It's a Guy Thing

Stab High

A surf contest, mostly in the air. In a pool. In Texas!?

By Alexei Obolensky

Surfing in Texas isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the Lone Star State. Dallas. Austin. Waco. Cowboys and trucks are a far call from the usual locations of Hawaii, Australia, California and other sun-drenched, ocean-facing locations which normally spring to mind when the word surf contest is heard.

However, Stab High is a different beast altogether. And it’s in a large swimming pool, in one of the most landlocked locations in all of the USA. However not just any old swimming pool. A Wavepool.

Wavepools are quickly becoming a buzz word in surfing. Why? Well one word really, Consistency. Surfing is a difficult mistress. Waves come as quickly as they disappear. All waves are acutely sensitive to wind, size of the swell, direction of swell, strength of swell and tide. This is extenuated by the fact that each wave is different, depending on where it breaks. I won’t get too much into the ‘whys’ and the science of it, as, well it’s boring, however – this idea you have of surfers surfing the perfect wave? It doesn’t exist. Well, it does, but the amount of crappy days it takes to get that perfect wave defies belief.

As I’m sure you can imagine, this makes planning and executing surf contests a nightmare. Too many variables. Too little time. Pressure from sponsors, fans and athletes to ‘get it done’ and running heats in suboptimal conditions over a weekend to please the crowds, in turn infuriating the competitors. It also raises questions over the judging of different waves – so subjective! In essence, surf contests in the ocean whilst sometimes sublime, are more often than not a disappointment. The old adage “you should have been here yesterday bro” has never been so apt.

This is where Wavepools come into their own. Exactly the same wave, time and time again. Machine by nature. Offering surfers a consistent canvass for which to express themselves on, wave after wave. Always the same. And the result, well – like skateboarding. The level of maneuvers the surfers are able to perform is unparalleled as the variable barriers of waiting for waves and some waves being better than others is removed. A clean and pure canvas, again and again, pushing the levels of innovation amongst the world’s best.

There are various Wavepool technologies out there. Surfing will be part of the Olympics in 2020 and will be held in a wavepool. Kelly Slater has funded and invented his own wavepool, offering leg achingly long rides to surfers in central, inland, California under the name of ‘Surf Ranch’. The pool in Waco is a different beast though. Solely focusing on launching surfers into the air. And you were wondering why it’s called a surf contest – mostly in the air?

But who are the surfers? The attendees to such a prestigious event? Well, surfing in the past 20 years or so has divided into two camps. ‘Competition surfers’ and ‘Freesurfers’. Competition surfers are athletes in every sense of the word. Coaches. Nutritionists. Drugs tests. Training regimes. Rising up through the ranks of the ‘pro juniors’ into the world qualifying series and eventually, hopefully, the world tour, where the top 32 in the world battle it out in 11 spots across the globe, much like Formula 1.

Stab High and free surfing is the antsiest of that.  And we are so much better for it. Free surfers aren’t athletes. Well, they are, but only by natural ability and rarely through training. They travel the world, surfing not for competitions but for the love of it, providing their sponsors value through the photos and videos they produce. They Party. They are not perfect humans. They drink beers poolside at Stab High. They enjoy life’s mortal pleasures on this earth as much as the next man. They are interesting. Worldly. They go between California, Australia, the south of France, Indonesia and South Africa amongst other more ‘novel’ destinations surfing as a group of friends with their photographers and video filmers, making imagery for their sponsors. Stab celebrates this and has quickly become a high brow tabloid-esque digital publication in surfing. The mark of who’s who is who is being featured on Stab and there is no one better to host such an event as Stab High.

Freesurfers don’t conform to the usual remit of competition surfing, surfing to match judging criteria. Instead, they are focused on ‘airs.’ This involves racing down the wave, and boosting from it, ideally landing clean back onto the wave to get air like a skateboarder. The bigger the better. The more spins the better. Technical grabs and strung out straight airs are highly regarded. The more dangerous, the better. Ankles, knees and boards are destroyed in the ‘flats’ – the flat part of water before the breaking wave. Much like overshooting a kicker snowboarding, landing an air in the flats is to be avoided, the ideal is to land in the soft and fluffy whitewater, riding out cleanly. However even more crucial than the landing is the ‘ramp,’ the breaking part of the crest of the wave – providing the surfer a ramp to launch off. The steeper the better, and the Stab High wave pool provides the perfect ramp.

The life of a freesurfer, in essence – a dreamy existence, made all the more entertaining by the characters in it. Free from the shackles of competition surfing, and with image riding hand in hand with ability. A collection of very different people from all corners of the globe, united by their love of surfing and their attitude to it – both in and out of the water. And when you gather the handpicked invitee list of 16 of them in good old Texas, miles away from the nearest ocean but at a water-based amusement park with an abundance of alcohol, sparks were always going to fly…

This year was the second year of Stab High and building on the huge success of last year, a few familiar faces were checking into the Holiday Inn Waco, boards under arms ready for a large few days by the pool. But before we delve deeper into a day at the pool let’s first meet a selection of some of the best, and this year’s Stab High invitees.

Chippa Wilson: 30, Australia

Christopher ‘Chippa’ Wilson is the most technically gifted aerialist in the world. The lynx-like Australian has both a deeper bag of tricks and a higher completion rate than just about anybody in the world, which is what makes Chippa the one of the odds-on favorites to win Stab High.

Noa Deane: 24, Australia

The son of surfing royalty, Noa Deane has built a niche for himself in the world of non-compete aerial mastery. He’s landed a few of the biggest airs in the history of the sport, which can be attributed to his powerful thighs and general absence of fear.

Harry Bryant: 22, Australia

After bursting onto the scene a few years back, Harry Bryant has contributed many terrific oddities to the world of surf, but none greater than his patented bowl cut. With a clean line of vision made possible by his pin-straight bangs, Harry will attack the ramp with vigor and aplomb.

Eithan Osborne: 19, California, USA

Eithan Osborne won the Big Air event at last year’s Stab High, netting himself a cool $20k for one sky-scraping straight air. He’s looking to bring increased altitude to the show in 2019, which is certainly possible, as Eithan’s recent tour de force at other contests and video parts has proven despite his young age he is capable of mixing it up with the very best.

Curren Caples: 23, California, USA

Growing up a Ventura skate rat, all of Curren’s friends used to taunt him for choosing the beach over the bowl. “Why are you going surfing?” they would mock. “It’s so lame!” But Curren didn’t listen, and now, in the midst of a highly successful skate career, the 23-year-old is entering his first professional surfing event at Stab High. Don’t be surprised if he sinks a few aerial icons in the process.

And as for the pool itself? Well, the BSR cable resort is the quintessential American water park. There are slides. There is a lazy river. Welcoming Texans sip their beers from coolers whilst meandering down the aforementioned lazy river sipping beers. Watching the surfers rip in equal parts benign acknowledgment and bewilderment. There is a shallow end of the wave pool, where spectators frolic, drinks in hand from the well-stocked pool bar or munching on food from one of the numerous food trucks. Rubbing shoulders with their idols. With spectators from all corners of the US, and indeed the world. Fee-paying fans and industry insiders mingling and having a darn good time under the Texas summer sun.

Stab High is a one-day event but the event, in essence, starts with the warm-up on the day before, the Friday. Vital time in the pool to warm up those limbs and practice those spins. Surfers arrive in the morning and take pleasure in the leisurely setup. Usually, surfing requires aggressively early starts before the wind blows. However, the beauty of the pool is that this isn’t required. Surfers warm-up, and Monster rider Jett Schilling rides out a legitimate backflip cleanly, from the Freak Peak – one of the first in the world and sets the bar pretty high for the event. The viewing platforms are crowded with the World’s best. Cheering each other on, the atmosphere is about as far removed from a contest as you can imagine. Indeed, Noah Deane won last year’s event “About 6 beers in.” It’s more of a festival than a contest in the true sense of the word. There’s an art show. There is live music. The after and pre-parties are a wild affair…

But firstly, a word on format. So each surfer gets the chance to surf a ‘left’ and a ‘right.’ This is the direction of travel on the wave, offering the surfers a chance to surf front – side and backhand, the foot positioning each surfer has on a board – ‘Goofy’  (right foot forward) or ‘regular’ (left foot forward). The scores are then compiled, either advancing or eliminating surfers into their heats towards the final. However, the good folk at Stab had a few surprises up their sleeves in addition to the main event. Notably, the inclusion of the ‘freak peak’, a veritable launch ramp of two waves crashing into each other, with the best air netting $20k being a lively addition. To gauge the ferocity of this peak we’ll leave you to check the photos but let me assure you it is one mutant of a wave, a peculiar wedge designed to send the incoming surfer as high as possible. It might not resemble any normal wave out there in the real (salt-water) world, but it’s a fun man-made novelty nonetheless.

This year also saw the return of the Vans Acid Drop hosted by surf legend and aerial surfing founder Nathan Fletcher, in which surfers attempt to jump from the top of the Wavepool’s 12-foot concrete wall straight onto a wave. Since no one has ridden away from this atmospheric plunge in the Wavepool’s brief history, this year saw an inclusion of a series of raised tiers along the wall that surfers must complete, in ascending order, before they can attempt the mega drop… “That was f#cking heavy!” said Harry Bryant, after coming inches from an Acid Drop completion last year. “I nearly buckled my board!”

So without further ado. The day itself. Much like the warm-up day, a leisurely timetable of 3pm till sunset was penned, leaving the guys and gals time to wash off those pre-event hangovers. This year’s edition also included the  Stab High Ladybirds division– an invitational aerial competition for 15-and-under females. In the end, coming down to a surf-off between Sierra Kerr and Sky Brown, it was Kerr sealing the deal with a monster slob air that garnered a 40-point score from the judges (equivalent to 8s across the board)— the highest wave score of the day. Brown also landed her Frontside Ollie in the surf-off, but it wasn’t enough to eclipse Ms. Kerr. No sore losers, though — it was all hugs, smiles and ice cream in the shallow end of the pool.

One of our favorite looks was Nathan Fletcher’s acid drop event, during which the boys were absolutely giddy with comments like, “What the f#ck is this?! Who’s going first?!” Obviously, once a few took the plunge, limits were out the window with moments like Noa Deane removing parts of the scaffolding for better launch access and Harry Bryant completely obliterating his board from an upper deck send. At the end of it, the surfers all wanted more, seemingly not giving a shit there was still $25,000 up for grabs in the main comp.

In frustration, Noa jumped off the scaffolding with Dylan Grave’s buckled board, athletically aligned his ass mid-deck, and snapped it clean in two. Sincerely, Bravo. With the contest back in tow, stakes came into focus as the remaining competitors went to freaking town on the coveted Waco ramp. Some of our favorites were Crane’s signature backside stalefish thing, Eithan’s weightless backside straight air, and, of course, Sir Chippa Wilson’s glorious rotations of the forehand. And with a light offshore wind afoot, the left was looking especially buttery. However, the source of the windshift was no innocent, evening temperature change that we see along our coastlines. Nope, this is humid-as-f#ck Texas. Said winds were the predecessor to a black wall of low pressure steamrolling straight towards the contest area.

I showed a neighboring lensman the radar forecast from my phone (myRadar — a delightful app), which had him hurriedly climbing off the scaffolding to protect his precious gear. Apparently having a shitty camera can sometimes work out in one’s favor, especially as the sickest waves of the finals are pushing through. We’ll take it!

The arena was literally and figuratively electric. Thunder, lightning in the distance, and four finalists in the water had everyone on the edge of their seats, which was due to the all-star showdown as much as the black mass about to engulf us all. Nevertheless, when it was announced Chippa had won, any worries of the storm were set aside as surfers and spectators alike hailed the man of ink and brawn. Chippa humbly accepted that strange, pink phone while everyone promptly resumed semi-crisis mode with brisk paces back to the sanctuary of the VIP area covered, second-floor patio. The Freak Peak event was canceled, thunder was enhancing the low frequencies of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” and lightning was doing its best impression of spider webs — welcome to summer storms in Texas. And what an environment to celebrate a day of talent and progression from the world’s best.

Oh – and as for the party? Like any good freesurfer, industry insider, fan or entourage eagerly anticipates. The afterparty. And this year’s edition did not disappoint. Fueled by beer, wine and the all-important Texas BBQ. As the rain lashed down, the music raged, fireworks were wrestled out of surfers hands yet eventually found themselves being lit adding already more drama to the evening. Best summarised by an industry insider saying to an upcoming surfer.

“I want to blow shit up as much as anyone here. I. F#cking. Love. Fireworks. But the sheriffs are coming…” 

As we awoke the next morning, the Stab High hangovers taking shape, recollections of the after-party were certainly a little hazy. However, this year’s Stab High was certainly one to remember, a refreshing take on the usual monotone of competitive surfing. The world’s best sending it both in and out of the water in central Texas is a novelty within itself we can’t help but be fond of. With an upcoming Stab High penned for Australia later this year, we’d advise watching this space…

Wanna catch some waves? We say, why the hell not!

Grab your sunscreen, shorts and board and check out these awesome venues across the great state of Texas

BSR Cable Park

5347 Old Mexia Rd, Waco TX

Open daily from 11am to 7pm BSR Cable Park is the perfect place to spend the day honing your surfing talents. There’s something on offer for everyone at BSR and with beginners to intermediate and expert waves on offer you’re sure to find a challenge to suit your skill level.

Little Cedar Bayou Wave Pool

600 Little Cedar Bayou Dr, La Porte, TX

Here’s a great place to spend a day out in the sun with friends, family, or both. Little Cedar Bayou Wave Pool has a pool producing 4ft waves and also offers other fun activities like a recreational area with sand volleyball, tennis courts and concessions.

Seguin Aquatic Center

1 Wave Pool Dr, Seguin, TX

Located in Max Starcke Park East the Seguin Aquatic Center features a 15,000 square foot wave pool with a zero-depth beach type entry and a splash pool so the kids can tag along and join dad for an awesome day out.