down-the-line chest-high wave with sections for barrels, airs, and gaffs—it’s Snapper Rocks meets Lower Trestles, and that means only one thing: Toledo is going to go crazy. Don’t be surprised if you see him driving a new Jeep back to San Clemente Sunday afternoon.

Best air award:

I could go with the easy prediction and say that this one will NOT be won by Australia—but that wouldn’t really be telling you anything that Mick, Joel, and Wilko don’t already know. If I have to pick, I’d say this will come down to Florence versus Medina—regular versus goofie, Seppo versus Brazzo, world champ versus world champ. Medina will take it because the air wind is better on the left, but it will only be by a hair.

Overall winner:
This one is tough to call. It’s going to come down to Brazil and the US, and at first glance the teams are pretty evenly matched. Felipe/Kolohe favors Brazil, Slater/Adriano favors the US, and Medina/John John is a toss-up. The point of difference is going to be the women, as Carissa/Lakey are a step above the Brazilian women’s squad. I think it’s all going to come down to the final bonus heat. If Slater is willing to hand his captain’s hat off to whichever of his teammates is peaking in the final, the US will take it. If not, it could go either way.

The Founders’ Cup of Surfing kicks off tomorrow, May 5, with round 1 hitting the water at 8:30am local time. Let’s hope the forecast holds!

Team Australia
Steph Gilmore (team captain)
Mick Fanning
Joel Parkinson
Matt Wilkinson
Tyler Wright

Team Brazil
Gabriel Medina (team captain)
Adriano De Souza
Felipe Toledo
Silvana Lima
Taina Hinckle

Team Europe
Johanne Defay (team captain
Jeremy Flores
Frederico Morais
Leonardo Fioravanti
Frankie Harrer

USA Team
Kelly Slater (team captain)
John John Florence
Kolohe Andino
Carissa Moore
Lakey Peterson

World Team
Jordy Smith (team captain)
Michel Bourez
Kanoa Igarashi
Bianca Buitendag
Paige Hareb