Commandant: ‘The nation couldn’t have asked for more’ in outgoing Camp Pendleton commander

  • Lt. Gen. George W. Smith Jr., commanding general, I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), addresses the audience during the I MEF change of command ceremony Sept. 23, 2021 at the 11 Area Parade Deck on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. During the ceremony, Lt. Gen. Karsten S. Heckl relinquished command of I MEF to Lt. Gen. Smith Jr. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jennifer Andrade)

  • Lt. Gen. Karsten S. Heckl, former commanding general, I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), passes the colors to Lt. Gen. George W. Smith Jr., signifying the change of command of I MEF during a formal ceremony Sept. 23, 2021 at the 11 Area Parade Deck on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jennifer Andrade)

  • Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David H. Berger hugs Lt. Gen. Karsten S. Heckl, former commanding general, I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), as he turns over the microphone for comments during the I MEF change of command ceremony Sept. 23, 2021 at the 11 Area Parade Deck on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. During the ceremony, Heckl relinquished command of I MEF to Lt. Gen. George W. Smith Jr. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jennifer Andrade)

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During a recent visit to the West Coast, the Marines’ top general spoke publicly, praising the preparation and success of the Camp Pendleton-based Marines’ mission at the Kabul airport while highlighting the leadership that had them ready for the task.

In a change of command ceremony held on Friday, Sept. 24, at Camp Pendleton, Gen. David Berger, the Marines’ commandant, credited Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl for achieving a “monumental task” during his one-year leadership of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton’s largest tenant and the Marines’ premier crisis response force of about 51,000 Marines and sailors. It is also the Marines’ most prominent and oldest fighting force.

“You had to maintain and you had to push the entire (Marine Expeditionary Force) at a speed almost uncomfortable and at the same time had to send units around the world, the last being the force that was in Kabul; you had to make sure the Marines are prepared,” Berger said, kicking off the ceremony where Heckl handed off leadership of the fighting force to Lt. Gen. George W. Smith, Jr., who most recently served at the Pentagon as deputy commandant of plans, policies and operations.

The generals exchanged the colors (battle flags) on a field at the base in a ceremony steeped in traditions that symbolized the handing off and the receiving of legal authority, responsibility and accountability for the force.

The Marines who were sent to provide security for the evacuation efforts at the Kabul airport are “a good example” of what Heckl accomplished in making sure the troops were ready for whatever crisis they might face on deployment, Berger said. “They were not sent there to do that and they were given a really hard mission. Led by a fantastic general officer, they knocked it out of the park.”

Some of the Marines sent to secure the airport were part of a unit attached to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and already deployed to the Middle East as crisis responders serving under the U.S. Central Command. On Aug. 26, 13 service members were killed in a bombing attack of the airport, of whom nine came from Camp Pendleton’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.

“Pictures of Marines pulling people across a canal and over barbed wire happened because the mission is to protect the Marines on their left and right and get one more family, one more American out,” Berger said of the chaos that erupted as crowds amassed trying to get into the airport and onto planes in the final days of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. “They were told to close that operation down. But, they didn’t because we can save one more.”

Berger credited Heckl with providing the training and the leadership across the ranks that made that mission successful even though he was not there.

“We have to train those forces that when they’re there, they will do the right thing,” Berger said. “And they did the right thing; they did more than the right thing.”

“I’m pretty grateful at your quiet, steady leadership; the nation couldn’t have asked for more, I couldn’t have asked for more,” Berger told Heckl in his comments at the ceremony.

Heckl, a naval aviator who saw combat in Iraq in 2008, will move to the East Coast for a new job at the Pentagon he has been nominated for as the deputy commandant for combat development and integration.

Heckl told those who gathered that leading the 1st  Marine Expeditionary Force was an “honor and pride of a lifetime,” and he spoke to two defining moments that bookended his command.

On July 30, 2020, eight Marines and a sailor died when an amphibious assault vehicle sank off San Clemente Island during pre-deployment training with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, part of the 1st  Marine Expeditionary Force.

“That was a heartbreaking, devastating loss and I took command the next day,” Heckl said, describing how just days later he attended a ceremony for the nine men after they were recovered from the AAV 400 feet below sea level.

Despite the painful loss, he said the Marines under his command were not “deterred or distracted from their mission.”

“Fast-forward to a little over a month ago; we lost 13 service members in Afghanistan,” he said, talking about how those who survived the attack remained focused on their work.

“They were grieving. They’ll be grieving for a lifetime. But, were they distracted from their mission? Not a chance,” he said. “They were doing their job and they were proud of what they did and should be. Those two events captured the essential spirit of what it means to be the (1st Marine Expeditionary Force).”

During Heckl’s tenure, his Marines were tasked with implementing Berger’s vision for a more robust and agile Marines Corps that is also more skilled in providing humanitarian and disaster aid around the globe. Heckl’s Marines broke barriers through their their partnership with the Navy’s 3rd Fleet going back to the Marine Corps’ amphibious roots, emphasizing making the force more competitive against the United States’ future adversaries.

The 1st  Marine Expeditionary Force deployed throughout the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, supporting alliances with partner nations. And, it tackled domestic issues this year by providing natural disaster assistance to local, civil and federal authorities fighting wildland forest fires and dispensing COVID-19 vaccines.

“I will never forget it,” Heckl said of his command. “It will shape me and change me for the remainder of my days.”

Smith, who first served at Camp Pendleton as a second lieutenant with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment more than three decades ago, said he was up for his new leadership challenge.

“I know what this (Marine Expeditionary Force) means to our Corps; I know what this (Marine Expeditionary Force) means to our nation,” he said, “and I know I will be worthy of that trust and confidence each and every day.”

Polynesian festival brings aloha vibes to San Clemente

  • Visitors pass by a 1946 Canadian Mercury, Model 114 named Surfer Girl, at the 31st annual Polynesian Festival on Saturday, September 25, 2021. The event was hosted by the Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre held at the San Clemente Community Center in San Clemente. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Ukuleles for sale at the 31st annual Polynesian Festival on Saturday, September 25, 2021, hosted by the Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre held at the San Clemente Community Center in San Clemente. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • As a crowd looks on, girls from the Da Hula Studio in Walnut dance on the lawn of the San Clemente Community Center in San Clemente during the 31st annual Polynesian Festival on Saturday, September 25, 2021. The event was hosted by the Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre hosted the 31st annual Polynesian Festival on Saturday, September 25, 2021, at the San Clemente Community Center in San Clemente. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Visitors take in the various booths at the 31st annual Polynesian Festival on Saturday, September 25, 2021, hosted by the Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre at the San Clemente Community Center in San Clemente. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Aloha caps for sale at the 31st annual Polynesian Festival on Saturday, September 25, 2021, hosted by the Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre and held at the San Clemente Community Center in San Clemente. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The crowd watches and listens to the music as girls from the Da Hula Studio in Walnut dance on the lawn of the San Clemente Community Center in San Clemente during the 31st annual Polynesian Festival on Saturday, September 25, 2021. The event was hosted by the Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Leis hang at a booth at the 31st annual Polynesian Festival on Saturday, September 25, 2021, hosted by the Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre and held at the San Clemente Community Center in San Clemente. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Girls from the Da Hula Studio in Walnut dance on the lawn of the San Clemente Community Center in San Clemente during the 31st annual Polynesian Festival on Saturday, September 25, 2021. The event was hosted by the Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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The sounds and sights of the islands filled the lawn of the San Clemente Community Center.

Luau dancers swayed their hips to the strum of the ukuleles and aloha vibes were spread throughout the well-attended festival on Saturday, Sept. 25.

The 31st annual Polynesian Festival, put on by the Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre, aims at spreading the Polynesian culture through music, crafts and performances.

More than 35 vendor and activity booths were set up, and a vintage Woody car show brought out old surf-style cars for a bit of nostalgia.

Orange County high school football top 25 for Week 6


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ORANGE COUNTY FOOTBALL TOP 25

(The Register’s top 25 poll is voted on by five members of the media, with points awarded for each spot in the poll, starting with 25 points for a No. 1 ranking.)

1. Mater Dei 3-0 (150 poll points)

2. Servite 5-0 (120)

3. Mission Viejo 4-1 (114)

4. Santa Margarita 4-1 (111)

5T. Los Alamitos 4-1 (102)

5T. Orange Lutheran 5-0 (102)

7. Edison 3-2 (95)

8. Corona del Mar 5-0 (91)

9. Villa Park 4-1 (83)

10. Yorba Linda 5-0 (77)

11. Foothill 5-0 (76)

12. San Clemente 4-2 (70)

13. Orange 2-4 (59)

14. Cypress 4-2 (56)

15. Capistrano Valley 4-2 (54)

16. JSerra 3-2 (50)

17. El Toro 6-0 (42)

18. Tustin 3-2 (40)

19. La Habra 0-5 (28)

20. Tesoro 1-4 (27)

21. Pacifica 5-0 (23)

22T. San Juan Hills 0-5 (19)

22T. El Modena 4-1 (19)

24. Sunny Hills 3-2 (12)

25. Brea Olinda 3-1 (11)

Also receiving votes: Trabuco Hills 4-1 (7); Aliso Niguel 4-2 (4); Portola 6-0 (4); El Dorado 5-0 (3); Westminster 5-0 (1).

San Clemente’s Colapinto wins U.S. Open of Surfing title, Oceanside’s Simmers clinches women’s

Griffin Colapinto had a good feeling going into the U.S. Open of Surfing, an intuition that it was finally his time to win the title.

The San Clemente surfer won a junior title at age 16 at the Huntington Beach event and has come painfully close at the main event, but it wasn’t until Sunday, Sept. 26, that he was able to win his first-ever U.S. Open of Surfing title.

“It’s been a long run,” he said. “It’s been burning on me. I had a weird intuition it was going to come together, I was feeling good.

“It came together.”

Colapinto was joined by Oceanside surfer Caitlin Simmers on the winner’s podium, also a junior U.S. Open of Surfing title holder. The 15-year-old surfer’s win makes her the second-youngest to ever clinch a U.S. Open of Surfing women’s title.

“I’m just really happy,” she said. “I’m stoked everything went my way.”

  • Griffin Colapinto, of San Clemente, react to cheers as he wins the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Caitlin Simmers, 15,  of Oceanside is carried up the beach as she wins the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Surfer Nolan Rapoza of Long Beach hits the lip during the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Caitlin Simmers, 15,  and Griffin Colapinto react to cheers as they win the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Surfing fans line the beach to watch the action during the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Surfer and past winner Courtney Conlogue is consoled by her family after losing in the semi-finals during the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Sloane Gray, nine months, takes in his first curf contest with his parents, Joel and Ashley during the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • People watch the action and replays on one of several jumbo screens during the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • A rising tide catches some photographers off guard during the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Surfer Nolan Rapoza of Long Beach is congratulated after beating US Olympian Kolohi Andino in an upset during the quarterfinals of the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Spectators Shiralika Gupta and her dog Linus take in the action during the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Surfer Nolan Rapoza of Long Beach hits the lip during the semi-finals of the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Runnerup Jake Marshall of Oceanside carves a wave on the inside in the final during the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Runnerup Jake Marshall of Oceanside hits the lip during final in the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Griffin Colapinto of San Clemente hits the lip as he wins the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Griffin Colapinto of San Clemente hits the lip in the shorebreak as he wins the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Runnerup Jake Marshall of Oceanside attempts an air manuever in the final during the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Courtney Conlogue hits the lip in the shorebreak during the semi-finals of the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Gabriela Bryan of Hawaii hits the lip during the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Fans of surfer Nolan Rapoza of Long Beach cheer for him during semi-finals of the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Silver haired Olympic silver medalist Kanoa Igarashi does an air manuever in the semi-final of the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • 15 year-old Caitlin Simmers hits the lip in the final as she wins the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • 15 year-old Caitlin Simmers hits the lip on her way to wining the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Silver haired Olympic silver medalist Kanoa Igarashi hits the lip during the semi-final of the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Caitlin Simmers, 15, hits the lip on her way to wining the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Caitlin Simmers, 15,  hits the lip in the final as she wins the US Open of Surfing Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 at the pier in Huntington Beach.
    (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

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The sand, pier and bleachers filled with surf fans through the morning. The contest got underway on Sunday under overcast skies with 3-foot to 4-foot waves showing up for the final day.

While the big event was scaled down this year by the lingering coronavirus pandemic, beachgoers stopped at the few brand booths that were allowed, meandering on the wooden walkway that led down to the surf contest.

A big group of supporters showed up with blow horns, hand clappers and cheers for Long Beach surfer Nolan Rapoza, who has trained at the Huntington Beach Pier since he was 10 years old.

Rapoza, now 23, was up against World Tour veteran Kolohe Andino, a San Clemente surfer also no stranger to the surf break on the south of the pier from growing up doing contests here on the competitive circuit.

He saw Andino stumble on a few waves, a boost of confidence and a chance for him to overtake the more experienced surfer.

Rapoza launched to the air to do a big air reverse, landing in the whitewash and continuing to toward shore, the group of supporters on the sand going wild as the judges awarded him an 8-point score.

“After I did the first big air, I could hear everyone screaming and I needed to calm my nerves and finish,” Rapoza said.

He surfed with strategy, keeping close to Andino as the clock ticked down to keep him from nabbing a good wave – a tactic that gave him a big win against one of the world’s best to earn a spot at the semi-finals.

Huntington Beach surfer Kanoa Igarashi also had local knowledge on his side, going up against  Brazilian Lucas Silveira and winning the heat for a spot in the semi-finals

“I’d love to just win again,” said the two-time U.S. Open of Surfing champion. “I have a bunch of my friends and family here, we’re pretty much on vacation right now, and being able to compete and spend time with them is really special.”

When the women’s semi-final event got underway, Hawaiian surfer Gabriela Bryan earned a spot in the final after beating veteran surfer Coco Ho, also from Hawaii.

Santa Ana surfer Courtney Conlogue was matched up against Simmers in the semi-final, a teen making her mark in the competitive circuit.

Conlogue got a pair of mid-range scores, two 5.17 scores, while Simmers earned an early 7.0, then backed it up with a 7.83 with just four minutes left on the clock – putting the two-time U.S. Open of Surfing and World Tour veteran in a corner needing a 9.66.

“My mindsight was I had nothing to lose,” Simmers said.

When the men’s semi-final got underway, Rapoza’s streak came to an end against San Diego’s Jake Marshall. Rapoza patiently waited for waves, finding a 5.23 with just three minutes left on the clock to take the lead.

But Marshall wasn’t going out without a fight, a wave popping up right next to the pier with just a minute left on the clock that earned him a 5.77 to clinch a spot in the finals.

Still, it was Rapoza’s best result yet at the U.S. Open of Surfing, giving him a good start to the Challenger Series, a four-stop series that gives top surfers a chance on the World Tour.

“It feels amazing … this is what I dreamed about,” he said. “It’s been really fun having all my family and friends coming down to support me. It’s insane, I love all the support, it really means a lot to me.”

The second semi-finals was an all Orange County match-up with Igarashi against Colapinto.

Colapinto wasted no time, earning a 7.17 on his first wave, finding a second wave to post a 6.10 score, the crowd cheering as he made his way toward the sand.

Igarashi had an uncharacteristic heat, with little on the scoreboard as the clock ticked down, taking his first big wave for a 5.17 with two minutes left, but not nearly enough to turn the heat.

Before the finals got underway, the beach announcer asked the crowd to take a one-minute moment of silence for Rick “Rockin Fig” Fignetti, who for decades provided the beach commentary for the big event. The beach fell quiet as people remembered the beloved beach announcer and Huntington Beach surf shop owner, who died unexpectedly at age 64 last July.

Then the attention turned back to the water when the finals got underway, Simmers taking the first punch with two big turns to get a score of 6.33.

Bryan earned a 5.67, but another 7.17 and a 6.73 by Simmers eventually earned her the win.

“I guess I just had momentum, things just went my way,” she said.

As the men’s 35-minute final got underway, Marshall took the first wave to earn a 5.50. Colapinto followed, stomping an inside hack to put a 6.83 on the board followed by a 7.57, but Marshall wasn’t going to back down, carving his way across a solid wave to earn a 7.33 and then another with 5-minutes left on the clock, but stumbling on the inside turn.

As the clock ticked down, Colapinto put a stamp on the heat, pulled off an air reverse on the outside, then again on the inside, supporters dressed in bright orange sweaters jumping around on the sand to celebrate and then chairing him on the sand following the buzzer sounding as he waved the American flag high.

T.J. Prendergast, of Tustin, was stoked to see Colapinto, who was runner up at the event in 2018, take the win.

“We’ve been supporting him for a long time,” Prendergast said. “He’s been so close for so long and he finally pulled it off. It’s great to see.”

Colapinto thanked his family and supporters following his win.

“I’m allowed to go about life having a good time,” he said, “no matter what, win or lose.”

Reporter’s Notebook: What’s it like to ride waves at the mysterious Surf Ranch?

A train of a machine revved up and moved forward, pushing the water to grow on the flat, lake-like pool.

The fast-moving wave crumbled on the top as it approached. A surf guide gave me a gentle shove, ensuring I didn’t botch my take off on this tricky, wild wave.

RELATED: Man-made waves: The future of surfing is here and soon will be in Southern California’s desert

It was no ocean wave I was about to attempt to surf on, instead a freshwater playground in the middle of farmland, hours away from the coast.

And if I couldn’t catch waves here, I’d have driven five hours and blown a chance at riding one of the world’s most mysterious and coveted surf breaks.

  • Reporter Laylan Connelly gets an inside look at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, near Fresno, a man-made wave that gives a glimpse at the future of surfing. (Photo courtesy of Matt Kolo/Surf Ranch)

  • Reporter Laylan Connelly gets an inside look at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, near Fresno, a man-made wave that gives a glimpse at the future of surfing. (Video screengrab courtesy of Matt Kolo/Surf Ranch)

  • An inside look at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, near Fresno, a wave pool that produces artificial waves hours away from the coast. (Photo by Laylan Connelly/SCNG)

  • Reporter Laylan Connelly gets an inside look at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, near Fresno, a man-made wave that gives a glimpse at the future of surfing. (Photo courtesy of Surf Ranch)

  • Reporter Laylan Connelly gets an inside look at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, near Fresno, a man-made wave that gives a glimpse at the future of surfing. (Photo courtesy of Surf Ranch)

  • Reporter Laylan Connelly gets an inside look at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, near Fresno, a man-made wave that gives a glimpse at the future of surfing. (Photo courtesy of Surf Ranch)

  • An inside look at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, near Fresno, a wave pool that produces artificial waves hours away from the coast. (Photo by Laylan Connelly/SCNG)

  • Reporter Laylan Connelly gets an inside look at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, near Fresno, a man-made wave that gives a glimpse at the future of surfing. (Photo courtesy of Surf Ranch)

  • Reporter Laylan Connelly gets an inside look at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, near Fresno, a man-made wave that gives a glimpse at the future of surfing. (Photo courtesy of Surf Ranch)

  • An inside look at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, near Fresno, a wave pool that produces artificial waves hours away from the coast. (Photo by Laylan Connelly/SCNG)

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A secret wave pool

There was excitement brewing in the sweltering, muggy air as the travelers arrived at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, a group of media and influencers gathered recently to experience first-hand what it was like to ride the man-made wave.

The Surf Ranch debuted to the public in 2018 for the “Founder’s Cup,” a surf contest that drove thousands of surf fans and curious people, including myself, to the town south of Fresno.

But the Surf Ranch’s existence goes back further than that event three years ago.

Brooke, one of several “surf guides” on site, gave a quick history lesson about how the Surf Ranch got its start.

It took about a decade for Kelly Slater, 11-time world champion, and his team to develop the technology under a veil of secrecy, she said. “They didn’t know if it was going to work.”

Had it not, they would have buried it under dirt and no one would ever know about the project, disguised at the time as a tilapia fishery.

In 2015, Slater released the first video showing what the wave was capable of – and the surf world went nuts.

Since then, mostly only pro surfers or surf industry insiders have had the chance to ride the wave. Then, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, even fewer people had access to the Surf Ranch.

But as pandemic restrictions ease, and with safeguards like coronavirus testing in place, more surfers are experiencing the wave, including the group I recently joined.

Most of what I had seen from footage of pro surfers flawlessly surfing the fast wave made me nervous – would an average surfer like myself be able to handle this strange wave?

Buffet of waves

Another surf guide, Pierce Flynn, gave the low down on what the machinery is capable of: three settings surfers can choose from, like ordering a tasty dessert off a menu.

Waikiki is a setting for a smaller, slower-paced wave good for beginners or longboarders who want to cruise. There’s the wave the pros ride, a mix of fast-moving walls and two hollow barrel sections, called CT 2 (CT is short for Championship Tour).

Then, there’s CT 3,  a bit more forgiving but still fast and high-performance focused with a hollow barrel section at the end. That’s the one myself and a group from Textured Waves, a community that promotes diversity in the water, opted to ride.

The machine needs to reset between waves, so surfers line up along the wall waiting for their turns, just like a ride at a theme park.

There’s a bit of torn emotion watching others surf –  genuine thrill for them as they catch the rides of their life, but also secretly and selfishly wanting them to fall so you can nab, or “poach” the wave for yourself.

Surf guides sit at each end of the pool, offering advice on how to paddle in and even a little shove to make sure you don’t miss your wave. Another on a personal watercraft whips surfers around to their place in line.

“We’ll be the voice in your ear,” Flynn said.

Wild rides

As the wave grew toward me, so did my nerves.

But the surf guide gave my board a nudge and suddenly I was propelled forward, my board moving with the power of the wave.

I popped up quickly and pivoted my board toward the open face of the wave. And then suddenly, I was flying.

My first thought was the wave was faster than I expected, but I also oddly felt like I was moving in slow motion as I raced across the wave’s face. The water moved slightly different than the ocean, pushing up toward my board rather than just behind as it does in the ocean, a difference that took a few moments to get used to as I rode my first wave.

In the unpredictable ocean, you don’t know what the wave is going to do, when it’s going to close out or suddenly suck up. On this wave it was easier to see the canvas I was dancing on and what was going to happen as my board propelled forward.

At some sections, the wave became mellow and allowed me to weave my board up and down the face, at other times it got racy and fast, prompting an urgency to straighten out and speed up so the white wash wouldn’t gobble me up.

And the waves are long, by far the longest waves of my life. Half way through the first wave, my legs started to get shaky, but the adrenaline helped.

I was stiff, not wanting to risk moving my feet or trying big turns for fear the wave would buck me off. Each ride, if completed, lasts about 45 seconds. I prematurely pulled out of my first wave, thinking it was over at about 35 seconds, missing that steep barrel that forms.

As I waited for my next turn, watching the goddess surfers from Textured Waves dancing on the waves gave me a boost of confidence.

I had the chance at one of those “poached” waves (and gave others the same when I couldn’t paddle into my backside wave), quickly turning my board to scratch into the empty wave.

The wave was already halfway down the pool, but I got to enjoy that barreling end section I missed on my first wave – well, kind of.

I crouched my body down as the wave steepened, waiting for the wall of water to cascade over me, but unfortunately couldn’t slow down enough to actually tuck my way deep into it. A video review later showed I was just shy of the hollow cave – the “almost barrel” of my life.

Reporter Laylan Connelly gets an inside look at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, near Fresno, a man-made wave that gives a glimpse at the future of surfing. (Photo courtesy of Surf Ranch)

The last wave of my session offered the same smooth ride, up until the end when that barrel section showed up quicker than expected, the lip of the wave smacking the back of my head for an epic belly flop wipeout, the perfect wave continuing without me on it. The force of the water held me down and washed me around, giving me a bit of a shock at the pool’s power.

After the sessions, a surf guide reviews video footage to relive the epic moments, give tips on how to improve and a chuckle at the wipeouts endured.

“One thing about the place,” the guide said. “It’s never enough, you always want more.”