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)

of

Expand

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.”

Leave a Reply