It all seemed so perfect. Almost too perfect.
Eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater waited to take the 184th and final wave in the World Surf League Founders' Cup of Surfing last Sunday at the WSL Surf Ranch in Lemoore.
On the line was a chance for Slater to send the U.S. team into a "surf off" against Brazil and potentially a victory in the inaugural event. But nobody could be criticized for saying that it seemed staged.
After all, the Surf Ranch used to be called the Kelly Slater Surf Ranch, before the WSL bought a majority share. And Slater not only designed the wave, but made the big investments with the hopes of essentially changing professional surfing forever.
With a sellout crowd of 5,000, as well as what seemed to be an equal amount of sponsor representatives looking on, Slater waved for them to get louder, and they obliged.
Then the whir of the big blue plow and its accompanying wave-making hydrofoil pierced the crowd noise, meaning it was time to go. All Slater needed was to beat Jordy Smith's 9.27 to win the heat and send the U.S. into the surf off against Brazil.
If Slater failed to beat Smith's score, Team World, captained by Smith, would win the event.
And of course Slater ripped the wave to shreds. Big snaps, duck into the barrel, a couple more snaps and a second barrel. Certainly the judges would give Slater and the U.S. team the necessary score, right?
Not so fast. The judges gave Slater a 9.00 and Team World celebrated the victory.
Besides Smith, Huntington Beach's Kanoa Igarashi, surfing for Team World under the flag of Japan, played a big role in the victory. In his finals heat, during which each surfer gets two waves (a left and a right), Igarashi fell on his left, garnering a 2.00 from the judges.
With the pressure on in his second wave, the 20-year-old threw out an 8.93, winning his heat against the U.S.'s Kolohe Andino and Brazil's Adriano de Souza.
Overall, the event was a success, the contest having more of a festival-type feel, and certainly a fun event to witness. It had a live national TV audience for an hour on CBS Saturday that went off without a hitch.
Later in the day, though, the contest was halted for about an hour and a half as the wave plow needed to be recalibrated, which would have been a disaster if it had happened during the live broadcast.
Pirates of the Surf Ranch
While those in attendance seemed to enjoy the event, many watching online had negative comments. Though it is extremely fast and difficult to ride, the wave is nearly identical every time. Some comments noted that it got monotonous, seeing almost every wave surfed in a similar way.
Of course for the surfers themselves, it's tons of fun. No waiting five minutes, 10 minutes, or longer for a good wave to come through. Igarashi said the surfing the wave was like "Disneyland for surfers."
And then it all made sense.
Sticking with the Disneyland theme, it's like the Pirates of the Caribbean, where everything looks kind of real, but it's fake. You know it's fake, but it was cool the first time you saw it, and maybe a few more times.
Even that smell of the water on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is similar to the smell of the water at the Surf Ranch. It's not really bad, but it's distinct.
After a while, though, it gets a little predictable. If you've seen the pirates shoot at each other once, you've seen it a thousand times. The surfer gets vertical with a big snap, does it a few more times, ducks into a barrel, finishes with another turn or two.
Don't get me wrong, we saw some incredible surfing over the weekend. Felipe Toledo and Gabriel Medina pulled off maneuvers that made your jaw drop, and they got scores that reflected it. Toledo had the only perfect 10 in the contest. The women surfed great as well, with Carissa Moore, Tyler Wright and Silvana Lima getting scores in the nine-point range.
But there's something about that big blue plow that pushes the hydrofoil through the water to create the wave that keeps reminding you you're not in Hawaii, you're in Lemoore. Similarly with the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, you're not really in the Caribbean, you're in Anaheim.
And there's the mechanical issue. Ever been to Disneyland when Pirates was closed down for repairs? Yeah, me too.
One of the major reasons a contest such as the Founders' Cup can be successful is that it isn't at the mercy of Mother Nature. But instead, they are at the mercy of a man-made machine. Good luck with that.
Legend of the swell
Thanks to Brett Barnes, the general manager of Duke's in Huntington Beach, I was introduced to Fred Hemmings, one of the seven "founders" who were honored at the Founders' Cup.
Hemmings has a book out called "Local Boy, A Memoir," detailing his life of riding the big waves of Hawaii. At 72, Hemmings is sharp as a tack, and he was quick to say the technological advances of a man-made wave are something to celebrate.
Hemmings actually rode the very first man-made wave in 1969, at the Big Surf Water Park built in Tempe, Ariz.
"It's like going from a Model T to a Ferrari, it's a quantum leap," Hemmings said of the technological advances. "Right now, we're seeing the best waves in California. It is a quality wave, it has a tube, it has a shoulder, you can [be] doing everything on it. It lasts 55 seconds, one of the longest rides in the world.
"What it doesn't have, it doesn't have size. It goes up to six feet, which for Hawaiians, that's medium size. But it will. We all have to remember, this is the first, the prototype. We've opened the door to a whole new world of surfing in many ways."
And Hemmings has an answer to the critics.
"If you had someone walk down here and hand out $100 bills, there'd be someone to protest," he said. "Whenever you do something innovative, there's always naysayers.
"And I've heard that, 'Oh, the problem with this is the waves are all the same.' But that's great, because it allows the performance to be enhanced by the surfer and not by the waves. So if you want to try a loop-de-loop or something that hasn't been done before, you can do it on this wave, because you know it's coming."