“Is that cotton?” the guy next to me on the shuttle bus asked as he pointed out the window at the Lemoore crop. Excitement came over me as I confirmed what until that point was regional common knowledge, but to my new friend Chase, who was visiting from Brooklyn, something rare to see. The landscape was novel to him. The scenery had always been constant for me, but in that moment and the following ones when we continued to talk about agriculture, I felt a little valley pride.
The cool thing about that moment was already the pride I felt about the spot we were headed to from where we parked at Tachi Palace — the Surf Ranch. Simply put, the ranch is just that, a spot in the heart of ag land where the world’s greatest surfers come to wrangle and tame “the perfect wave.” Chances are that you’ve heard something about the place, but surprisingly, many area residents don’t know what lies out among the corn, cotton and cash crops of our west side.
The Surf Ranch was born of the vision of professional surfer Kelly Slater, who has been on a decade-long ride to see his dream come true. But what exactly is the ranch all about? It consists of a 2,000- by 500-foot rectangular, concrete-lined manmade waterway; its original construction was that of a sandy-bottomed skiing lake. A hundred-ton hydrofoil system runs along a track, pushed by 150 truck tires at about 18 miles per hour. Waves are formed by the contoured bottom of the lake, constructed to give “the perfect wave” its shape, which is a constant tube married to an open-faced, late-breaking wave.
Early on, Slater partnered with a recreational surfer named Adam Fincham. This was a perfect match, as Adam also had a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California. He specializes in geophysical fluid dynamics, which translates to an understanding of the flow of bodies of water to the point that he’s a water whisperer of sorts. Together, this duo created a team to fit the dream.
Slater’s ranch is the prototype location where the surfer was looking to create his vision, just as the half-pipe allowed a concentration of the essence of skateboarding: constant momentum, the ability to launch, grind and pivot. The ranch allows a surfer a predicted seascape, allowing for concentration on skills, without a “bad surf day” of weather or lack of swells.
“If you build it, they will come.” The Field of Dreams cliché works for more than ball fields surrounded by cornfields. Location of the ranch may have been a gamble, but it has paid off in a big way. It attracts the greatest surfers in the world, as well as gives California pro surfers an opportunity to elevate their rankings. The past two years, Surf Ranch has been a stop on the global surf-trekking World Surf League, where not only is the world champion crowned, but where Team America gets its athletes for the new Olympic sport of surfing, which makes its debut in Tokyo in 2020. The top two American men’s and women’s finishers on the tour go on to represent the U.S.
The tour takes the world’s best, who gain their rankings from points earned during surfing competitions, to the hottest surf spots globally, places like Bali, Rio and South Africa. The tour has 11 stops for men and 10 for women.
The Surf Ranch Freshwater Pro is the only American location on the tour, giving the site that much more significance. Eighteen women and 36 men vie over three days to better their chances of being crowned a world champion or Olympic competitor. On this weekend, 25-year-old Brazilian Gabriel Medina took first prize. In the women’s division, Lakey Peterson, a Santa Barbara resident, took home the Surf Ranch first-place trophy, a scaled-down red tractor on a wooden base.
Spectators can gather at the north end of the lake, where there is grass and activities for the family, such as a swimming area in the sister lake next to the surf pond. There is an open-air bar that sits on a large deck that overlooks the action. Here, spectators are provided with a close-up view of competitors finishing their rides and emerging from the water. Between the north and south ends, where the VIP gathering area is, are cabanas and viewing platforms lining the 600-plus-yard stretch. Food and beverage stations are throughout. What you won’t find are plastic water bottles. The surfing community is taking a stand against the ocean scourge by providing access to hydro flasks and filling stations in convenient locations. Electricity to run the ranch comes through solar power.
The VIP area centered with what looks like a Maui surf lodge with wood buildings and accents, along with outdoor leather lounge chairs and bar stools, and plenty of decking and canopy shade. There is a wooden-barrel hot tub where guests can watch the wave action. Specialty foods are available with everything from catered poki bowls and Hawaiian BBQ chicken sliders to Korean BBQ, cheesesteak sandwiches and acai bowls.
With the beach vibe on the south shore comes heavy social interaction with guests. Competing surfers and their teams, along with sponsor groups, mingle with the crowd.
Here was where Visalian Christina Molinar found herself on the perfect afternoon. When asked what she thought was so special about the overall experience, she said, “It brings people from all over the world here, as well as introduces us here to the surfer world.”
At the Saturday evening conclusion of the event, after the awards were presented, the crowd was treated to an after-surf concert at an outdoor stage and grass venue. This year, rocker Jack White, formally of the White Stripes, performed with his Grammy-nominated group The Raconteurs.
Host Kelly Slater placed 11th out of the 36 competitors in a contest that only separated him from the leader by a couple of points (17.77/15.07). Slater has won 11 world championships, capturing his first and setting the age record at 20, and breaking another record by capturing one at the age of 39, making him the oldest to do so.
I caught up to a busy Slater to ask him his thoughts of his ranch vision coming to fruition.
“It’s a big part of my life’s work coming together. We are able to bring people from all over the surfing world here,” he says with pride.
And why shouldn’t he have pride in his ranch? It is, after all, one man’s dream coming to life, and that makes the place a magical spot available for all of us to share.