Nick Carroll: Eight Questions I've Been Asked About The Pool
COASTALWATCH | SURFING WORLD
Since sneaking off for a go at the WSL Surf Ranch, more commonly known as Kelly’s Pool, three months ago, I’ve been sworn to public silence on any descriptions of the experience.
Yep, an actual embargo. This was true for me and about 80% of the world’s surf journos, who were also in on the gig. We tried to shut up, but there was no way I wasn’t going to tell my mates about it. Specially when as soon as they heard I’d been there, they began peppering me with questions. Like who isn’t curious about this freak show? I kept a list of the questions most asked, figuring it might help when the embargo was lifted. Which just so happens to be right now.
So here we go, the eight most asked questions of the past three months. Ask whatever ya want in the comments and I’ll answer wherever I can...
What’s the water like?
It’s fresh, and it’s slightly treated to remove bacteria, which is a real risk in an area where there’s a large amount of airborne fertilizer — for miles around the Pool there’s little aside from flat farmland. So when you’re sitting in the Pool waiting for a wave or just hanging out, every now and then you’ll get a faint whiff of chlorine. One thing that surprised me a bit was how little water there is — given the length and width of the Pool, maybe 700 metres end-to-end and 200 metres wide, I’d kind of expected a bigger body of water, but it felt as if there was three or four Olympic pools’ worth. Flotation’s not an issue. You do sink a little lower while sitting, but while riding, nup. I rode a board I normally surf, pretty low volume, and it felt no different, except when the wave came to a halt.
Is it noisy?
No! Well not really. The wave-maker, a massive blade or foil, is pulled along a monorail set-up using high tensile steel cables and a big electric motor. It makes a little clanking noise at the start, but then just quietly rumbles along, kinda like a ski lift. The whole thing is run from a control tower halfway down the Pool, where some tech guys sit watching their computers, ready to roll the wave-maker at the appropriate moment.
The scene itself can be a bit noisy, though. For one thing, the tech guys broadcast a one minute warning before making a wave. “One Minute!” echoes around the enclosure. A PWC drives inside the wave line with the driver yelling encouragement, and everyone else watching yells at you too because really, nothing else is going on at the time except that one wave. Little bro Tom describes it in our Fireside Chat as a “magnifying glass” but at times it feels more like you’re under a microscope. (Surfing World's inagural Fireside Chat will be coming later today)
Is the takeoff heavy?
Nup. It’s cake. You’re advised to sit very close to the steel mesh that separates you from the wave-maker, near a pole marked “31”. This is about 15 metres down from where the wave attains its full height. You watch it approach, trying not to wig out, then just turn around and catch it. The wave is just a slope at that point, with a little bit of foam forming on your inside shoulder. Sooo easy.
There’s another takeoff point that’s a bit trickier. It’s at a point further up toward the start of the Pool, where the water is quite shallow — you can stand on the concrete bottom and wait for a wave with the water about at waist height. The wave reaches this point only half-formed and it’s quite weak. I was tipped by Raimana van Bastolaer on the PWC that I shouldn’t linger on this bit, but really pump and gain speed and try to float my way across to the normal takeoff point, but the wave had a bit of wind bump on it and I didn’t pull the trigger quick enough. I ended up a bit behind the foam line, which is kind of fatal in the Pool because the foam has almost no energy at all — you can’t use it to push around a section the way you can on an ocean wave. I was annoyed — you don’t wanna waste a wave when you’re only getting one every 20 minutes or so.
How long is it?
Not quite 400 metres. Takes about 45 seconds from takeoff to fizzle. It’s a long way by anyone’s reckoning but it doesn’t seem that long, I later thought because of the wave’s almost hypnotic lack of variance — it just goes along at the same pace, unlike most ocean waves, which are always changing and flexing a bit. You ride it down the length of the pool in quite a narrow band, about five metres wide, where the wave encounters changes in the bottom contour. It starts out maybe a head and a bit high and quite flat-faced, steepens slightly for a little bit, forms into a hollowish curve through the middle, flattens slightly again, then accelerates into a long quick barrel toward the end. Given more time than we had, getting the contour wired and so forth, I reckon you could do a lot of cool shit on it — a lot more than just hunt barrels.
Did you wipe out?
Oh yes, once on the left and once on the right. It’s not a heavy situation at all. The lip doesn’t slam you and the foam has nothing, and there’s no wave behind it — just a weird little pop-up secondary wave that sucks around a bit but does not harm. You just fall and let it pass. What is amazing is the disruption the wave causes to the Pool itself. Water flies everywhere, small quantities are even thrown out of the Pool altogether here and there along the edges. Just mad surges that really re-awaken you to the energies let loose in a normal surf zone. The Pool has been re-designed to cope with this disruption — originally it took a long time to settle, but now thanks to channels and a long deep gutter along the rim that brings water back into the Pool’s main body, it takes about four and a half minutes to settle enough for another wave to be made.
How many waves did you get?
A dozen — six made for me, six poached off others. The way a session worked when we visited, four people were in the Pool at a time. One person sat at the takeoff, the others sat scattered down the Pool at various points of their choosing. You got a right made for you, then a left, then sat out the next 30 minutes while the other three got theirs, hoping all the time that one of ‘em would fall off so you could steal the wave. Everyone’s cheering each other and silently wishing they’d screw it up at the same time. The sessions theoretically last long enough for everyone to have four waves made for them but it doesn’t always work — the technicians pulled the plug early on my last one.
Can they make the wave bigger?
Yes, but it’s not worth it. I talked to one of the crew who’s been with the project pretty much from the start, and he told me they’ve made a wave eight feet high (he called the waves we were riding five feet). Trouble is it exaggerates the disruption to ridiculous levels, lots of water goes everywhere, and the re-set takes forever. He did tell me that they’ve only just begun and that he expected Pools with bigger surf to be on the agenda down the track.
Was Kelly there?
Nup. A couple of my journo mates were a bit leery of the whole thing; they thought maybe it was a KS set-up and at some point he’d pop out of the control tower, cackling madly and pulling the trigger on an eight foot bomb that would clean us all up for bagging out his Pool in the past. Revenge of the Pool Nerd! He has a little silver Airstream caravan on site and stayed in it for months after hurting his foot at J-Bay, tinkering with the machinery and the computers like some sort of Dr Frankenstein; you can only imagine the kinds of waves he’s had made for him on dead glass days. (Well you don’t have to imagine it, they’re in some of the WSL videos.)
It does strike me that perhaps he’s really satisfying his own curiosity as much as anything. Kelly’s like the rest of us in that he used to draw pictures of his dream waves in schoolbooks; he’s like a lot of people who’ve dreamed of their very own personal wave in the backyard. The difference is that he’s the best surfer ever, the richest pro surfer ever, and he’s actually gone ahead and built it.
Stay Tuned For Surfing World's inagural Fireside Chat with Greg Webber, Rob Bain, Nick Carroll, Vaughan Blakey, Derek Reilly and Tom Carroll which will be available later today.
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