Wavepool Competitions Will Let Us Down

_CWA2310Dylan Graves. Photo: Corey Wilson

“One minute remaining, Pottz.”
“That’s right, Joe. Kelly needing a 7.68 to overtake Medina. He has priority. Will there be enough time for— well, look at this — like there’s a bump on the horizon.”
“Forty-five seconds.”
“Kelly’s getting into position. He lets the first one go, it looks like — he wants the second one, Joe. Medina makes a move but has to let him go. Will this wave give him the scoring opportunity he needs?”

Kelly gets the score. Or maybe he doesn’t. Either way, as viewers, we’re injected with a flurry of excitement as we watch the unknown become reality. It’s these windfall moments that allow us to justify watching a 35-minute heat that’s mostly two men sitting on their boards, bobbing to the beat of the ocean. You never know when the next set is going to come, and we love that.

We love that because of a psychological principal (stay with me) called variable scheduled reinforcement, which occurs when a subject is rewarded at inconsistent ratios and intervals for a specific behavior. It is the most addictive kind of conditioning, and if you’ve ever played a slot machine or been in a shitty relationship, you’re familiar with its grip. A gambler never knows when he’s going to hit the jackpot, so he keeps feeding quarters into the machine. A guy endures his girlfriend’s insults, condescension and apathy in anticipation for that unpredictable, blissful moment of sweet intimacy. The surprise-factor is intoxicating, and in the case of surf competitions, we’re drunk on saltwater.

Because here we are, 9-months pregnant with wavepool contests, and I think we’re going to have an ugly baby. Stop and consider it for a moment. Consider the reality of knowing that Slater’s next wave will be a 4.1-foot tall right that lasts 18 seconds and offers the same scoring potential as every other wave in the heat. It’d be like going fishing knowing that you were going to catch a 3-pound bass every 15 minutes. It’s gonna fall flat.

I know, I know. This level playing field is what we’ve always wanted; to make surfing fair. But I think we may underestimate our addiction to the unknown. Will it run today? Will the conditions hold? Will Mick surf? Will he get robbed — by bad waves or bad judging or a fucking shark? The formula for our entertainment relies heavily on watching the surfers thrive or flail in volatile conditions, and when you take away the uncertainty, the only thing keeping us engaged is performance. Performance that is at record-levels lately, but will still take years of wavepool practice to reach a standard where it alone can hold our attention. So until then…

“One minute remaining, Pottz.”
“That’s right, Joe. Kelly needing a 7.68 to overtake Medina. It’s his turn next. There will be one more opportunity.”
“Forty-five seconds.”
“You can stop counting down, Joe. We know the wave is coming.”
“Sorry, Pottz.”
“Kelly is in position. Medina is out of the pool, watching. Here comes the wave. [Sigh] It looks a lot like the last one. Here goes Kelly.” —Taylor Paul