Kelly Slater’s Shock Wave
The best surfer in history made a machine that creates perfect conditions on demand. Will his invention democratize surfing or despoil it?
The first few hours I spent at the W.S.L. Surf Ranch, a wave pool built for surfing in the farmlands south of Fresno, California, were for me a blur. I was fine on arrival, hiking through a little forest of scaffolding, eucalyptus, and white tents with a publicist from the Kelly Slater Wave Company, which built and runs the place. The valley heat was fierce but dry. House music rode on a light northwest breeze. We passed a bright-red antique row-crop tractor parked on wood chips. Then I looked to my right and felt my mind yaw. The wave was probably six hundred yards away, a sparkling emerald wall, with a tiny surfer snapping rhythmic turns off the top. I had come expecting to see this wave, out here in cotton fields a hundred-plus miles from the coast. Still, my reaction to it was involuntary. Kelly’s Wave, as it’s known, seems designed to make someone who surfs, which I do, feel this way: stunned, turned on, needy. Surfers spend much of their lives looking for high-quality waves. Now a machine has been invented that churns out virtually flawless ones on command. “We call it the smile machine,” someone, possibly the publicist, said. I had trouble paying attention. Every four minutes, I had to turn and crane to watch a wave make its way the length of the pool.
Kelly Slater, who is forty-six, is the best surfer in history. He’s won eleven world titles. He was the youngest-ever world champion and the oldest-ever world champion. When he stormed into the competitive spotlight, in the late eighties, I couldn’t understand what he was doing. He seemed to be always recovering from nearly falling off his board. Slater had grown up riding Florida’s small, scarce waves, and emerged with a style built to stuff the maximum number of hyper-athletic maneuvers into the least possible space. As he surfed better waves, the power and the creativity of his surfing deepened, until he dominated the pro circuit so completely that he grew bored and retired. A few years later, he returned to full-time competition and won five more world titles.
Inseparable from his surfing was his thinking—about what could be done on a wave, about board design, fin design, competition. Slater might turn up at the Pipe Masters, one of the most watched events on the pro tour, riding a bizarrely small and odd-shaped board, and brusquely shove back the frontiers of performance. He’s still doing it. Early this year, a video was released showing Slater slashing through powerful Hawaiian waves on a tiny double-bat-winged board. It was futuristic surfing, and the board he rode, called the Cymatic, is now one of the world’s most sought-after models. Never mind that very few people have the chops to ride it.
Slater has been thinking for decades about building an artificial wave. In an as-told-to memoir, from 2003, he noted, “Surfers have dreamed of creating the ultimate wave machine. The perfect setup would take surfing to every town in America and make the sport as mainstream as soccer.” Wave pools have been around since the nineteenth century, when Ludwig II, the Mad King of Bavaria, had a wave machine built on a lake at one of his palaces. Pools built specifically for surfing began to appear in the late nineteen-sixties, but even the best of them produced only weak, short, messy waves. Slater got serious about developing his ideas in 2006, and began working with scientists at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering.
Finally, in December, 2015, an astonishing video was released. Called “Kelly’s Wave,” it showed Slater, warmly dressed in a quilted jacket and a gray wool beanie, arriving at a misty pond at daybreak. In a voice-over, he calls it “our little secret spot” and admits to nervousness after “working on something for ten years.” As the first wave rolls, the camera stays on Slater’s face. His reaction to what he sees goes from anxious wonder to wide-eyed joy. “Oh, my God!” He throws out his arms, bounding in place. The next wave, when it comes peeling toward us, is coffee-colored, thin-lipped, impossibly clean. It’s breaking so precisely that it’s hard to tell if the film is running in slow motion. Slater puts on a wetsuit, paddles out, and catches one. Now there’s a little wind on it, ruffling the surface, and it looks more like a great ocean wave that happens to be the color of French roast—perhaps the best California point break on the best day in history. Your eye bounces around the frame, trying to place this spot—shaggy pine trees, fences, what look like farm outbuildings. It could be anywhere. Slater appears in a closeup, crouched inside a shining tube, looking thoughtfully up at the pitching lip, now semitransparent. An unobtrusive caption comes onscreen: “Waves roll all day.” Slater’s business partners say that there were more than a million views on YouTube in two days. I say that there were at least that number of texts flying around among surfers, expressing some version of “WTF?!?”
Matt Warshaw, surfing’s unofficial historian, says that the sport now has only two eras, Before Kelly’s Wave and After. It did feel as if something basic had changed—as if technology had, improbably, outdone nature. Still, the artificial wave was not met with universal acclaim. Many surfers felt that the future suddenly had a dystopian cast—mechanized, privatized, soulless. Yes, surfing might now become “mainstream,” with Slater’s magic wave reproduced in pools across the planet, but that is the last thing that most actual surfers want. The critics saw our pointless, difficult, obsessive pastime becoming exponentially more popular, and beloved home breaks ruined by terminal overcrowding. At the same time, there was virtually no one who surfs who didn’t ache to ride it.
People quickly figured out, using Google Earth, that the pool was in the San Joaquin Valley, near the farm town of Lemoore. Nobody except Slater seemed to be surfing it, though, and it is still not open to the general public. A few of Slater’s buddies, all fellow-pros, eventually got invitations, and more videos were released. Everybody who rode the wave professed to be gobsmacked by its perfection. The ride lasted nearly a minute—extraordinarily long. In 2016, the World Surf League, a privately held company that owns and operates professional surfing, bought a controlling interest in the Kelly Slater Wave Company, including, of course, its pending patents. The price was not disclosed, but Surf Ranch is said to have cost thirty million dollars to develop. A trickle of celebrities, billionaires, and other lucky winners of a golden ticket continued to surf the wave, in private sessions. A couple of novelty events were held, with surfers competing, in one case, on national and regional teams—an odd format apparently meant to impress the International Olympic Committee, which is including surfing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The hope was that the committee could be persuaded to stage the competition in a quickly built Slater pool.
Then the W.S.L. announced that the California leg of its 2018 Championship Tour would not be taking place at its longtime locale, a point break in Orange County called Lower Trestles; instead, the main California event would be held at Surf Ranch. This was controversial, even among the pros, some of whom felt that Slater would enjoy a home-court advantage. Beyond that, what would it mean to shift competition from the ocean, where so much of the game turns on reading waves wisely, to a tank where a machine spits out identical waves on a timetable? The Surf Ranch Pro was scheduled for early September, and Surfline, a popular surf-forecasting Web site, cheekily added Lemoore to its list of spots. The waves there, it said, would be “good to epic” every day in September, and pretty much the same every day thereafter.
I arrived on the first day of the maiden Surf Ranch Pro. The early rounds of the contest were in progress, but there was no really good place from which to watch the surfing. The pool is seven hundred yards long, perhaps a hundred across, and the wave runs both north and south, so at least half the time you’re looking at the back of a wave. Often, live viewers were reduced to watching one of several jumbo screens erected above the eastern wall of the pool. We could hear bits of the Webcast commentary: “Carissa . . . power gouge to set up the pit.” Slater was already leading the men. The big screens filled the long minutes between waves with highlight replays and commercials for Jeep and Michelob and Hurley.
I found the replays deeply confusing. A slow-motion closeup of a great surfer like Carissa Moore tucking into a spiralling barrel was mesmerizing, but not because of what Moore was doing—she was, after all, invisibly deep for most of the clip. Instead, I found myself bug-eyed, forgetting to breathe, silently shouting, “Look at that wave!” The relentless precision of the spilling lip was the news. It was a once-in-a-lifetime wave. Of course, I was being absurd. Every wave here did that.
Adam Fincham saw it differently. “We’re looking for any small discrepancies,” he said, as he studied a breaking wave. Fincham, fifty-two, is a research associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California, specializing in geophysical fluid dynamics. He was the one who took up the gauntlet when Slater, in 2006, came looking for help with his artificial wave. He had no idea who Kelly Slater was, but he enjoyed a challenge and recognized a fellow-obsessive.
Fincham, who was born in Britain and grew up in Jamaica, envisioned a soliton—a solitary wave that maintains its energy as it propagates. The phenomenon was first described in 1834, by J. S. Russell, a Scottish civil engineer and shipbuilder. It seemed to contradict the reigning understanding of wave-water physics, but its existence was mathematically explained a few decades later. Solitons are now significant in a number of fields, including neurology and fibre optics. But no one had created a soliton in water on the scale that Slater wanted. “It was a big ask,” Fincham recalled.
Working with other scientists from U.S.C., the two men built a prototype wave tank, modelling the long, powerful, immaculate wave that Slater imagined. They went down many blind alleys. Fincham designed a system in which water rushed over a stationary hydrofoil, but it did not produce the desired result. They tried a moving foil, pulled through the deepest part of the water. That was more like it. Getting the wave to break, symmetrically and hard, with a face curved in an ideal shape for surfing, was a problem of another order. They studied great ocean waves, broke them down into millions of separate components—tiny cells of water and air, all interacting in a field of daunting nonlinearity—and then tried to rebuild them in the lab. For these simulations, bathymetry—the exact shape of the bottom of the pool—was critical, and the scientists ran models on parallel supercomputers for weeks at a time. The work was “mathematically horrendous,” one of Fincham’s colleagues at U.S.C. told Science.
By 2013, the team was ready to take the experiment outdoors. Slater quietly bought the property near Lemoore, which included a long, narrow artificial lake. Construction and testing proceeded under a thick blanket of secrecy. When workers went into town, they wore monogrammed shirts (“Fish Pond, LLC”) and said that the place was going to be a fancy tilapia hatchery. There were, at one point, as many as three hundred employees. To advise on the construction, Fincham brought in experts from the mining industry. “They’re dealing with big, powerful machines that have to work,” he told me. “You know, if your gold mine goes down for a day, that’s a lot of money.”
What you see now, looking eastward across the pool, is a Mad Max-esque contraption known in-house as the Vehicle, whizzing back and forth on a raised track on a hundred and fifty or so truck tires. The Vehicle is about the size of three train cars, and looks from a distance like a tattered blue houseboat tipped up at an angle. It is unmanned and travels, hauled by heavy cables, between two big winch houses at either end of the pool. The most important part of the Vehicle is a hundred-ton iron blade, roughly a hundred and fifty feet long, that hangs half submerged from its western side. Beneath the pool’s opaque surface, this iron sheet becomes the hydrofoil, able to push huge amounts of water at extremely finely calibrated speeds and angles.
The exact shape and dimensions of the Surf Ranch hydrofoil are a trade secret. Whatever its particulars, it is nothing like the hydrofoils under the hulls of high-speed racing sailboats, which lift them above the water’s surface. “This was like I was trying to design the worst possible sailboat hull—the slowest, most uncontrollable,” Fincham told me. He chortled, but he did not stop peering across the water, assessing the waves and the state of the pool during the three minutes that it was left to settle between waves. His phone buzzed. His team was apparently seeing discrepancies. “That was the wind, I think,” he told someone. The foil beneath the Vehicle can run at different angles and at different speeds, to create different types of waves. For this competition, all the waves were supposed to be exactly the same, but that could require tweaks as conditions changed. Fincham gave mumbled instructions to staff members in a control tower, near the midpoint of the pool. Perfection was a work in progress.
The idea of the perfect wave has been around surfing since I was a kid. “The Endless Summer,” a documentary by Bruce Brown, released in 1966, follows two California surfers circling the globe with boards. They find “the perfect wave” in South Africa, at Cape St. Francis. The holy grail in this case was a small, groomed, exquisite wave, peeling just off the rocks, and Brown assured us that, according to local fishermen, it broke like that three hundred days a year. In fact, it seemed to break like that for the ninety minutes that Brown was filming, and then the tide came up, or the wind shifted; waves of that quality have never again been seen at Cape St. Francis. Breaking waves in the ocean are fleeting, complex events, each one unique. There are great surf spots, to be sure, but there is no such thing in nature as a perfect wave. My dream wave, moreover, will not be the same as the next guy’s, or the same as Kelly Slater’s. (I’ve heard Slater rhapsodize about a certain day at a certain reef break in Barbados. Photographs from that day suggest that neither I nor the next guy would have dared to leave the beach.)
That said, the wave in the “Kelly’s Wave” video looked objectively flawless. Too much so, actually, Slater and his team decided; they rebuilt the wave immediately after the video’s release. “We realized it was just too much of a perfect barrel the whole time,” Slater told me. “We wanted to make it to where you could do some turns and kind of shred the thing, instead of just sit in the tube.” This, I thought, was a new type of problem. A peeling barrel that one might ride inside indefinitely has long been considered the ultimate wave. When it came to competition, though, I could see the concern. How would judges differentiate between mostly invisible forms of quietly crouching satori?
The original wave, going north, was a right. Now, utilizing the Vehicle’s southbound trip, they added a left, which was decidedly less pristine. They also concreted the bottom and added a water-treatment plant, turning the brown water green.
Slater and I were talking in an airy common room near the south end of Surf Ranch. There were open wooden lockers for competitors, stuffed with boards, jerseys, leashes, wax. In an adjoining space, three of Slater’s world-championship trophies sat on a side table. While we spoke, he kept arching his back—it had been bothering him, he said.
In the presence of a freakishly talented athlete, it’s tempting to furtively study his body. Are his fingers webbed? Those feet are huge. There is definitely some unusual definition going on in Slater’s forearms, which seem to have a couple of extra cables running through them. His extreme limberness, which rivals that of a professional contortionist, has provoked grumbles about unfair anatomical advantage. After a junk-food childhood, he’s developed a keen interest in diet and health, but he has never followed a conventional fitness program. I can’t picture him doing a pushup. He just surfs a ton. It probably helps that he hasn’t really lived anywhere since he was a teen-ager in Cocoa Beach. He owns houses here and there but stays in perpetual motion, usually chasing waves, definitely not suffering through flat spells at his local break. He’s five-nine, one-fifty-five, deeply tanned, bald as an egg. He was a beautiful boy, who eventually got involved with famously attractive women—Pamela Anderson, Cameron Diaz, Gisele Bündchen—and his green-eyed good looks have not deserted him.
I thought of the vaulting ambition to create a perfect wave in Faustian terms—a pact with the Devil, sealed with a drop of blood. But Slater’s early sketches of the ranch were more like renderings for a high-end planned community, with the pool playing the role of the golf course. Slater is in fact an enthusiastic golfer (three handicap). “The idea was, how do you pay for these things?” he told me. He mentioned the possibility of private memberships. So much for Goethe.
I asked Slater if it would be awkward to win his own contest, on the wave he built.
“Yeah, a big part of me wouldn’t want to win, to be honest.”
But a bigger part of him, he admitted, wouldn’t mind winning at all.
He was in a somewhat compromised position financially. “When the W.S.L. bought the wave company, I didn’t sell everything, so technically I own a little piece of the tour,” he said. Many people have been happy to point that out online. Slater’s reply: “Look at my results. I’ve done worse since I’ve owned it than I ever did when I didn’t.”
This is true. Slater hasn’t won a major title since 2016. It is also true that he’s been mostly out injured since mid-2017, when he broke five bones in his foot while surfing in South Africa. His foot had been looking fully functional at Surf Ranch, but he wasn’t going for big airs, which are an excellent way to re-injure a foot. Gabriel Medina and Filipe Toledo, the two surfers now ahead of him on the leaderboard, were both hucking giant airs.
Another point Slater wanted to argue: the idea that he had a home-court advantage. “I have an Airstream on the property next door, and everyone thinks that I just, like, live up here and surf it all the time.” Not so, he said, and pointed out that the W.S.L. has invited surfers on the Championship Tour to practice at Surf Ranch. “There’s a lot of guys on tour that have surfed this thing a lot more than I have,” he said. “I didn’t design some secret that no one else could figure out.” Yago Dora, a young Brazilian wizard, had ridden the wave earlier that day and suggested a tweak. “I was, like, ‘I’m so glad you brought that up,’ ” Slater said. “I’m waiting for any surfer, any guy on tour, any friend of mine, to say, ‘What if you did this or that? What kind of wave would you end up with?’ Tell me exactly what you want.”
This was vintage Slater: we can all play God together, now that I’ve created a platform for doing it. He’s hypercompetitive and magnanimous. The acknowledgments in his 2003 memoir run for seven pages, and the artificial-wave platform he’s created actually cancels some of his own greatest strengths as a competitor. Nobody else has mastered heat strategy—how to beat your opponent in a man-on-man heat—like Slater has. The pool, which accommodates only one surfer at a time, doesn’t allow for heats. Less obviously, but more profoundly, nobody else has read the ocean so well for so long—reacting to every lurch and boil and barely imaginable opportunity with inspired spontaneous adaptations. Here in the pool, there was almost nothing to read.
A large majority of the world’s surfers never compete, and a good number take no interest in the pro tour, the surf media, any of it. They just surf. At times, a noncompetitor emerges as the consensus “world’s best surfer,” some underground genius whose reputation flows entirely from mind-blowing performances in video clips. Slater could conceivably be just as celebrated, though not as rich, if he had never put on a contest jersey. Still, most of us follow the tour, tuning in at least for the high points—the great days when it all comes together in Fiji or Tahiti or at the Pipe Masters.
In recent years, the tour has become sleeker, its streaming Webcasts more watchable, as the newly formed World Surf League took over from a rickety predecessor that had been run by ex-pro surfers and apparel manufacturers. The W.S.L. group bought pro surfing for nothing except a promise to invest in it. The acquisition was fronted by Slater’s manager, Terry Hardy, and Paul Speaker, a former National Football League executive. Speaker, who does not surf, liked to point out that ninety-seven per cent of N.F.L. fans have never played football.
The new majority owner is Dirk Ziff, a Florida financier who is also a newcomer to surfing. Ziff, fifty-four, is an heir to the Ziff-Davis publishing empire, and helps run a family investment firm. According to Forbes, his net worth is nearly five billion dollars. His wife, Natasha, who was once a reporter for Forbes—that’s how they met—became interested in surfing first, and when Dirk had a look at the W.S.L. he saw an opportunity. One can’t, after all, buy the P.G.A. or the N.B.A. One can buy an N.F.L. team, but not the whole league. The price (zero) looked right. Ziff had to be informally vetted by Kelly Slater. Hardy made the introduction, and the two men hit it off. They both play guitar—Ziff well enough to have played lead on a 1994 Carly Simon single.
The W.S.L.’s grand plan was to expand the fan base, from “the core”—surfers—to sports fans in general. That seemed like a fool’s errand. Surf contests are basically impossible for the uninitiated to watch. The judging is incomprehensible, even to many surfers. The waves, moreover, are rarely excellent, and they arrive on their own schedule—that’s why contests customarily include a ten-day waiting period and still sometimes get skunked. Not ideal for TV. The W.S.L. tried to make the best of these indigenous difficulties with a new motto, “You can’t script this.” That sounded like frustrated marketers attempting to entice dubious consumers to watch.
But then Kelly’s Wave burst upon the world, and a more broadcast-friendly contest was suddenly easy to picture. The W.S.L. bought Surf Ranch and began to step up its branding efforts. Surfers who had never paid much attention to the business of surfing found the W.S.L. logo stamped on more and more things: surf videos, music videos, Jeep ads, a chatbot. Contest Webcasts were moved to Facebook Watch, which many viewers loudly resented. Facebook? The initial Webcast didn’t even work. Even worse was the tone-deaf official announcement: “Facebook fosters a global community and, as surfing is a sport that celebrates and centers around community, we are proud to announce our media rights partnership with the platform.” (Cue vomit pantomimes.) The 2019 Pipe Masters was cancelled, for vague and unpersuasive reasons; so was this year’s Fiji event. The volume of online denunciations of the W.S.L. rose fearfully. Who were these kooks? (“Kook”—an all-purpose term of abuse in surf world.)
As if to confirm everyone’s suspicions, Beth Greve, the W.S.L.’s chief commercial officer, was photographed in Bali lugging a beginner’s board across the beach with the fins put in backward. Backward Fins Beth became famous in surf world—more than half a million views on @kook_of_the_day. And then BeachGrit, an Australian Web site that delights in trolling the W.S.L., blew up the image to billboard size and installed it on a freeway in Lemoore, just in time for the Surf Ranch Pro. The billboard shot zoomed around the surfing Internet.
Slater saw it. He is a tireless online poster, with a rare degree of patience. On his Instagram feed, a magnet for cranks of all kinds, he has spent years debating flat-Earthers, laying out innumerable scientific proofs that the planet is round. He’s a well-informed environmentalist; right-wing flamethrowers rain hellfire on him for that, and he often takes the trouble to reply to them individually. When the Backward Fins Beth billboard went viral, Slater showed a tiny bit of pique. On the BeachGrit Instagram feed, he wrote, “Funny. Cheap. Character Revealing.” The BeachGrit crew was ecstatic. They had successfully trolled the king.
Dirk and Natasha Ziff have become ardent fans of the Championship Tour, but it’s not clear that they were prepared for the vehemence of people’s feelings inside the world of surfing. In August, they were honored by a surf-industry association as 2018’s Watermen of the Year. Dirk took the occasion of the awards banquet to lecture his critics. “I wonder if some of you get up every day and stir the milk into your coffee, thinking about what you can write that day that might humiliate the W.S.L.,” he said. “I have a message to the haters, and it is simple. Be tough. Call us out. Keep us honest. Tell us what we need to improve. But don’t pretend you don’t know that, when you go beyond constructive criticism and cynically try to rally negative sentiment toward the W.S.L., when you try to take us down, you are not just going after us. You are going after Kelly Slater. . . . You are undermining the hopes of every kid who lives with salt in their hair, dreaming of being a world champion one day.” If the W.S.L. succeeds, he said, everyone involved with surfing will prosper—“except maybe a few grumpy locals who have to deal with some new faces in the lineup.”
At the banquet, these remarks were presumably met with applause. The Ziffs have been welcomed as deep-pocketed, well-meaning benefactors by most of the surfers on tour, including Slater, who is, after all, one of their business partners. Out in the wide world of surf, however, Ziff’s speech was met with scorn. Online forums and comment threads lit up, rejecting this lecture from a wealthy outsider and, in some quarters, rejecting the very idea of a professionalized sport. On a Surfer magazine thread, an anonymous wit summed up a popular view: “Grumpy locals are what make surfing surfing.”
The fans were sparse on the ground for the Surf Ranch Pro, which was not a surprise, with adult day passes going for ninety-nine dollars. In the non-V.I.P. areas, at the north end of the pool, tree shade was at a premium. The trick was to park your camp chair in a shady spot where you could actually see the pool, if such a spot existed. V.I.P. tickets—four hundred and ninety-nine bucks for the weekend—got you plenty of shade and an open bar, but I didn’t find anyone in the V.I.P. area who would admit to paying; everybody seemed to be in the surf business, one way or another, and had been comped in. Most of the non-V.I.P.s I met were affiliated with Naval Air Station Lemoore, where the W.S.L. had handed out free tickets. A group of local girls told me that they were there mainly to hear Social Distortion, an Orange County punk band that would be playing in a field at Surf Ranch on Saturday night.
The few surfers I met who had paid general admission all seemed to be thinking less about the contest than about what they could do to get a couple of waves. Bobby Morris, a contractor from Santa Barbara, admitted that he had his board with him, in his van, just in case. He and I were at a prime spot on the west wall, just north of the control tower. From there, we looked straight into the long barrel section in the middle of the right. With a berm of sand-colored plastic in the foreground, it could seem, for long moments, as if we were watching an excellent surfer pulling into a dream section on a sand point. “I’d pay a grand to surf it for a day,” Morris said, huskily. “Maybe six friends, one grand each. Definitely.” I didn’t tell him that the going rate for a group, I had heard from a W.S.L. official, was fifty thousand dollars a day. I also didn’t mention some other things I had heard: that all available days this year had been booked, and that Gulfstream jets were now often seen at the nearby Visalia Municipal Airport.
“I just wish they would open it up to the public,” Morris said.
That seems a remote prospect, at least at the Lemoore facility. The cost of producing the wave (mainly the electricity, but also staff and maintenance) would make an individual day pass prohibitively expensive. The limited number of waves produced (fifteen an hour) would make it untenable for anything more than a small group. Even the lucky groups that get in the pool follow a strict protocol to avoid wasting waves. Surfers sit in the water, next to designated pilings, along a steel-mesh fence between the Vehicle’s path and the pool proper, and if someone falls another surfer quickly jumps on the empty wave.
The next iterations of the pool might be different. “It will democratize surfing,” Slater said, about the technology, when the W.S.L. bought his company. Surf Ranch Florida, already approved for construction in Palm Beach, will reportedly offer youth programs and lessons. Public access, however, has not been promised.
Future pools, I was told by one of Slater’s partners, will have many more features, possibly including movable reefs—push-button bathymetry. The ultimate goal is a totalized system: first, a complete analysis of your surfing abilities; then all the measurements for the perfect board; and, finally, a wave designed precisely for you. This doesn’t sound like a mass-market enterprise.
Still, Nick Franklin, the new president of the Kelly Slater Wave Company, sees a bright future for what he calls “our surf-stadium business.” Franklin spent eighteen years at Disney, most of them in the theme-park division, where he was the executive vice-president for next-generation experience. “This,” he said, meaning Surf Ranch, where we met, “it’s like Walt created this little model of Disneyland. Do you want to replicate and expand it around the world? Uh, yeah.”
K.S.W.C. wave pools will be not only TV-friendly stadiums but also “experience centers,” according to Franklin. Disney World guests, I recalled, are urged to pre-book their desired experiences online, at My Disney Experience. Everything seemed to be converging here. The W.S.L. recently teamed up with Airbnb to offer hundreds of new “surfing Experiences.” Some of these Experiences occur at Surf Ranch, in the company of celebrities, such as Scott Eastwood, the actor. Other celebrity Experiences available through Airbnb include flipping burgers with Donnie Wahlberg in Boston. I’m not making this up.
Franklin is new to surfing, but he already sees how the wave pool can help entice non-surfers into watching pro surfing. “We have a ton more data capture here,” he said. “That can help the announcers showcase the incredible capabilities of our athletes. In the ocean, more time and energy is taken to describe the waves, which is fine for surfers but not for anyone else.” This was a fresh perspective: data capture gilding surfers better. “More exposure is great for the athletes,” Franklin went on. “Right now, Caroline Marks will disappear on an American street. She shouldn’t. Because she is an extraordinary athlete.” He had a point. Caroline Marks is sixteen, the youngest woman on the tour. She surfs well, of course, but I wouldn’t know her if she banged on my door.
Stephanie Gilmore will not disappear on a given street in Australia, her homeland. As a seven-time world champion, she is famous in Oz, where surfing is taken seriously as a competitive sport. When we spoke, she had just scored a 9.23 (out of a possible ten) on the right at Surf Ranch, which may have accounted for her enormous smile. Or maybe it was the W.S.L. announcement, the day before the contest began, that in 2019 women and men will start receiving equal prize money in all league events. This is a huge advance for pro surfing, which has not only paid the women less but also routinely reserved the best conditions for the men. “We were basically just a sideshow,” Gilmore recently noted, of the women’s tour.
Gilmore, thirty, is nearly six feet (tall for a topflight surfer), slim, gray-eyed, square-shouldered, open-faced. She grew up in a beach town in northern New South Wales, surfing with her father and her sister, and entered her first contest, at her dad’s suggestion, when she was eleven. “My older sister surfed first, she lost early, and she just hated it,” Gilmore said. “I could see how stressed she was. I actually lost early, too. But for some reason I just loved it. It wasn’t just competing—it was performing, thriving on the compliments, and the energy, and the cheers.”
Gilmore was thrilled that surfing will be in the Tokyo Olympics, and hoped that the competition could be staged in a Slater pool. “It’s once every four years,” she said. “And for it to come down to sitting at a flat, no-swell beach in who knows where—this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you don’t even get a wave to surf—that would be really heartbreaking.”
I could see the problem but must have looked doubtful.
“As a purist,” Gilmore said, “would you be disappointed to see it not be an authentic representation of what surfing is?”
I squirmed. Who said I was a purist?
“Are you worried that it’ll make it too crowded?” she asked.
That was a concern, I admitted.
Gilmore herself sometimes worries that proliferating wave pools will create legions of new surfers, causing crowds in the ocean to increase. Other times, she imagines that they will keep inland surfers happy at home, and thus actually reduce crowds. “I’m always fighting with these ideas of how a wave pool could benefit us, and maybe ruin surfing.” (By “us,” she meant pro surfers.) “But I think we have to embrace it. They’re going to be built whether we like it or not.”
It’s easy to imagine that pools will foster a boom in technical skill. On an artificial wave, a trainer with a video camera can analyze the finest details of a surfer’s technique, the way golfers and their coaches study the last six inches of the takeaway for a putt. I mentioned to Gilmore an idea I had heard from another pro—that a kid with unlimited access to a wave pool might become unimaginably skilled, and emerge as a world champion, “when he doesn’t even know how to duck-dive.” Duck-diving is a basic maneuver, not easy to learn, for passing under white water.
Gilmore smirked. “They can win in a wave pool but they’re probably going to drown at Pipeline,” she said, and we both laughed sharply. Why were we so amused at the thought of someone drowning? It was the fractious, gotta-earn-your-stripes side of surf culture. Even Happy Gilmore had it.
Her own first experience in the pool was nerve-racking, she told me. “Kelly called me and said, ‘Hey, do you wanna surf the wave?’ ” She flew in on a private plane and watched Slater ride a wave. Then it was her turn. “The last thing he said before I ran off was ‘Don’t fuck it up.’ The nerves went crazy. The fear of having the most perfect wave, and then falling on the takeoff.” Slater has said that some pros end up blowing their first takeoffs at the ranch. Gilmore did not blow hers. “I remember taking a big breath and laughing. It’s just me, just Kelly Slater. And I took off and got barrelled for twenty seconds. In the ocean, a long barrel is four seconds.” Kelly’s Wave suits Gilmore perfectly. She grew up riding long point-break rights, and she has perhaps the silkiest style in all of surfing. Despite her height, she looks almost ecstatically comfortable in the tight quarters of a Surf Ranch barrel, adjusting her speed subtly, with a hand in the face or a weight shift forward, to stay inside as long as possible.
Gilmore thinks that the W.S.L. will limit the number of pool events on tour—“because the ocean is truly surfing, that’s where the magic lies”—but she showed no ambivalence about the artificial wave. “There’s so many things in the ocean that hold us back from having that prime-time viewership. Also, this is so much fun—to hear the music pumping, to see all the people around the pool. You’re paddling into a wave while people are screaming your name, your heart is beating out of your chest. You hear the machine start, and it’s on you. Like, if you lose an event in the ocean, you can say, ‘Oh, well, the waves just didn’t come,’ or ‘She got better waves than me.’ But it’s all on you here. . . . You know what the wave will do, so you can dance with danger a little more.”
Lemoore is a town of twenty-six thousand, built originally on the shore of Tulare Lake, which was once the largest freshwater body west of the Great Lakes. Nineteenth-century settlers drained and diverted the lake for agriculture, and today there’s no sign that it ever existed. The old town center is sleepy, leafy, angle-parked. It’s laid-back in a way that no town on the California coast can match.
Surf Ranch is several miles southwest of town. Before Slater bought the property, the man-made lake on it was used for wakeboarding, which is popular in the San Joaquin. People do it behind motorboats and Jet Skis and, if necessary, cars, trucks, tractors, and horses running on irrigation-ditch towpaths. “The kids who grow up here, they kill it,” Tim Welsh, the owner of a tattoo parlor in town, told me. “You’re being dragged by your homie in his mom’s Cadillac!”
Welsh, who recently opened a surf shop in Lemoore, told me that the pool is helping to rejuvenate the town, bringing in money from outside. “Surfing is a worldwide sport,” he said. “There may be a Kelly pool in the Olympics!” Surf Ranch employs local people as mechanics, maintenance, security (during events, the high-school wrestling team has a job), kitchen staff, supervisors. During the Surf Ranch Pro, some of the facility’s immediate neighbors had signs in their yards, offering parking for ten dollars a day, although the Surf Ranch lot never seemed to be full.
I was staying at the Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino, the closest hotel to Surf Ranch. It’s a seven-story, smoking-allowed establishment full of slot machines and blackjack tables, built on desolate farmland belonging to the Tachi-Yokuts tribe. World Extreme Cagefighting used to host events at the Tachi Palace, though it’s now better known for women’s boxing. Mixed martial arts is a multibillion-dollar business. How many fans of cage fighting, I wondered, actually cage-fight?
Between the Tachi Palace and Surf Ranch, I kept passing a homemade sign, nailed to a telephone pole: “BIBLE IS TRUE: JESUS OR HELL!” Parts of the neighborhood did have a severe, apocalyptic air—abandoned farmhouses, roofs fallen in, trashed by sun and prairie wind. Then, on the last day of the contest, I noticed a new homemade sign, nailed above the Bible message, on the same pole. It asked a question: “WAVE WORSHIP?” Our thing did seem a bit like idolatry when you put it that way.
Adam Fincham was right to worry. The discrepancies in wave quality became more evident as the contest wore on. The culprit was seiching, the pool failing to settle entirely between waves. “The basin has a mind of its own,” Fincham said, grimly. As Slater explained it to me, there was slow, subtle end-to-end sloshing, comparable to tides in the ocean, and similarly invisible sloshing from side to side. If troughs from the two movements happen to coincide, “you’re gonna get a really shallow spot,” he said.
Competitors came into this event with unusually specific plans. Some had their moves almost choreographed—I can fit three turns and a tail waft between the middle barrel and the end barrel. But the plan needed to be flexible. A slightly slower, rounder turn might require eliminating a maneuver later in the routine. “You see a lot of guys and girls that don’t look confident,” Slater told me. “They’re a little bit of a deer in headlights. Other people, it looked like they could do no wrong.”
In one important way, the wave was actually difficult to read. The usual tipoffs about what a wave was going to do next—boils over shallow spots, the indications thirty or forty yards away of what’s in store for you—were all absent. The artificial wave was effectively being made under your feet. You basically had to memorize where the slower and quicker bits broke. Otherwise, the accelerations would take you by surprise, and there was no catching up on this wave if the breaking lip passed you by. The power normally stored in the white water, which might give you a needed boost, was not there.
In the end, I thought the Surf Ranch Pro was pretty unexciting. The pool made surfing feel tame, domesticated, almost like an indoor, fixed-program sport—gymnastics, or figure skating. The goal was to hit all your marks without a hiccup, then nail your Salchow or whatever. There was none of the mad scramble that electrifies an ocean contest when a big set pours through and some brave soul throws herself over the ledge to pull into an angry, unpredictable barrel.
I thought the wave worked better for the women than for the men. Carissa Moore was carving turns at full stretch, in full flight; Steph Gilmore was drawing swift, elegant, classic lines; and both were tucking into the longest, most nail-biting barrels of the event. The difference between them came on the lefts, where Moore ripped harder. Gilmore came in second, and her world-title campaign was advanced. Moore, who had been having an off year, took first, and exulted in the win. Her trophy had a little tractor on top.
The men, by contrast, weren’t finding the big faces and power surges that, in the ocean, let them unleash their hardest, highest-scoring turns. That limitless energy was unavailable. In the barrel sections, the top guys all seemed to ride equally well. The real point of difference came in the aerials, and those were also slightly constrained. The most explosive airs usually happen on wild, raggedy waves, with lots of wind. At Surf Ranch, the alley-oops, air reverses, and kerrupt flips were difficult, certainly, but they did not make the heart leap. Filipe Toledo and Gabriel Medina methodically landed their maneuvers, with Medina’s kerrupt flip—a huge, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree spin, high above the wave—giving him the victory. This outcome surprised no one. Medina and Toledo are in first and second place, respectively, on the tour. Also not a surprise: Slater got third, with some seriously beautiful surfing.
The current men’s world champ, John John Florence, was not at the Surf Ranch Pro. He has been out with a knee injury. Florence, who grew up at Pipeline, in Hawaii, is not a particularly imposing competition surfer—he’s too easygoing—but when the waves are good he is frequently untouchable. He’s twenty-six, and if he never enters another contest he will probably reign as the consensus “world’s best surfer” for years to come, so long as he continues to drop the occasional video showing that he is still surfing beyond the realm of what was considered possible. He and Slater surfed a heat together in Tahiti, in 2014, that is considered by many, including me, to be the best heat in the history of surfing. They were trading enormous, terrifying, sheet-glass lefts over an extremely shallow reef, each surfing at a level of technique and artistry that defied the judges to pick a winner. Competition seemed irrelevant.
Slater seemed happy with the Surf Ranch Pro. Yes, it lacked the ocean drama of other surf contests. But the perfect, predictable wave turned a spotlight on a rider’s style, illuminating every hitch and glitch. “In a way, everything else is sort of practice for here,” he said. “You can easily see who has more depth in their surfing.”
We were sitting in the foyer of the main house at Surf Ranch. Slater was eating pico de gallo off a glass plate. People were streaming through, carrying bags, heading out—the next leg of the tour was in Europe. Kalani Miller, Slater’s girlfriend, popped in and out, stealing a bite, getting his sign-off on a horticultural decision about their place in Hawaii. Miller, thirty-one, is an ex-model and a co-owner, with her sister, of a beachwear company. She and Slater have been together for eleven years, and their life, as documented on Instagram, looks like a lot of fun. Slater started his own clothing company, Outerknown, in 2015, making casual clothes that are fair trade, sustainably produced (including some fibres from recovered fishing nets), and not inexpensive. He also owns a controlling interest in Firewire, one of the largest surfboard makers. Whatever his managerial responsibilities are, he somehow balances them with chasing waves all over the world.
I was still under the spell of the wave that he’d built in Lemoore. Watching it felt like falling in love with a robot, like being fooled by artificial intelligence. To surfers, waves have personalities, some of them disastrously beguiling. I asked Slater if he thought the Lemoore wave had a personality.
“This wave has a personality,” he said firmly. “Intentionally. I mean, it was designed after waves in nature. The bottom was designed specifically around different waves I’ve surfed.”
The first part of the right, he said, was based on Lower Trestles, which was fitting, since Lemoore had displaced Lower Trestles on this year’s tour. Slater listed a number of others. I had surfed most of them, and could see each genetic resemblance. There was one in Micronesia, in the Marshall Islands, that I had seen only on film—its exact location is one of the best-kept secrets in surfing. I was surprised to hear the analogue for the last section on the right: a troublesome little piece of an otherwise sweet wave on Oahu. “The little double-up on the reef,” he said. “It has a certain shape inside it.” My memories of that little double-up all end with me being dashed on the reef.
We fell into a discussion of various waves—in Australia, in Hawaii. Slater has a weirdly precise memory for waves, for every permutation over the years of a certain sandbar in Queensland. He told me about a calamitous session at a favorite spot in West Maui. On his first wave, he said, he broke his board, then cut his leg on the reef, got pulled by currents around the headland, washed up at the base of a cliff down the bay, climbed a goat trail up the cliff, became terrified of falling. “It humbles you,” he said, meaning the ocean. But, oh, that spot, that wave.
“I dropped out of college for that wave,” I said.
This was normal surf talk. What was notable was that I was there to learn about the perfect artificial wave, and its inventor and I were talking instead about ocean waves, in all their rascal glory.
Hurricane Florence was churning up the Atlantic that week, and Slater wondered if I would hurry home, to New York, to meet the swell. No, I had things to do. Anyway, the winds were going to be south and east.
“Oh, south, east—yeah, no.”
He had things to do, too. And yet I noticed, a week later, on the surf Web sites, photographs of Slater riding unusually good-looking waves in Florida. He had chased down the Florence swell, and found a coast where the winds were perfect.
After the contest, the wave pool kept running. W.S.L. board members, there for meetings, caught a few waves. I noticed Slater helping a group of Brazilians, which included a young movie star who could surf and a television host who could not. The television host, I was told, was the “Brazilian Oprah.” He was stout and middle-aged, stuffed into a wetsuit. Slater hopped in the water with a huge paddleboard, then put Oprah on the nose, caught a beginner-level wave, stood on the tail, and encouraged his passenger to stand. Slowly, the TV host struggled up. There were cameras rolling on all sides as he wobbled to his feet, arms out wide, bent at the waist, in what is known as a poo stance. This was going to make great TV.
The protocols of invitation were mysterious, but the good will being spread—the respects paid, favors repaid, egos massaged—was plainly a long-term project. Even surf journalists were given their turn. The hacks came in groups, surfed in groups, jumped on waves when the other guy fell. Their reports, all embargoed until a date deemed strategic by the W.S.L., amounted to mixed reviews. Had it been like sex with a blow-up doll? Like a debauch in a brothel? Discuss. Chas Smith, from BeachGrit, had dislocated his shoulder in a wipeout, and he hated the place so much he could hardly type: “That fucking Surf Ranch. That God-forsaken lake in the middle of California and right near my ex-wife’s hometown Surf Ranch.” Still, some doubters were clearly won over. Surf Ranch had invited a number of its most severe critics, and only one had turned it down.
Other wave-pool companies, finding the stakes raised, have accelerated the development of competing technologies. The BSR Surf Resort, near Waco, Texas, uses an air-pressure system to pump out punchy, quick waves in sets of three. Some well-known American pros have surfed Waco and said it’s great fun—mainly as a ramp for throwing airs. Also, it’s almost affordable, at sixty dollars an hour. If I were fourteen, and mostly just wanted to learn to bust airs, I would scrape up the cash and hit whatever Waco-style pool was closest to my town. The Waco pool itself suddenly closed, however, at the end of September, after a New Jersey surfer who had recently been there was stricken with a fatal brain infection. Water samples taken by Texas authorities found evidence of the amoeba that causes the infection. The pool operators deny responsibility and say that they will reopen in the spring.
An enormous square pool in Australia opened recently, with a mechanism that is basically a giant plunger—fourteen hundred tons of rust-colored iron—sitting in the center. The plunger slowly rises, improbably, perhaps twelve feet out of the water, while its hoist machinery strains and belches white smoke. Then it drops. Shock waves radiate out in all directions, hitting reefs meant to shape breaking waves. This system, according to its owners, can produce hundreds of waves an hour and serve dozens of surfers at once. On opening day, however, the waves were comically small. The great steampunk apparatus broke down within hours.
Surf Ranch staff and management, including Slater, do not seem to be looking over their shoulders at rivals. “Working on this was like working at NASA back in the day, trying to put a man on the moon,” Jay Leopold, a construction manager on the project, told me. “We were making it up ourselves, seeing what worked and what didn’t. It was incredible.” These days, Leopold is often on the road, travelling to the new projects in Florida and Tokyo. (In December, W.S.L. officials told me that they had abandoned the hope of hosting an Olympic event in Japan, citing a lack of enthusiasm from the Olympic Committee, but the project is ongoing.) A colleague of his gave me a tour of the control tower. It did feel like a down-home Cape Canaveral. Three or four young guys in T-shirts sat at a computer console, monitoring the wave and the pool, using drop-down menus to select the program for the Vehicle’s next run. “One minute,” the launch commander barked, putting the surfers strung along the fence on notice. The button he pushed to start the wave machine even had a label that read “Launch Confirm.”
I was on the phone, squeezing into a patch of shade, preparing for an interview, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Slater. He apologized for interrupting. He said, “4:08 or 6:08?”
I had been planning to decline. As a reporter, I don’t take freebies from subjects. Instead, I said, “6:08.”
How was the wave? Pretty hectic, mostly, with shots of animal pleasure between bouts of self-doubt and course correction. The Vehicle, clanking and roaring above, was less distracting than I’d expected. But you surf directly at the fence, pumping turns as if you’re trying to crash into it, and you’re fairly close to it for much of the ride. I flinched once or twice. I could also see the two or three surfers sitting in the water next to designated pilings, hoping that I’d fall, then each giving me a generous shout-out as I passed. It felt a bit like an amusement-park ride. But it also felt like surfing next to a pier, on an unusually fast, clean wave. Slater’s only advice had been “Do a lot of little S-turns.” What he meant was “Don’t try big hard turns, because, if you fall, that will be a great waste.” So I was doing a lot of little S-turns. It was good advice. The shots of animal pleasure came when I wasn’t thinking, when I leaned into a turn and felt the strength of the wall, or leaned back and felt the speed of the board’s passage over the water.
I got lost on the right. Where was the long barrel section through the middle? The wave carried me away from the fence, nearly to the berm on the western shore, and then the wall in front of me lengthened and accelerated. I had to hurry, pumping through breaking sections, but they weren’t breaking particularly hard—the wave still hadn’t barrelled. I didn’t know where I was. I passed the last of the cheerful vultures. Then the wave began to stand up and thicken. Here, I thought, was the middle barrel section. But I was wrong. It was already the end section, which during the contest had barrelled so small and fast that many of the surfers had wiped out. This setting was apparently softer. The end section was bigger, friendlier, more flaring.
I pulled in, or tried to. The board—a stiff, hard-railed thing selected off a rack—was unimpressed. It kept tracking along, even veering slightly away from the face. The wave was a pretty barrel, chin-high and round, with a foamy lip, shot through with gold. My line, though, was now comically wrong. The lip landed on me and I was gone.
The left was at full strength, but not more difficult. It was magically good, swift and glassy. I S-turned harder and didn’t get lost. But I was still struggling to find a rhythm in the wave—its heartbeat, which sounds idiotic. All the rituals of warming up to surf, which I never think of as warming up, had been forgone. You didn’t paddle out, duck-dive a few, catch some insiders to feel your wax. No, you jumped straight into the apex of the longest, most flawless wave you would probably ever see. The moments of sharp pleasure were more frequent now, because I was starting to relax, slightly. Still, when I reached the barrel section at the end, my line was once again comically wrong. I came in way too high, and got sucked up the face and pounded with unnatural quickness.
That was it. The group that had rented the pool for the next block was already splashing past me, into position. If a religious revelation was out there, in the belly of the perfect wave, I would need time, much more time, to find it. I believed I could get this wave wired. I wanted to get a barrel, at least. Certainly find a different board. I mindlessly watched the next couple of waves. The surfers were good, but they kept getting clipped, falling off here and there. I felt both fired up and drained. It wasn’t as if I had gone surfing. That happened in a big, endlessly complicated world—the ocean—and usually lasted hours, for better or worse. This had been, what, five minutes? I was just starting to feel the rush. I wanted a hundred more. ♦