For the first time ever, at next week's Surf Ranch Pro, Championship Tour points will be awarded at a perfect wave in an artificial environment. (Not counting the 1985 World Professional Inland Surfing Championships, held in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in piddly 1- to- 2 foot surf at Dorney Park's Wildwater Kingdom.)
Over the last few months, the men and women of the CT have been scheduling time in Lemoore, CA - about 100 miles from the nearest ocean - to sort through the intricacies of the wave, and wrap their heads around what it will take to compete for the first time in a pre-determined time slot, on an even playing field, where priority and paddle-battles are meaningless, and performing under pressure will be magnified like never before.
World Surf League: What was going through your mind in the moments before your first ever wave at the Surf Ranch?
Caroline Marks: It was really nerve-racking. They actually gave me the first left of the day and since I had nothing to compare it with, I really didn't know what the wave was gonna do, so I ended up surfing purely off instinct. But it was mind-blowing. You're just sitting there - it's totally flat - and then a perfect wave pops up, that you can literally do eight turns on and get barreled. After my first wave, I just wanted to do it again and again and again [laughs].
Was it a steep learning curve?
It's funny, that very first wave ended up being my best wave that day because I went purely off instinct, so I didn't over think anything. Now I'm more comfortable with it, but it was almost weird how my first wave was my best one.
This is the first Championship Tour event in history where, instead of waves, you're basically being scored on runs. Will you plan each wave/run in advance, similar to snowboarding or skateboarding? Or will you rely on instinct like you did on that first wave?
After the last couple of days surfing up there, I feel way better than I did my first time around. But I've found that every time I surf my best wave, it's because I surfed it based off feel. So, I'm not gonna plan too much in advance. I won't go into a wave thinking, ‘OK, I've gotta do three turns before the barrel,' because I'd rather see what the wave does first, and then do whatever I'm feeling. But I'll definitely go for it. If you want to get big scores, you can't surf it safe. But I'm gonna live in the moment and I'm not gonna worry about what everyone else does or what anyone else says. I'm just gonna do my thing, and surf on instinct.
With this new format, where you're competing against the field, you'll have a chance to see what other surfers have done before you. How do you feel about that?
It's gonna be really interesting. Change is cool. But I'm glad I'm a higher seed, because I'll get to see a lot of other girls' runs before I surf, so I'll kinda know if I need to push it a little more or just complete a wave. To me, whoever surfs best is gonna win. For the first time, we all have the same opportunity, and pretty much the same exact waves.
It's so much different from the ocean, where wave selection and priority play so much of a factor. To take all of that away…it's cool in a lot of ways, but I think one event like this each year is enough.
A CT surfer needs to be mentally strong. But at this event - with limited opportunities, an even playing field, and a stadium atmosphere - the pressure will be on full display. How are you preparing for that?
It's trippy; I was talking to my coach [Mike Parsons] on the way back about that. It's so weird, because the event is a week out and I already know what board I'm gonna ride, I already know what the wave is gonna do, I already know what time I surf, I already know exactly when my first wave is gonna come, and that is so weird - I've never had that feeling before. No one has. But I'm excited for it. Everyone is surfing the wave so well now - we've all been surfing it a ton. So hopefully we can put on a show.
Have you been trying some airs on that end section?
I just got the best clips I've gotten from up there, but I'm not gonna post anything because I don't want anyone copying what I'm doing [laughs].
And I assume you don't want the judges to see it yet, either.
Exactly! Because then they're gonna expect me to do that on every wave.
I will say I've been trying reverses on the mid-section before the barrel, and just really trying to push every single turn as hard as I can, which is hard to do out there. I'm also trying a few airs after the barrel on the left, and testing how deep I can get in that last section. It's been really fun trying new things. Before going to the Surf Ranch I'd never been to a wave to work on backside barrel riding, so I'd never really practiced that. But now that I've been doing it a ton, I feel really confident about it, and I feel like I can bring that back to the ocean.
Being a rookie, competing for CT points in an artificial environment isn't as much of a shock as it might be for, say, Joel Parkinson or Stephanie Gilmore, with decades of CT experience in an ocean. Do you see that as any sort of advantage
Everything is new for me this year, so the wavepool is just another part of that. But I imagine if you've been on Tour for 10 years and every event has been in the ocean, it's kind of a curveball to have to prepare for this one.
I don't know if that part of it is an advantage or not, but there's no pressure for me, which has been working all year. Being so young - I'm trying to use that to my advantage. It's like: cool, there's a wavepool on Tour now, time to get ready. I'm just excited for the opportunity.
Watch the Surf Ranch Pro live daily September 6-9 on the WSL website App, and Facebook. For ticket information visit wslsurfranchpro.com.