You would think that Newcastle sporting icon and four-time world champion Mark Richards had done everything there was to do on a surfboard.
But even the 60-year-old Merewether legend did not know what to expect when he joined a host of current and former surf stars at a test event at Kelly Slater’s multimillion-dollar wave pool in Leemore, California, 10 days ago.
The Newcastle Herald tracked down a still-smiling Richards when he returned to Australia last week after his first surf on a man-made wave.
NEWCASTLE HERALD: So what was it like?
MARK RICHARDS: The wave is incredible. It’s as good as a good ocean wave. It’s really hard to describe. I guess the best thing to say is it’s definitely not a novelty wave. It’s not the sort of wave where you have an hour or two in the pool and sort of just go, ‘I’ve done that. I’m happy now. I don’t want to go back again.’ It’s such a good-quality wave that you don’t want to get out of the pool. I would be busting to go back at any stage if I got the opportunity. It’s sort of like the perfect wave. It goes for about 55 seconds. I timed a couple of waves. The great thing about it is it’s broken into four quarters. The first section is open-face, then it goes into a barrel section, then it sort of becomes open-face again, and then it finishes with a barrel section. A lot of waves in the ocean you take off on a nice section and you can do a bottom turn and hit the top of the wave, and then the wave will sort of go flat and you’ve got to keep cutting back at the whitewater, sort of waiting for it to build up for another section you can do some turns on. The beauty of Kelly’s wave is it just keeps forming up in front of you, perfect-machine-like.
NH: Kelly Slater released a video two years ago of a prototype man-made wave. Has it changed much since then?
MR: He’s been working on this with engineers and investors for anywhere from 10 to 15 years to get it to this stage. It’s not something they decided a year or two ago to make a wave pool. It’s been a long, slow process. Apparently, when he dropped the clip that melted the internet, that very first quite black-looking, oily wave where it gets tubed from start to finish, I don’t know the ins and outs, but they decided they weren’t happy with that wave, so they drained the pool, dug up the whole bottom of the pool, took all the concrete out, back to bare dirt, and then rebuilt the concrete bottom with these contours to give you some variation in the wave. This new one is their version two.
NH: The waves looked about a metre. Does it get any bigger?
MR: It’s a foot or two bigger than it looks in the videos. I think it’s in that four- to five-foot range. Maybe even six foot. I think they nailed it with the size. The water is only about a metre deep. I fell off on one and got hammered pretty hard. I think it’s a little bit like the ocean where you can fall off three waves in a row and you pop straight back up, then one will hold you down and grind you into the bottom. And Jordy Smith said there was one he fell off on and it smashed him. It has got power. The impression most people would have, because it’s in a pool that’s man-made, is that it doesn’t have the energy of an ocean wave, but it’s definitely not a softer, crumbling wave. It’s got energy and it’s got power. You get held down. You realise you’ve fallen off and the wave has landed on you and pushed you down to the bottom and held you down.
NH: There’s a large mechanical device running alongside you the length of the wave. Is that off-putting?
MR: It is a little when you’re watching because it’s sort of noisy. It does sound like a train going past. I guess when you’re sitting watching you are aware of it, and when you’re in the pool waiting for a wave you hear it, but as soon as you get on the wave you’re so excited that it’s all just sort of background noise. You don’t really hear it.
NH: The wave pool is in the middle of California farming country between San Francisco and Los Angeles and a three-hour drive from the coast. Does it feel weird?
MR: It’s in this area of California where it’s virtually dead flat, and they’re all farming areas. There’s green fields all around. It’s a bit California deserty. It’s really hot and it’s a bit like this oasis in the middle of nowhere. The whole thing is a bit surreal. You’ve got this pool way inland from the ocean that one minute is flat, then every four minutes this amazing wave peels down. I’ve never seen so many adults that happy in one spot for two days. It was like everyone was walking around going, ‘Can you believe this? How good is this? How lucky are we to be here.’
I’m just dreaming about having one in Newcastle. It would be incredible.
NH: How easy was it to get on waves?
MR: I think if you were a novice you would struggle. You wouldn’t be able to surf it. Your average recreational surfer would have no trouble at all. You might miss a wave or two, because the positioning is a little bit tricky when you see it coming at you. There is an orange marker on one of the pylons that you line up with. It’s just timing. I missed the first one but not the second one.
NH: All the waves are identical. Is that suitable for contest surfing?
MR: The purpose was to have an experimental event, which they called the Future Classic. Carissa Moore won the women’s and Gabriel Medina won the men’s. They trialled a round-robin format where you could ride four waves, two rights and two lefts, and you counted two waves, a left and a right. It sort of made it really exciting because there was pressure to get two good rides. A lot of the guys actually fell off. They either went for an air and fell off trying to get a good score or they were too deep in the barrel and got squished. Steph Gilmore was the last one in the water. She could have won on her last left, but she went for broke with a really deep back-side barrel. It was the same with the men’s. Felipe Toledo went for broke and fell as well. I think everyone thought the waves were all the same, it’s in a pool, the guys and the girls will be scoring tens every wave, but that wasn’t the case. It was really noticeable that some surfers read the wave really well and adapted to it, and others were slightly lost at sea.
NH: What grabbed you about the four-wave format?
MR: There was an element of pressure, and everyone in the crowd knew what someone needed. Sometimes in surfing contests you tend to lose track of who’s winning and why. I likened it a little bit to Olympic ice skating or gymnastics, where if you fall, no matter what you’ve done up until that point, you get penalised by the judges. You can’t fall over in ice skating. They were sort of applying the same judging to this. All the competitors who have seen their fair share of surfing contests, they were all excited by the format and the added pressure. I think it would be a good format for TV, and certainly with the Olympics in Japan, it’s a terrific format for non-surfers to understand what’s going on. Because of the similarity of the waves, you could really notice the different approaches people had to it, the different routines each surfer would lay down.
NH: A different company is planning to open a wave park in Sydney in 2019 and the World Surf League now owns a majority stake in Kelly Slater Wave Co. Can you see them becoming more common?
MR: If they were everywhere and you had access, for a pro surfer they would be an incredible training tool. I guess a long way down the track as a learn-to-surf thing it would be incredible. Not that wave, because it’s a bit too critical for someone learning to surf. But if there were pools with softer, easier waves, a coach could stand beside someone in the pool, it would make it way easier to learn to surf than paddling around in the ocean. I don’t know when, but I’m guessing the long-term plan is that people will build those pools in Japan, Brazil, Australia and it will become a commercial operation, go and pay to surf it. It’s early days. I’m just dreaming about having one in Newcastle. It would be incredible. I just hope there’s an investor out there who wants to build one in Newcastle.