LEMOORE, Calif. — He was worried he might have created a monster, but legendary surfer Kelly Slater is convinced his artificial wave can take surfing into the future.
Slater’s vision — the Surf Ranch — is a revolutionary “wave system” located 100 miles from the ocean in dusty Lemoore, a farming town in California’s central San Joaquin Valley.
It is dubbed the world’s longest open-barrel artificial wave, and offers a variety of wave shapes and sizes — all of them picture perfect and identical.
“I think it touched something in people,” the 46-year-old Slater told CNN World Sport at the Founders’ Cup, the first public event at the facility.
“It planted a seed or a dream in people’s minds. It captured a lot of people’s imaginations in a lot of ways.”
Even so, surfing’s 11-time world champion also had some misgivings having spent so much of his life in the sea.
“The first day I saw a wave on this property I was taken aback. ‘What have we done here and what does it mean for surfing?” Slater wrote on Instagram ahead of the event.
“Is this the best thing ever or is it opening some weird door we can’t shut? Will people love it or hate us for it?'”
‘Planted a dream’
The $30 million wave, powered by renewable energy, was 10 years in the making, inspired by Slater’s long-held dream.
The site in Lemoore was chosen for its affordability, the presence of an existing waterski lagoon, and its hidden location, perfect for building and testing prototypes away from the glare of the surf world.
As rumors leaked and early social media footage came out, the surf world was abuzz.
But there were also critics. Would homogenizing the whole experience strip surfing of its soul? Would a man-made wave replace the freedom and the authenticity of the ocean?
“The sport can evolve with this. I understand the question, I don’t take offense with it but nothing will replace the ocean,” added Slater.
“That’s where we’ve made all of our dreams and ideas, and our imaginations have grown from being in the ocean and learning from there. This will never replace that, this could just supplement it.”
While wave pools have existed for years they have always been more at the recreational end of the sport. There are other technologies currently out there, too, such as the Wavegarden, with public facilities in Spain and Texas.
The Surf Ranch, however, has taken the idea into a new high-performance realm.
In 2006, Slater joined forces with Adam Fincham, a fluid dynamics specialist and an associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California. Together they studied waves in the wild and applied science in the quest to produce perfect, repeatable waves.
At the Surf Ranch’s core is what is known as the “vehicle,” a giant hydrofoil on rails which creates a surfable wake as it trundles the length of the 2,000-foot pool.
The water it pushes up is shaped by scientifically designed bottom contours into perfect barreling waves up to 6.5 feet tall, with more performance-oriented sections ideal for turns and aerial maneuvers.
The size of the wave is determined by the speed at which the vehicle runs, while a computer system can select any number of pre-programmed wave types.
“You get this consistency, you know the wave is going to be exactly the same every time and it’s really made out to better yourself,” two-time world champion John John Florence told CNN World Sport in Lemoore.
“You get the same exact lip line every time, so you can time it and hit it here and hit it there and try airs. It’s pretty cool, you don’t get that anywhere else.”
The World Surf League (WSL) , which runs pro surfing, invested in the Kelly Slater Wave Company (KSWC) in 2016, and the body now wholly owns the Surf Ranch. The plan is for a 155-acre two-pool public facility by 2026, and the WSL is already planning other venues.
For the WSL, a predictable and programmable event tailored for sponsors, paying fans and a digital and TV audience — without the vagaries of flat spells, tides or sharks, which recently forced the cancellation of the Margaret River Pro — is an attractive proposition.
“I think this is going to change surfing forever,” the WSL’s chief executive Sophie Goldschmidt told CNN Sport by phone from California.
Britain’s Goldschmidt cites a secret test event at the Surf Ranch last autumn attended by a number of the sport’s icons.
“Many were very cynical before the event and every single one of them, having seen the wave live, couldn’t help but smile,” says Goldschmidt, who joined the WSL in July 2017 after a long career in sports business in the UK.
“We actually had some of them — grown men in their 70s and 80s — crying with joy, they just could not believe it, they were like, ‘we never thought we would see this.'”
The Founders’ Cup was the first of two scheduled WSL events on the pro circuit this season, and Goldschmidt envisages surf contests at artificial waves mirroring disciplines like the halfpipe in snowboarding and skiing, with highly progressive, choreographed moves “pushing performance much more significantly.”
Snowboard icon Shaun White, a three-time Olympic halfpipe champion, was blown away by a recent private session at the Surf Ranch.
“My goal was to come here and get barreled because I’d never really been barreled before,” he said.
“Man, it was incredible, to just totally get inside of a barrel — just to have that long of a ride and realize that was just the first wave of many to come. I got pretty excited.”
The WSL’s investment in the Surf Ranch is a key part of the push to make surfing more commercially viable and bring the sport to a new audience — the buzzwords across all sports organizations these days.
“Surfing has an authenticity and a coolness that, quite frankly, I don’t think any other sport quite captures in the same way … and I’m going to hold on to that very tightly,” says Goldschmidt.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t innovate and progress and bring in an even broader and interesting new audience, in addition to still being very appealing to our core fans.”
Slater has opened the door. Surfing is staring at a new future.