At 10pm on September 2002, I stood shivering on the edge of a pool in the middle of the Pilanesberg mountains.
Rave music was blaring from speakers, lasers were lighting up the sky and I was holding a surfboard in the dark, waiting for a sculpted lions head to start spurting water, which would be my cue to jump in.
It was a bizarre scene.
I was at the Valley of the waves in the Palace of the Lost City. Travis Logie and I were finalists in a man on man surf off at a Spring Break festival. It was held on a cold Springbreak evening, with hundreds of people on the beach dancing to hideous music. We drank beers between waves and whoever could fit that extra turn in before it closed out against the wall, would win.
The wave was horse shit but we were having a jol. The novelty wave factor could not be denied. At no point was it comparable to surfing.
Fast forward 12 years to the 20th of Dec 2014, when Kelly released his wave pool to the world in that 50-second clip, I couldn’t sleep. Adrenaline pumped, My mind raced. I needed more. For weeks I scoured social media to unearth anything about his creation. Any new angle, any picture that might hint at how he had done it.
It’s safe to say I have been a fan from the minute I saw it, my entire life I have imagined a scenario where we could create tubes artificially and pig out indefinitely. And here it was. Real. Being ridden. Somewhere. I was obsessed. Every vacant body of water I’ve driven past in the last 4 years from the Drakensberg to Kynsna, I’ve imagined what it could be like if you could drag a hydrofoil through it.
The past few years I’ve absorbed every clip that has trickled out of Kelly’s wave pool, I’ve read up on his competition, the controversies ( Bruce Webber says “Kelly stole my idea!”) , the first-hand experiences. My old pool partner Travis Logie seemed less than enthused about it, he had turned down an opportunity to ride it in the early days, because he was jet-lagged, I cursed at him, scolded him for being a fool and sent him back to California with instructions to just do it for me.
In the past few years, an arms race of sorts has been building, Wave Garden, Webber Pools, Slater WaveCo, BSR to name a few. Olympic committees were knocking, waves were being built. Who could sell the dream the best? Fuck who could build the best barrel! The holy grail. Endless tubes!
The build-up to The Founders cup was long and painful for a true believer like myself. The frustration at WSL for running a test event and not sharing a live broadcast last year really twisted my tits. The slow dripping tap of actual footage was driving me dilly. Travis had finally sampled it and changed his tune “ Bru its mind-blowing” he Whatsapp’d me… my stomach turning with jealousy.
This last weekend, it finally happened. I switched on my TV, sat down with my 9-year-old son, Joel, he cracked a Fanta and I cracked a beer as we tuned into The Founders Cup. I felt quite beside myself with excitement as the anticipation built for the first wave. The commentators of Pottz and Thurpell were noticeably hyped, and as the camera panned the pool edge and people streamed into the park, taking their seats in the bleachers, I felt a genuine jealously to not be a part of the action.
Do you know what a 45-second wave feels like? It doesn’t seem that long, but I bet if you actually time your next session you’ll struggle to make a wave last longer than 15 seconds. (jbay folk you are disqualified from this experiment). As Felipe Toledo hammered away at the first wave, I realized that I seriously might not make a full wave in my current fitness status. He hooked it, carved it, over and over, 12 turns, and a perfect macaroni’s looking tube to finish. The crowd erupts and the cheers are more audible than usual… GAME ON. Felipe makes it look easy, but the next few competitors show that it really is not! The wave is fast! The wave is hollow! The wave has subtle differences every time (something the engineers are still trying to understand, but most likely has to do with underwater currents that affect the way it sucks off the bottom)
Now let’s take a few moments to address the purists, the non-believers, the traditionalists. No, it’s NOT the same as surfing in the ocean. I agree with you. How could you ever replace the ocean, any given day is an adventure, navigate the jump in, read the currents and make your way through to the outside, sit alone as the sun pops over the horizon, with creatures all around you and line up an 8 foot set as it steams its way through the ocean towards you. It could never replace that. That is MAGIC.
This is something different, this is a small part of the experience, not all of it, but definitely, some of the most fun elements trapped in a bottle, A small captured cross-section of the thrill. Not the full experience, but its still surfing. And why shouldn’t we indulge!
Pro surfing has been an equally controversial part of our lifestyle since its creation.
“It’s ART! You cant judge art! Competition surfing is a sell out”
Usually, words said by those not good enough to earn a living from it, because let’s be honest, most jobs on earth are worse. Wave pool competitions will be the absolute anti-Christ end of days for those poor tortured souls. And it’s not going to get better for them, wave pools are popping up everywhere, and soon… and this even makes me tremble… people who have never surfed in the ocean will surf better than you… OH, HORROR! DEATH TO THE ABOMINATION! Pool surfers are coming.
But for those who love the sport of surfing, the cruel and luck riddled theatrics of an ocean and the talented artists that dance for us, wave pools offer something very new. Any pro surfer will tell you tales upon tales of being dealt a crushing blow by mother nature’s fickle hand. Too many times has talent been upended by luck. It is by far the most unfair playing field. Until now…
This is good for the sport of surfing. This is good for progression of performance. A truly fair platform to compete. A reliable medium to train your muscle memory on those new undiscovered airs. Think of what we can learn just on surfboard design alone, by having this measurable platform to test on.
I’ve always loved watching tennis (don’t kill me Bobby) its pure combat of talent. No excuses. You either hit the ball in the line or out, there’s no luck. Outfox your opponent or lose. There’s no bias. I love that. Parko a seasoned competitor of 18 years, interviewed seconds after fluffing his first run, still dripping …
“ I was so nervous! The minute my toe touched the water! “
He stammered like he was still puzzling it out in his own head…
“ the crowd are so close! “
The sound of the hydrofoil kicking into action, the cheers and crowd anticipation… this is worlds away from sitting miles out to sea alone, with a distant commentators voice to remind you it’s a contest. This is a stadium. An arena. Only the steely-eyed gladiator will win.
Through the course of the Founders cup, this became the game, either rise to the occasion or be defeated. No luck. No bias. What was so interesting was how technical the performances became, variation, flow, and who could push it right to the edge and risk being left behind the fast-moving sections. Highlights were numerous, Adriano’s backside attack, his timing was flawless. Kanoa giving new meaning to the term hand-brake stall with his front hand being used multiple times to adjust speed trim in the tube, Kelly’s flow (and boards) looking fresher than it has in years, gliding up and over sections like vintage Muhammed Ali, float like a butterfly sting like a bee. Felipe was like a knife! Cutting the pool up from every angle, speed, precision, progression. 10 points.
And Jordy, oh Jordy! Has anyone got more BMT? I think not.
The kid was being claimed as too big for the pool in the days leading up to the event. His boards were not working as planned. Did any of that slow him down? Hell No!
Not only did he deliver a crucial blow in the exciting surf off against Australia to make the finals, he then nailed his best air ( a bizarre Alley Oop to tail drop floater ) and highest score on his final ride of the event! Talk about rising to the occasion.
Wilko, Andino and Felipe choked, pushing too hard early on their final rides. Jordy delivered. I had goose-bumps and found myself shouting out loud at my TV at 1am in the morning. Hell, it may not be the pure surfing experience, but everyone was having a damn good time.
The day after The Founders Cup, we woke to social media buzzing about Seth Moniz landing a massive backflip in a new pool in Texas. It was huge and it was technically perfect. It was his first day in the pool. By the time this article runs, I wouldn’t be surprised if multiple new moves have been invented. The compound rate of progression is about to explode.
What wave pools highlight clearly, is what they can never be, and what we love so much about surfing is that the act is much more than riding a body of water on a floating device. It’s a connection with mother nature and the rhythms of the earth. Wave pools will never replace that. But next time its 2 foot and onshore at your local, don’t pretend like you wouldn’t jump into a 50-second long freight train barrel if it was available down the street for a couple bucks.
My 9-year-old has made up his mind, it’s the coolest thing he has ever seen. When are we going, dad?!!!
Soon my boy!