The surfing legend’s top-secret machine could change the sport forever.
Last December, Kelly Slater, the world’s best and best-known surfer, released a short video on his Instagram feed. It began with a beautifully curling left-to-right wave, seven or eight feet in height, then cut to Slater in a knit beanie raising his arms in triumph. “Oh my god!” he yells. The next scene shows him slashing up the face of a similar wave and then riding inside the barrel as he says, in voiceover, “This is the best man-made wave ever made. No doubt about it.”
The video, a teaser for a three-minute version called “Kelly’s Wave” that posted simultaneously on the new and otherwise empty website of Kelly Slater Wave Co. (KSWC), was shot on a long, narrow artificial lake in Central California. An on-demand wave of this size and duration has been the dream of surfers for decades, and now Slater was seeing that it was real. His team had engineered a mechanical right break that could be started with the press of a couple of buttons. The surf world’s reaction to the wave was no less ecstatic than Slater’s. The clip pinged around the internet, racking up millions of views and comments. On Surfer magazine’s website, a staffer posted the video with just a short caption: “I don’t know what to say and frankly it’s not worth wasting time reading. Watch the video immediately. To sum up: Kelly Slater Wave Company did it. They made the dream wave we’ve all imagined wave pools could produce.”
Six months have passed since the video was released, and though Slater’s team still prefers not to publicly identify the location, Reddit users found it—tucked among fruit farms and goat ranches outside the tiny town of Lemoore—within hours of Slater’s post, using his comment that he was 110 miles from the coast to scour the San Joaquin Valley in search of a sizable strip of water. That turned out to be a man-made lake, 700 yards long, and 70 yards wide, originally built for water-skiing. The rundown house beside the lake has since been renovated, and the corrugated aluminum barn next door now contains a cedar-lined lounge and a room stacked with surfboards and wetsuits, many stamped with the place’s Surf Ranch logo, which features a bear on a board. The wave, too, has been tweaked. Slater asked for modifications to the lake’s bottom to adjust the wave’s shape and power.
But the biggest change of all is that Slater and his investors aren’t carrying the financial burden of this long, expensive, and speculative engineering venture on their own anymore: Today KSWC will announce that it has been acquired by the same group that owns the World Surf League (WSL), the professional tour on which Slater and all of the planet’s other top surfers compete.
“This is a prototype,” Slater says, gesturing at a strip of dark water that looks like a seaplane runway, through a picture window in the house’s living room. He’s 44 but seems to have stopped aging at 35. He’s still a full-time professional surfer. “It’s a research laboratory,” adds Terry Hardy, Slater’s long-time manager and a partner in both KSWC and the WSL.
In the aftermath of the video’s release, people speculated about what the wave might mean in real-world terms. Plenty of surf blog commenters fretted over the potential that a machine-generated swell down the road from an Indian casino could ruin the mystique of a sport that depends entirely on the whims of nature and that requires its best athletes to chase waves in beautiful and exotic places. Others welcomed the idea of a realistic artificial wave that could bring surfing to landlocked states and countries, allow surfers to refine their skills without waiting for nature to provide a swell, enable resorts to focus activity around surf pools instead of golf courses, and even, perhaps, provide a way for surfing to achieve full medal status by the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“There are a lot of obvious outlets for something like this,” Slater says, cautiously. The sudden emergence of the WSL as an owner indicates that the first application for the pools will be for world-class surfers; today’s press release announcing the deal will specifically mention “a global network of WSL-branded high-performance training centers.” But KSWC’s website also now welcomes “developer inquiries” under a computer-generated image of a beautiful circular wave pool flowing around an island shaded by palm trees.
“I believe my job is to create and refine and evolve the technology,” Slater says. “For me, selfishly, it’s all about high performance, and it’s fun. How you package that into a business, well, I think there are a lot of ways you can think of off the top of your head.”
Slater’s obsession with wave pools goes all the way back to childhood, when he used to try to body surf on the artificial wave at Wet n’ Wild, a water park not far from his hometown of Cocoa Beach, Fla. At 14, he and his brother Sean—then emerging phenoms of American surfing—flew to Texas to demonstrate surfing on an artificial wave so small they could barely ride it. (They did, however, collect $70 in small bills other patrons had lost in the churn.) When he was 16, Slater won a professional contest at another inland water park and got his first Surfer cover in the process. In each case, the wave was essentially produced by brute force—something pushed a wall of water from the back of a pool to the front. “It was a novelty, that there’s always a wave right then,” Slater recalls. “But the quality and power was pretty minimal.”
Slater didn’t necessarily want to be the person to fix this problem, but he hoped someone would do it. “I just thought, ‘How cool would it be?’ ” he says. “People have tried for a long time to have a truly high-performance wave that’s controllable.”
Recreational man-made waves have been around since the 1970s. If you’ve been on a cruise ship, you may have seen a FlowRider, on which a rider on a special board attempts to surf in place while water rushes past. But the quest to develop an authentic simulacrum of what pros ride at the world’s top breaks has proved elusive. Every so often, a concept emerges, then washes out.
In 2004, Slater’s old surf coach and board shaper called to say that he’d seen a concept from a guy named Greg Roberts that looked promising. Slater talked to Hardy, and they decided to license the technology, only to decide two years later that it wasn’t quite right. Then Bob McKnight, co-founder of surf company Quiksilver, Slater’s longtime sponsor, recommended that Slater talk to the wave science guys at McKnight’s alma mater, the University of Southern California. Slater was pointed to Adam Fincham, a research professor in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering with a specialty in fluid mechanics.
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