Hot tub time machine
Are you getting excited for Lemoore? The waves on tap. The schedule that runs to the millisecond. The continued repetition and predictability enabling a new world of performance and innovation.
Or does the thought of that glorified rural dam fill you with an existential dread for the future of the sport? A wrong turn. A sacrilege. A complete sellout of surfing’s soul.
It’s a debate that’s been raging since Kelly smoked de Souza’s world title with his first Ranch vid. There’s been enough column space dedicated to it to fill Yeppoon from end to end.
No matter where you sit, it seems a uniquely modern problem. Like robots stealing your job, or what happens when you find your ex on Tinder.
But the spectre of wave pool tech, and what it means for surfing, has actually been looming over the sport for decades.
We’re still seeking answers to the questions posed.
Allentown, Pennsylvania. Blue collar, USA. Where the founding fathers hid the Liberty Bell during the American revolution. Subject of Billy Joel’s eponymous hit song. Imagine a factory worker, wrapped in Stars and Stripes, Pabst Blue Ribbon can in one hand and hot dog in the other. You couldn’t get anymore middle American if you tried.
But in the ‘60s and ‘70s the town was hit with an economic slump, like many other parts of the country.
“Well we’re living here in Allentown, and the factories are all closing down,” sang Joel when his song was released in 1982.
So, in what was a novel but not altogether unsuccessful attempt at doing something pretty bloody different, the town played host to the Allentown Pro - the first ever major surfing tournament held in a wave pool.
And for a brief couple of days Allentown, 100 miles from the closest coastline, was the centre of the surfing universe.
A fledgling Waves magazine devoted 16 pages to the comp, with none other than future ASP head honcho Graham Cassidy the author.
So how was it?
The world’s top competitors were drawn there by the then-record prize purse of $25,000. But the waves themselves were objectively shit. Universally derided by the competitors, even the judges found it difficult to differentiate between turns on the small, repetitive canvas - gutless, waist high lumps that barely lasted ten metres. Flare became the name of the comp. Who could contort and extend their top turns while still maintaining flow?
Tommy Carroll, it turns out, with some of the best combinations seen "not just in a wave pool, but anywhere!"’ Given his short and stocky build and piston-pumping legs, it’s no surprise. Diminutive Derek Ho was the other finalist. Meanwhile the likes of large-framed Shaun Tomson, Elko, Wes Laine, Willy Morris etc floundered.
But it was still a spectacle. From the article:
"Everyone agreed the (closeness to competitors) was the jewel in the crown for Allentown. It was almost tactile. Spectators were in seventh heaven. This facet could well make wave pool competitions a winner in the future as ‘keep the customers happy’ becomes the credo of pool surfing."
Sounding familiar? I wonder if they had paid $599 for VIP tickets?
“I was beaten by a technical fault,” grumbled Shaun Tomson.
The Allentown goofyfooters had a slight edge on the naturals in terms of performance capability. On their forehand they were actually able to grab the wall and and gain an extra push in their waves. It might not sound much but it was enough to decide results, as Shaun found out. We saw the same thing happen at Lemoore last year when a faulty setting meant some of the lefts in the early rounds were smaller than others (plus some claimed that Kelly’s waves were hollower). It's almost heartening to know that even in an environment where chance and probability are meant to be removed “life finds a way,” to quote Jurassic Park.
Even though modern day wave pools are incomparable to the slop Allentown dished out, the comparisons to Lemoore don’t just stop at the water’s edge:
“If the weakness of the surf was the butt of fun and criticism, the lack of opportunity to practise was an even greater bone of contention. At the seaside, competitors pick and choose when they have workout sessions. At the pool, competitors had to put up with only one 20 minute practise session a day. For once, the trialists were better off than the seeds - by virtue of competing, they got more time in the pool."
It’s still an issue the Ranch, with its limited wave production, hasn’t fixed.
But the brass were still frothing. Graham Cassidy gushed:
“Wave pools are a phenomenon sweeping North America. They are introducing people, many of them uninitiated, to moving water. The belief of ASP boss Ian Cairns is that familiarity breeds contentment. Turn on millions of interior living Americans to the joys of surfing and suddenly you have many more fans of the sport. More fans means more demand for surfing programs on television, more clout with sponsors, more growth for pro surfing."
Right? Dirk, Sophie and the WSL team are betting (part of) the house on it today. But if the trajectory of Allentown is anything to go by, they should be wary.
To lure the dissatisfied surfers back, organisers promised to return the next year with a bigger prize purse. But they never did. Allentown dropped off the map completely, surfing-wise at least. And its fair to say the competition didn’t exactly reinvigorate the county’s economy.
A dazzling flash of brilliance, for sure, but the symbiotic relationship of fans > coverage > clout> growth envisioned by Cairns never developed past infancy.
Should the ghost of Allentown be taken as a warning for others looking to hitch their wagon to wave pool tech? Will Lemoore follow the same fate?
Can the battle of middle America ever be won? Do we even want to fight it?
And will the argument around the soul of surfing ever be settled?
Check back with me in 2050.
// SURF ADS