'More epic than you can imagine': WSL Surf Ranch competition in Lemoore hailed as historic

Doug Braun couldn’t believe what he was watching.

Braun, a surfer from Cayucos, had read about the mythical Surf Ranch and seen the videos online, but nothing could prepare him for what he saw Saturday in the most unlikeliest of locations — the tiny town of Lemoore, about 30 miles south of Fresno. Just a few feet in front of him, behind a concrete barrier, was a perfect barreling wave carrying some of the best surfers in the world.

“It’s more epic than you can imagine,” Braun said. “The video doesn’t do it justice.”

Braun and surfing buddy Josh Hawk made the more than 100-mile drive from their home break on the Central Coast to the sprawling farmlands of the Central Valley to witness history along with around 5,000 other surf fans.

Saturday morning marked the start of the World Surf League’s Founders Cup of Surfing, the inaugural contest at the WSL Surf Ranch, where — after 10 years of research and development — 11-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater and a team of engineers found a way to create the perfect wave and usher in a new era surfing. The result of Slater's work is a perfectly shaped 6.5-foot wave, capable of left and rights, created with a system of hydrofoils on a 2,000-foot-long, 500-foot-wide man-made lake that was originally built for water skiing.

Read Next

surf event 0505_04
Portugese surfer Frederico Morais goes into a surf tube during his first-round qualifying run during the World Surfing League Founders' Cup at the Kelly Slater Surf Ranch in Lemoore on Saturday, May 5, 2018.

The surfing community has been buzzing — and debating — since Slater first leaked video of the machine-generated wave in 2015, and a select few have seen the latest in wave-making technology first-hand. But the weekend's event marked the first time the facility was open to the public.

The excitement was palpable as the first surfer, Brazil’s Filepe Toledo, took to the water for the first 45-second ride. Three minutes later, after the hydrofil reloaded and the water settled, he hopped right back on his board to ride another wave. The fans loved every second.

“That actually felt like my first event ever," Toledo said after his ride. "I was really nervous out there because you can hear the crowd really loud out there in the water and cheering for you. Then you hear the machine coming and everyone starts screaming, and you know it’s time. It’s a dream to be here."

Toldedo followed his first run with a perfect 10 in Round 2, the first perfect score in the event's short history.

The event is made up of five region-based teams including USA, Brazil, Australia, Europe and a World Team. Each team has three male and two female surfers. Each surfer gets two waves — one left and one right — per round, and judges score each wave on a 10-point scale. The teams with the highest scores will advance.

Round 1 and 2 were held Saturday, followed by Round 3 and the Final Round, featuring the three top teams, on Sunday. Every rider gushed about the wave.

"It’s like nothing we’ve had before. I can’t really put words to it, but you can’t blame anything else — the tide, the size of the wave — it’s just perfect all the way down," said World Team rider Bianca Buitendag.

Slater was the last to ride in Round 1, and he didn’t disappoint. He scored an 8.80 on his left and followed that with an 8.47 on his right. His ride catapulted Team USA into first place. The World Team and Team Australia were in second and third, respectively, after Round 1.

Australia catapulted ahead at the end of the day, with a score of 75.82 after Round 2. The World Team was in second (75.33) and U.S. in third (72.96).

"For us to get ahead of (the World Team) is a really big accomplishment, and I’m looking at them as the team to beat after that first run," Slater said. "Anyone who plays golf, it’s those first-tee jitters times 5,000, but I liked to loosen up and get the crowd to yell so it’s not quiet."

surf event 0505_01
Kelly Slater turns on his first-round qualifying run during the World Surfing League Founders' Cup at the Kelly Slater Surf Ranch in Lemoore on Saturday, May 5, 2018.

The event has been widely hailed as the future of competitive surfing.

Judging by the cheers coming from the crowd, it's easy to imagine events like the Founder’s Cup as commonplace around the country 10 years from now. National TV networks certainly saw it as a big deal. The Founder's Cup aired live on CBS Sports, streamed on Bleacher Report, and reporters from ABC and CNN were on hand.

But most people in attendance Saturday weren’t talking about a 2025 surf contest in Nebraska, they were talking about how much they wished they were the ones in the water riding the perfect wave.

“I would give anything to ride it,” Hawk said.

He had the chance. The WSL was selling tickets for $9,500 that included VIP entrance to the event along with a one-hour session on the wave, complete with a videographer.

The lucky, and wealthy, few will get their chance to ride the wave Monday when the surf fans and media are long gone, and the Sarah A. Mooney Memorial Museum, showcasing furnishings and relics of the pioneering Moody family, reclaims its role as the biggest tourist attraction in town — until the surfers return for Surf Ranch Open, a WSL Men's and Women's Championship Tour event, in September.