All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

Words by Ru Hill & images by Marine Jaud

Between waves the machine is silent. Conversations pop up effortlessly though between strangers in the crowd that line the edge of the Kelly Slater wave pool. The atmosphere is unlike a normal surf contest. It’s not a different crowd but it is a filtered one. Everyone has paid for a ticket and driven for hours. No-one just happened to be in the area and dropped in. These are surf fans excited to geek out over the event. Happy surf nerds. These are my kind of people.

Suddenly the sound of the wave’s engine begins. A pregnant, mechanical ticking and whirring, like a roller coaster climbing backwards, ready to drop. The huge plough starts to drive through the water like a locomotive building momentum. It hushes the crowd. It reminds me of the infectious silence which ripples through an audience as the house lights drop in a theatre.

Only the commentators voices echo across the lake, but then the crowd at the top of the 700 yard long track start to whoop and whistle as the surfer strokes twice and steps to their feet. The first section is fairly soft and most surfers do a couple of smooth white water re-entries for speed as the wave builds in size and power.

As the wave approaches you, the speakers at your part of the track become muffled and for the first time even the commentators are muted.

For a few heart beats it goes quiet but then the roar of the water builds as the impressive performance of machinery and athleticism closes in on you. The power of the wave peaks and the surfer feels almost close enough to touch as they set up the barrel or attempt successively more risky and impressive maneuvers.

The cheering of the crowd, a noise which chases the action like a Mexican wave down the line of the pool, engulfs you.

The wave passes and Joe Turpel’s dulcet tones slap you in the ears once again as the wake power-drives along the wall, sending spray high enough in the air to make kids shriek with excitement and cameras to be hidden away like lighting after being so keenly focused on the action only a split second before.  

As the spray settles everyone turns their eyes towards the video monitors which allow you to see the final third of the wave. Did Medina make it out of the barrel? Did John John land the air?

The commentators aren’t having to gee up the crowd to engage them with the action because it’s all happening right here. We’re all in it together on every wave.


After their turn the surfers ride the length of the pool, back to the boat ramp and each time the crowd cheers them like they’d won the whole thing.

Then the machine falls silent.

Conversation springs up again until but a few minutes later, tick, tick, tick, whiirrrrrr , a hush falls over the crowd and the whole wonderful show begins again.

This is unlike any surf contest I’ve seen before. The wave isn’t death defying but every wave would be the highlight of the vast majority of world title heats and it goes on like that all day. There are obviously huge advantages too when it comes to advertising, scheduling and logistics but purely as a spectator experience, this is the most fun I could imagine a day at a surf contest ever being. I’m feeling nostalgic about the future.

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