The ride of his life

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - By Lewis Sa­muels Pho­to­graphs by Bjorn Iooss

Surf star Kelly Slater has fi­nally found the per­fect wave — on a se­cluded ranch in Cal­i­for­nia

Kelly Slater, the near­est thing surf­ing has to a liv­ing god, se­cretly spent mil­lions of dol­lars to syn­the­sise the ‘per­fect wave’. Esquire vis­its his mys­te­ri­ous Surf Ranch in Cal­i­for­nia to find out whether Slater’s ma­chine will save pro surf­ing or de­stroy its soul

there’s a crack of static and then an am­pli­fied voice. “One minute!” I’m sit­ting on my board in the cen­tre of a ice-lolly-stick-shaped pool, which stretches nearly the length of seven foot­ball pitches. The sur­face of the wa­ter is still and dark, a mir­ror re­flect­ing the morn­ing sky.

Sud­denly, I hear the ban­shee-like moan of ca­ble be­ing winched. A blue-canopied train of 150 ad­joined truck tyres bar­rels down from the far end of the pool. For a mo­ment I feel the by­stander’s urge to move away from dan­ger. But I’ve dreamed of this mo­ment for many months and I hold my ground.

A mi­rage ap­pears on the hori­zon: the per­fect wave. It builds, then breaks. A lithe, tan, 46-year-old surfer springs to his feet and starts ef­fort­lessly slith­er­ing to­ward me. It’s his wave — the prod­uct of years of re­search and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, mil­lions of dol­lars spent in se­cret. It’s also his sport. Kelly Slater is the undis­puted king of surf­ing, an 11-time World Surf League cham­pion. His dom­i­nance, mas­tery, and longevity have led some to ask whether Slater is not only the great­est surfer of all time but also the great­est ath­lete of all time. At the very least, he’s spent his whole life do­ing things that other peo­ple thought im­pos­si­ble. But Slater is hu­man, mid­dle-aged, and surf­ing with a bro­ken foot, against his doc­tor’s ad­vice. He falls as the foam washes over him.

I shake off the awe, fran­ti­cally spin, pad­dle, and drop into my first in­land wave. Per­haps 200 oth­ers — among them cur­rent top com­peti­tors, bil­lion­aires, and celebri­ties — have felt what I’m feel­ing. His­tor­i­cally, good surf has been a re­ward for the de­ter­mined, avail­able to any­one will­ing to suf­fer enough. The WSL Surf Ranch is 100 per cent pri­vate, which wouldn’t mat­ter much if the wave sucked. From Big Surf, which opened in 1969 in Tempe, Ari­zona, to Dis­ney World’s Typhoon La­goon, ar­ti­fi­cial waves have tended to re­sem­ble su­per­sized toi­lets.

But Slater’s wave does not suck. It has all the qual­i­ties of a world­class ocean wave while also be­ing un­can­nily pre­dictable and end­lessly re­pro­ducible, un­like any other on Earth. The mo­ment Slater un­veiled his ma­chine can be con­sid­ered surf­ing’s sin­gu­lar­ity: the day tech­nol­ogy sur­passed na­ture.

Like most surfers, I can re­call ex­actly where I was when I first heard, or rather saw, the news: at home in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, scrolling through my In­sta­gram feed at the bay win­dows, my back to the ocean as my son tugged at my trouser leg. There it was: a teaser clip of Slater rid­ing “the best wave that any­one’s ever made.” At first I won­dered if it was real. The wave looked mag­i­cal, oth­er­worldly, the stuff of CGI. I clicked through to a longer clip, re­played it a few times in si­lence, freez­ing cer­tain frames. My son kept try­ing to get my at­ten­tion, so I put on a pair of head­phones. Text mes­sages ap­peared. I swiped them away. Slater’s re­ac­tion in the video is al­most as strik­ing as the wave it­self. “Oh my God!… No way!… What???” No one saw it com­ing — not even Slater, ap­par­ently.

Most surf world se­crets don’t stay se­crets for long. You hear whis­pers in park­ing lots when a top pro is strung out or a new break has been dis­cov­ered. By the time it’s for­mally an­nounced, it’s old news. But not this time. I’d heard noth­ing, not even in con­fi­dence from gos­sipy in­sid­ers. Hell, Slater and I have known each other for more than a decade — we met in 2007, when I was cov­er­ing the world tour for the web­site Sur­fline — and I’d texted with him of­ten. There’d been no hints. Surfers world­wide felt blind-sided.

It’s not the first time Slater has changed the game he’s come to em­body. Over the years, he has rein­vented per­for­mance surf­ing, helped engi­neer the cre­ation of the WSL, chal­lenged the in­dus­try’s en­vi­ron­men­tal prac­tices, and doggedly fought to get surf­ing taken se­ri­ously as a sport. He has also re­peat­edly been called a sell-out. Now Slater’s ar­ti­fi­cial wave is set to fi­nally bring the sport into the “in­lan­der” main­stream and to make the va­garies of na­ture as me­chan­i­cal as a bat­ting cage, per­ma­nently re­defin­ing what surf­ing means in the process. While a de­bate raged on so­cial me­dia as to whether his wave would save surf­ing or de­stroy it, the only thing ev­ery­one could agree on was that noth­ing would ever be the same.

“It’s the big­gest shift in the his­tory of surf­ing, oblit­er­at­ing any other event,” says Matt War­shaw, au­thor of The His­tory of Surf­ing. “The sport has been ir­re­vo­ca­bly, com­pletely, fun­da­men­tally changed from what it was.”

the pool’s lo­ca­tion was undis­closed, but savvy Reddit users outed it within hours by cross-ref­er­enc­ing freeze-frames with satel­lite im­ages, Google Street View and real es­tate records. The wave was not in the Aus­tralian out­back or at the tip of Patag­o­nia but in Cal­i­for­nia’s San Joaquin Val­ley, be­tween Fresno and a mas­sive cat­tle yard on the In­ter­state Five high­way that makes veg­e­tar­i­ans out of pass­ing driv­ers.

I ar­rive at the Surf Ranch on a typ­i­cally chaotic day: Slater has two photo shoots fol­lowed by a meet­ing with Boyan Slat, the 23-year-old Dutch founder of the Ocean Cleanup, which has raised more than $30m (£22.1m) to build a pas­sive sys­tem that will lever­age the ocean’s cur­rents to break down the Great Pa­cific garbage patch. Also vis­it­ing are half a dozen of Slater’s old­est friends.

He homes in on me af­ter lunch, his friends mo­men­tar­ily quiet as they con­tem­plate humble-brag cap­tions for their In­sta­gram posts. (“Chance of a life­time! Kelly, love you brother for this amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”) I’ve found it’s best to ig­nore Slater and let him come to you, like a house cat. Once you gain his at­ten­tion, he makes al­most un­com­fort­ably in­tense eye con­tact.

When Slater asks for my take on his cre­ation, I tell him the truth: his wave is sur­real, ad­dic­tive, sub­lime. But my rev­er­ence is laced with a nag­ging dread. He wants to know if I’ve read Ray Kurzweil’s prophe­cies of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence out­pac­ing hu­man­ity. “Just be­cause you can build some­thing doesn’t mean you should. Like the atom bomb,” he laughs, read­ing my ex­pres­sion. “Or like this pool.” It’s hard to tell if he’s jok­ing.

Slater won his first world ti­tle in 1992, as a 20-year-old rookie, which made him the youngest male surf­ing world cham­pion ever. He won an un­prece­dented five ti­tles in five years — and re­peat­edly dragged the sport into pop­u­lar con­scious­ness. He fought an oc­to­pus on Bay­watch. Was named one of Peo­ple magazine’s most beau­ti­ful peo­ple in 1991. Had an on-off ro­mance with Pamela An­der­son. Made a cameo in the an­i­mated pen­guin movie Surf’s Up. Mod­elled for Ver­sace. Recorded an al­bum pro­duced by T-Bone Bur­nett. Be­came known as “the Re­bound Guy” on

The mo­ment Slater un­veiled his ma­chine can be con­sid­ered surf­ing’s sin­gu­lar­ity:

the day tech­nol­ogy sur­passed na­ture

gos­sip blogs af­ter be­ing sighted with newly sin­gle celebs in­clud­ing Bar Re­faeli, Cameron Diaz and Gisele Bünd­chen. De­signed a Pot­tery Barn line of fur­nish­ings for teens. Sang “I like beer” in Mich­e­lob’s re­cent Su­per Bowl ad. Bro­manced Chris Hemsworth, Jimmy Buf­fett, Zac Efron and Ed­die Ved­der. Played golf with Michael Phelps and Bill Mur­ray.

By 1998, Slater seemed bored by win­ning, and he walked away from full-time com­pe­ti­tion on top, at 26, aware that his vic­to­ries weren’t mak­ing him any hap­pier. He has since opened up about the child­hood wounds that drove him: the time he slept in the drive­way of his fam­ily’s home in Co­coa Beach, Florida, to es­cape his par­ents’ scream­ing, be­fore his dad left for good when Slater was 11. How he and his older brother took turns in front of the small oil heater in their low-rent apart­ment. How his mum would say that she some­times thought of get­ting in her car and driv­ing away, leav­ing the boys be­hind for­ever. How for years af­ter that, he’d cling to her leg if she tried to go food shop­ping alone. When I ask about his fam­ily, Slater sighs. “I’m still learn­ing,” he says. “It’s a never-end­ing process.”

Slater be­gan com­pet­ing full-time again in 2002 but his comeback was thwarted by the death of his fa­ther from throat cancer. The fol­low­ing year, Slater lost the world ti­tle to 25-year-old Andy Irons in the fi­nal heat. Yet as he forged on into his mid-thir­ties, Slater kept get­ting bet­ter. He beat Irons in 2005 and then won an­other three ti­tles. Af­ter his 10th, a writer pleaded with him in The New York Times Magazine to re­tire in his prime and pre­serve his legacy. Friends con­sid­ered hold­ing an in­ter­ven­tion. But Slater had al­ready re­tired once. It didn’t suit him.

For one thing, com­pe­ti­tions of­fer an op­por­tu­nity to surf the world’s best waves with only one other surfer in the wa­ter. Most de­cent surf spots are crowded, and be­tween events pros are forced to train amid packs of ama­teurs. Imag­ine if NBA stars could only prac­tise by join­ing pickup games at the park. In search of soli­tude and qual­ity surf, Slater ob­ses­sively stud­ies global weather mod­els, reg­u­larly chas­ing swells to re­mote Mi­crone­sia. When in Cal­i­for­nia, he of­ten pad­dles out af­ter the sun goes down to avoid in­ter­act­ing with oth­ers.

In 2011, the world cham­pi­onship was de­cided in San Fran­cisco, near my home. The day be­fore his fi­nal heat, I in­vited Slater to surf a shark-in­fested se­cret spot down the coast, which re­quires a long hike to ac­cess. I told him the lo­cals wouldn’t wel­come an en­tourage. When he wa­vered, I left with­out telling him ex­actly where I was headed. Later, as the sun went down, I spot­ted a lone fig­ure walk­ing down the beach. It was Slater. He’d pieced to­gether enough clues to fig­ure out where I was. The next day, back in front of the cam­eras, he won his 11th world ti­tle, be­com­ing, at 39, the old­est surf cham­pion of all time.

Since then, he has nar­rowly missed out on two ad­di­tional ti­tles. In July 2017, Slater broke his foot in South Africa, pre­ma­turely end­ing his sea­son and prompt­ing a new round of re­tire­ment ru­mours. As it turned out:

nope. “Surf­ing is what I’m best at,” Slater tells me at the ranch. “There’s a sense of iden­tity to it.”

In 2020, for the first time, the sport will be in­cluded in the Olympics, in Tokyo. “I’ll be 48,” Slater says. “I started com­pet­ing at eight, so it’ll be four decades of con­tests. If I make the team, I’d be look­ing to of­fi­cially re­tire af­ter the Olympics.” An un­re­mark­able Ja­panese beach break is the planned lo­ca­tion, the equiv­a­lent of send­ing world-class skiers down a bunny slope. But Slater men­tions that the venue could change — “if we get one of our waves built in time.”

surf­ing has been clum­sily pack­aged as a spring-break lark for half a cen­tury, from Gid­get to The Beach Boys to the film Blue Crush. But the real money has been made in sell­ing board shorts and T-shirts. The sport has been propped up by the mar­ket­ing bud­gets of surf cloth­ing brands, and en­dorse­ments pro­vide the bulk of a pro surfer’s in­come. Slater was spon­sored by Quik­sil­ver for 24 years, a pe­riod that saw the com­pany sur­pass a bil­lion dol­lars in rev­enue.

In 2015, a group of fans be­gan prod­ding Slater on so­cial me­dia to in­ves­ti­gate Quik­sil­ver’s labour record and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact. “I’d been get­ting paid for nearly 30 years by a com­pany with­out re­ally un­der­stand­ing how the cloth­ing was made,” he says. And get­ting paid well: in 2010, as part of a five-year con­tract, Quik­sil­ver re­port­edly gave Slater three per cent of the com­pany, a share then worth $22m (£16.2m). But he passed on a lu­cra­tive con­tract re­newal, and left with a ques­tion: what would it take to make surf cloth­ing more re­spon­si­bly?

He part­nered with John Moore, a life­long surfer who’d de­vel­oped Hollister for Abercrombie & Fitch, to start Outer­known in 2015. The brand re­jects the pre­vail­ing logo-heavy aes­thetic, draw­ing in­stead on post­war surfers’ un­der­stated cool. Its cloth­ing is fair labour ac­cred­ited, and some styles are made from re­cy­cled fishing nets, a val­ues-driven de­ci­sion that didn’t come cheap. Many surfers as­sumed Slater was cash­ing in on his name and that the eco-bab­ble was just mar­ket­ing.

“When we launched Outer­known, we got ripped to shreds for our pric­ing,” Slater says. It didn’t help that the la­bel was backed by the Ker­ing group, own­ers of Gucci, Saint Lau­rent and Puma. “Ev­ery stage of ev­ery­thing I’ve done, I’ve been called a sell-out,” Slater says, adding that he “walked away from quite a lot of money to do this. I haven’t got­ten rich off this thing.” Outer­known has since been able to re­duce prices.

That same year, Slater also ac­quired the ma­jor­ity stake in Firewire Surf­boards, an­other op­ti­mistic bet that surfers are will­ing to shell out more for sus­tain­abil­ity. “You would think that surf cul­ture is open­minded, out of the box, in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic,” he says, “but they’re the most con­ser­va­tive bunch in the world.”

Firewire CEO Mark Price adds that “with Kelly’s in­vest­ment, we were able to take mar­gin hits. Most times when peo­ple take a ma­jor­ity share, they’re look­ing to flip the com­pany. But Kelly’s set­ting up the next 25 years of his ca­reer.”

When I first in­ter­viewed Slater in 2008, he en­vi­sioned a fu­ture in which surf­ing might go main­stream. “Right now, there’s some­thing in­her­ently miss­ing,” he told me then. Slater wanted to ex­pand the reach of the sport and con­nect with the sort of in­lan­ders who al­ready wore Quik­sil­ver board shorts or Hollister hood­ies. But his thirst for a wider au­di­ence wasn’t about money; it was about le­git­i­macy. Af­ter Slater won his first world ti­tle, his man­ager at the time con­tacted Wheaties. He was told they only fea­tured “gen­uine” ath­letes. “To them, I was just a beach bum,” ac­cord­ing to Slater.

The As­so­ci­a­tion of Surf­ing Pro­fes­sion­als had in fact been cooked up by a few beach bums in the mid-Sev­en­ties, in hopes of turn­ing their pas­sion into a liveli­hood. When Peter Tow­nend be­came the first world­tour cham­pion in 1976, he was pre­sented with an im­pres­sive tro­phy in Honolulu. Pho­tos were taken, and the tro­phy was promptly re­turned to its cabi­net at the nearby Outrig­ger Ca­noe Club.

Slater spent his youth com­pet­ing against these surfers and they anointed him their baby-faced mes­siah. “This boy-man means a bil­lion dol­lars to the in­dus­try,” Derek Hynd wrote in Surfer magazine in 1992. By the mid-Noughties, Slater had be­come con­vinced that if surf­ing were re­ally to grow, it would need to be com­pletely re­tooled.

In 2012, the ASP was sold to an in­vest­ment group fronted by his man­ager, Terry Hardy, and re­branded as the WSL. But the or­gan­i­sa­tion still wres­tles with the same al­ba­tross: good waves are hard to come by. They can’t be re­lied on to show up dur­ing a half-hour heat, even when all the weather vari­ables align. Surf con­tests have two-week wait­ing pe­ri­ods, take three days to com­plete, and mostly in­volve ath­letes wait­ing around, star­ing dumbly at the sea. You cer­tainly can’t plan on good waves ap­pear­ing dur­ing East Coast prime-time view­ing.

Slater de­cided that the sport needed a sta­dium and a more re­li­able play­ing field. He had dreamed about a com­pe­ti­tion-qual­ity ar­ti­fi­cial wave since 1986, when he’d been paid to demon­strate surf­ing in a pool in Texas that pro­duced waves that were “piti­ful, even by Co­coa Beach stan­dards.” Around 2005, he be­gan se­ri­ously ex­plor­ing con­cept de­signs. In 2008, he qui­etly hired USC pro­fes­sor and fluid dy­nam­i­cist Adam Fin­cham who helped re­cruit a hand­ful of en­gi­neers, and the group went to work cre­at­ing surf from scratch in a Los An­ge­les ware­house. Slater and a part­ner funded the early re­search.

Fin­cham’s team spent years on whim­si­cal ren­der­ings, com­plex com­puter mod­els and a small-scale pro­to­type. But de­spite Slater’s in­volve­ment, in­vestors weren’t will­ing to fund full-scale com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment with­out see­ing proof of con­cept. Ru­mours swirled that the project was a costly fail­ure.

Through mu­tual friends in Hawaii, Slater met Michael Sch­wab, the son of the mu­tual-fund bil­lion­aire Charles Sch­wab, who be­came smit­ten with the idea. By that point, surf­ing had been dis­cov­ered and em­braced by coastal elites search­ing for au­then­tic­ity and a form of ac­tive med­i­ta­tion. Wealthy en­thu­si­asts be­gan shar­ing surf hol­i­day tro­phy shots on so­cial me­dia, and trips to ex­clu­sive surf re­sorts in Fiji and Sumba be­came pop­u­lar with the Burn­ing Man set.

Sch­wab had surfed in high school and started up again about 10 years ago. “At first, my fam­ily didn’t re­ally look at surf­ing as some­thing that was OK,” the 42-year-old says. “It was for hip­pies, beat­niks, peo­ple who weren’t do­ing any­thing with their life. But six years ago, my dad saw my in­ter­est and en­cour­aged me to in­vest in what I was pas­sion­ate about.”

In 2014, with sup­port from in­vestors in­clud­ing Sch­wab, the newly in­cor­po­rated Kelly Slater Wave Com­pany bought and drained an old wa­ter-ski­ing lake in Le­moore, Cal­i­for­nia, and be­gan covertly build­ing a work­ing pro­to­type to si­lence all doubters.

Pre­vi­ous wave pools used pad­dles or other brute force means to push wa­ter for­ward and up into a break­ing wave. Fin­cham’s team re­lied on a hy­dro­foil pulled through the wa­ter to cre­ate a soli­ton, a soli­tary wave ap­prox­i­mat­ing an ocean swell. Their ap­proach wasn’t en­tirely novel — a Span­ish com­pany called Wave­g­ar­den also uses a hy­dro­foil — but Slater’s group had the know-how and the cap­i­tal to build some­thing big­ger, more pow­er­ful and more per­fect than any­thing that had come be­fore it. And they weren’t de­sign­ing for an av­er­age cus­tomer. The wave was made for Kelly Slater.

When he vis­ited the pool mid-con­struc­tion in 2015, the im­men­sity of the project ter­ri­fied him. “I was in shock for half a day,” Slater says. “I al­most couldn’t talk.” What had he got­ten him­self into? But once he tested the wave, it felt as if they had bot­tled light­ning. Slater and his in­vestors con­sid­ered var­i­ous busi­ness mod­els. His tech­nol­ogy gen­er­ated fewer waves of higher qual­ity than ex­ist­ing pub­lic pools, but the hydr foil could also be di­aled down to pro­duce friendlier waves bet­ter suited for a wealthy begin­ner. In­stead of charg­ing by the hour, the Kelly Slater Wave Com­pany be­gan ex­plor­ing a pri­vate-mem­ber­ship model sim­i­lar to that

of a lux­ury golf com­mu­nity in which an ar­ti­fi­cial wave pool serves as the cen­tre­piece of a new de­vel­op­ment.

Michael Sch­wab isn’t the only deep-pock­eted in­vestor en­am­oured with surf­ing. For the past few years, the WSL has poured un­heard-of amounts into the sport. (The or­gan­i­sa­tion doesn’t re­lease its fi­nances and wouldn’t com­ment for this story, but some in­dus­try in­sid­ers es­ti­mate more than $40m (£29.5m) a year.) The WSL’s live we­b­casts now fea­ture so­phis­ti­cated cam­er­a­work and lo­ca­tions out of a James Bond film. The bulk of the fund­ing has come from Dirk Ziff, a bil­lion­aire hedge fund man­ager and heir to the Ziff Davis pub­lish­ing for­tune, who served as the WSL’s in­terim CEO last year. Some view Ziff’s in­volve­ment as a hos­tile takeover rather than an act of phi­lan­thropy.

For most of its his­tory, the world tour has been funded by ma­jor surf brands, but di­min­ished prof­its have caused them to slash sup­port. With­out Ziff’s in­volve­ment, the tour might have crum­bled. “There was a lot of fear when Dirk came in,” Slater says. “Peo­ple don’t un­der­stand how much he loves surf­ing. He wants to keep the cul­ture in­tact. But it’s a nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion to in­crease the vis­i­bil­ity and reach of the sport.”

Seen through this lens, the WSL’s 2016 ac­qui­si­tion of a ma­jor­ity stake in Kelly Slater Wave Com­pany makes per­fect sense. On 5 and 6 May, the WSL fi­nally opened the Surf Ranch’s gates for a pub­lic com­pe­ti­tion. Tick­ets started at $99 (£73). The event had a fes­ti­val feel, with food and mu­sic and spon­sor­ship from Mich­e­lob. Most surf com­pe­ti­tions fea­ture ath­letes vy­ing against each other in one-on-one heats, as in ten­nis. This one saw five na­tional teams of two women and three men. For the first time, surfers com­peted in iden­ti­cal con­di­tions, the waves ar­riv­ing like clock­work.

a good ride in the ocean mixes the adren­a­line spike of a hunter’s kill shot with a psilo­cy­bin-in­duced feel­ing of one­ness with the uni­verse. The rar­ity of these mo­ments makes them that much sweeter. Such waves can be sep­a­rated by years of pa­tient wait­ing. In the in­terim, a surfer hones his or her skills and tracks me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions, of­ten think­ing about lit­tle else.

As it had for Slater, the wa­ter pro­vided me with a sanc­tu­ary from a frac­tured fam­ily life. I of­ten won­der about the things I might have ac­com­plished if I’d been brave enough to walk away from surf­ing for a cou­ple years, or months, or even one hon­est 40-hour work week. I’ve spent my life chas­ing “per­fect” waves, mak­ing shitty, self­ish de­ci­sions in search of those tran­scen­dent win­dows when the el­e­ments come to­gether.

At 15, I rushed my fam­ily through my mother’s last birth­day din­ner so that I could get to the beach be­fore dark. In the months be­fore I be­came a par­ent, I wor­ried in­ces­santly that my daugh­ter’s birth would co­in­cide with an epic swell. I fake-smiled through her sec­ond birth­day as I missed triple-over­head bar­rels. Some­times I marvel at how far I must have trav­elled across the faces of waves with­out ever get­ting any­where. What has it all been for, now that once-in-a-life­time surf is avail­able on de­mand? Am I free, or stripped of my iden­tity?

“I’m in mourn­ing,” Matt War­shaw tells me when I ask about the Surf Ranch. “I’ve come to be­lieve Slater’s wave is the end of days. We’ve traded magic for per­fec­tion, and it’s heart­break­ing. Ev­ery­thing we are as surfers has to do with the scarcity and the strug­gle to find the per­fect wave. I re­ject the idea that it doesn’t af­fect those who never get to surf the pool. It’s al­ways there in the back of your mind. Any no­bil­ity to all the stupid stuff we’ve done for good surf is gone.”

Gerry Lopez, a Hawai­ian mas­ter known for his abil­ity to main­tain per­fect Zen while tube-rid­ing dan­ger­ous surf, takes a more philo­soph­i­cal view. “You’re still try­ing to con­nect and be in har­mony with this force of na­ture, even though it’s a man-made de­vice,” he tells me. “There’s a spir­i­tu­al­ity about it, and I don’t think it has any­thing to do with what cre­ates that en­ergy.”

Aaron James, au­thor of Surf­ing with Sartre, says, “At best, it’s a sup­ple­ment. The dan­ger is try­ing to iso­late only the peak mo­ment of surf­ing.”

Even Slater felt con­flicted when he brought his cre­ation to life. “The first day we ran waves, I was of two mind-sets, if I’m be­ing hon­est,” he says. “It was so amaz­ing. But is it Pan­dora’s box? What does it mean for surf­ing? Al­most in slow mo­tion I was think­ing, ‘Can I whole­heart­edly put my arms around this and love it?’” He un­der­stands the wor­ries. That by “coun­ter­feit­ing na­ture,” he’s giv­ing rise to a fu­ture of “class war­fare” among surfers, the rich en­joy­ing ideal con­di­tions at the push of a but­ton while the masses fight over lim­ited re­sources at crowded, pol­luted beach breaks.

Slater wants to of­fer ev­ery­one a chance to surf his wave, but de­mand far out­strips sup­ply. The day he re­vealed it to the world, his phone started ping­ing — 300 texts, then 400, 500 — and the beg­ging hasn’t stopped since. “It’s like surf crack,” Slater laughs.

Ex-pro Tay­lor Knox, who has known Slater since they were 14, says, “Once they get a taste, they’ll pay what­ever. Peo­ple are go­ing to go bank­rupt.”

“It’s all been a self­ish in­vest­ment on my part to im­prove my own surf­ing,” says Sch­wab, who has al­ready surfed Slater’s wave more than 75 times. A sec­ond pool has been ap­proved in Palm Beach, Florida, and more lo­ca­tions are in the works.

There’s a three- to five-minute wait be­tween waves and vis­i­tors get a lim­ited num­ber of chances. Even for pros, the pres­sure can be in­tense, but most guests ex­pe­ri­ence at least one mind-al­ter­ing ride. “I cried af­ter get­ting the long­est tube of my ca­reer,” a re­tired pro surfer, who wishes to re­main anony­mous, tells me. “It was the best mo­ment of my life. Bet­ter than the birth of my son.”

The eu­pho­ria quickly turns to de­spair as they re­alise there’s no telling when they’ll get an­other wave like that again. “It’s hard to talk about tech be­ing sa­cred,” Slater says. “But ev­ery­one who’s surfed the wave has had ex­pe­ri­ences that are sort of… sa­cred.”

It goes some­thing like that for me. In the pool af­ter lunch, a serendip­i­tous mis­take and quick re­cov­ery place me deep in­side a tube. In a giddy flash, I re­alise that all I need to do is hold on. Af­ter five long, hal­lu­ci­na­tory

‘You would think that surf cul­ture is open-minded,

out of the box, in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic,’ Slater says, ‘but they’re the most con­ser­va­tive bunch in the world’

sec­onds, the wave ush­ers me to safety as Slater watches. I ride to the edge of the pool and step out. Slater tells me he was so sure I’d fallen that he started check­ing his phone. He only looked back up when he heard oth­ers hoot­ing. “You’re done!” he says. “No, re­ally. You’re not go­ing to get a bet­ter one than that.”

Af­ter a few min­utes, Slater wan­ders off for an­other photo shoot and I sneak back into the pool, hop­ing some­one else will fall and I’ll get one more per­fect wave. But I never do.

In the first is­sue of Surfer magazine, pub­lished in 1960, founder John Sev­er­son wrote, “In this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the per­fect day, the per­fect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.” Tech­nol­ogy has been en­croach­ing on this pic­ture ever since. De­cent waves and crowds are now a pack­age deal, thanks to in­creas­ingly ac­cu­rate fore­casts and live-stream cam­eras. A swell’s ar­rival is an­tic­i­pated and dis­cussed just as snow­storms and hur­ri­canes are on the Weather Chan­nel. Ap­ple Watches have brought con­nec­tiv­ity to the lineup, and in San Fran­cisco it’s be­com­ing more com­mon to see work emails an­swered in the wa­ter. Many surfers spend more time check­ing the con­di­tions on­line than ac­tu­ally surf­ing, and when they do surf, a Go­Pro or a drone buzzing over­head en­sures that not a mo­ment goes by un­recorded.

Mixed into the con­crete be­low the sur­face of Slater’s pool is a foun­da­tional as­sump­tion that na­ture can be repli­cated and even made bet­ter. Maybe that’s the truth, our shared in­evitable fu­ture, and I’m just not ready for it. I want to go on be­liev­ing, for at least a lit­tle while longer, that some things left over from our atavis­tic past don’t need to be op­ti­mised or aug­mented to con­tinue be­ing worth our time and at­ten­tion.

The last wave of the day is cre­ated at 4pm. Then ev­ery­one moves to the hot tub, wet­suits still on, for mar­gar­i­tas. The only salt is on the glasses’ rims. Slater and his friends laugh and snap selfies as the staff starts a bar­be­cue and a camp­fire. Be­fore I leave, I in­vite him to re­join me at the des­o­late beach we surfed to­gether in 2011. Rare cir­cum­stances have con­verged, and to­mor­row’s fore­cast prom­ises good surf. Slater po­litely de­clines; he has an­other crew of friends vis­it­ing the Surf Ranch the next morn­ing.

I drive north into the night, ar­rive home past mid­night, sleep for a few hours. Back on the road again at 4am, I reach the coast be­fore dawn. As I hike down to the beach, my phone loses its sig­nal. I can’t see the waves yet, but I can hear them. The ris­ing sun dabs a bloody red on the sur­face of the wa­ter where I pad­dle out. An in­quis­i­tive seal bears wit­ness. It’s the type of Cal­i­for­nia day we used to call per­fect. But af­ter surf­ing Slater’s pool, I no­tice all the im­per­fec­tions: mis­placed wind chops, un­pre­dictable war­bles.

Back at the Surf Ranch, they’re sum­mon­ing the first wave of the day. Slater’s prob­a­bly rid­ing it as his friends cheer from the side­lines, ea­ger to take their turn.

I look to the hori­zon, wait­ing.

Pre­vi­ous pages: Kelly Slater rides an ar­ti­fi­cial but flaw­less wave in the 701m-long pool at the WSL Surf Ranch Above: an aerial view of the Surf Ranch in Cal­i­for­nia’s San Joaquin Val­ley. Note Slater’s ‘per­fect wave’ ma­chine, left

Above left: Slater and his friend and fel­low pro Keoni Wat­son ride a jet ski-pulled sled to where the waves break in the WSL pool. Right: Slater with a post-surf mar­garita in hand, talks to Wat­son re­lax­ing in the hot tub

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