Surf’s Up For­ever

How Kelly Slater plans to roll out his near-per­fect man-made wave

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - by josh dean

Last De­cem­ber, Kelly Slater, the world’s best and best­known surfer, re­leased a short video on his In­sta­gram feed. It be­gan with a beau­ti­fully curl­ing left-to-right wave, 7 or 8 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 voice-over, “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 man­made lake, 700 yards long and 70 yards wide, orig­i­nally built for wa­ter­ski­ing. The run-down 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: In mid-may, KSWC was 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 stripe 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 full­time pro­fes­sional surfer. “It’s a re­search lab­o­ra­tory,” adds Terry Hardy, Slater’s long­time 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; the press re­lease an­nounc­ing the deal men­tions “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 highper­for­mance 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 proven 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.

Fin­cham is orig­i­nally from Ja­maica and had spent much of his ca­reer work­ing in Europe, so he says he “hon­estly had no idea” who Slater was when he came to visit him at his USC lab in 2006. Fin­cham knew a lot about waves, though, hav­ing spent years on a Euro­pean Union pro­gram called Hy­dro­lab, which ex­posed him to nu­mer­ous large hy­draulic fa­cil­i­ties.

Fin­cham says he thought, “Who’s this surfer dude with this crazy idea? Very quickly, I re­al­ized he was se­ri­ous. He was very ar­tic­u­late and de­scribed quite pre­cisely what he wanted to do.” Specif­i­cally, Slater wanted a high- per­for­mance bar­rel­ing wave, one that would curl end­lessly. “It was very clear that he didn’t just want a wave—he wanted his wave,” Fin­cham re­calls. “It had to bar­rel; it had to have power; it had to have du­ra­tion; and it had to be shaped in such a way that you could ma­neu­ver.”

He wasn’t sure it was pos­si­ble, but Fin­cham pulled to­gether a team of col­leagues and un­der­took a pi­lot study in 2007. They de­cided that, yes, it was pos­si­ble. By 2008, Fin­cham was the di­rec­tor for sci­ence at KSWC and had moved to a lab­o­ra­tory in a ware­house in Cul­ver City, near Los An­ge­les. Along with a small team, he built a 1/15-scale model of a con­cept that seemed fea­si­ble: a hy­dro­foil—imag­ine some­thing like an un­der­wa­ter air­plane wing— would cre­ate a swell, then turn that swell into a sur­fa­ble wave by us­ing a specif­i­cally shaped bot­tom to cause a break, as hap­pens in the ocean.

They pro­ceeded, Fin­cham says, “as if we were build­ing an air­craft car­rier or an air­plane.” They built a the­o­ret­i­cal model, then a lab model, then a com­puter model run on mul­ti­ple su­per­com­put­ers at the same time.

From talk­ing to surfers, Fin­cham learned that the best waves in na­ture were typ­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with a swell that could be de­scribed math­e­mat­i­cally as a “soli­tary wave” or “soli­ton.” This is a wave that cov­ers im­mense dis­tances while main­tain­ing its shape and ve­loc­ity un­til some­thing dis­rupts it— for in­stance, a reef or the shore. That be­came his tar­get in the ware­house pool.

By late 2014 it was time to put the con­cept to a test in the field. Af­ter shop­ping for more than a year, the com­pany set­tled on the plot in Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia where the en­gi­neer­ing team could work with no in­ter­fer­ence. The site sits be­hind a cedar fence along a dusty road where houses are few and far be­tween. Se­crecy was a con­cern, cer­tainly, but the real rea­son the prototype wave is in Le­moore is that the land was cheap, about $575,000 for 20 acres. To find a plot of that size with a lake out­side L.A. would be a ridicu­lous waste of money for a startup that Slater de­scribes as “thrifty.” (And for good rea­son—a

large chunk of the fund­ing came out of his pocket.)

One of the first things peo­ple ask, Fin­cham says, is whether the wave can be big­ger. Can it, for in­stance, get huge, to pro­duce a sim­u­la­tion of Oahu’s ab­surd “Pipe­line,” de­vourer of men and boards? Given a large enough pool and foil, he says, it’s pos­si­ble, but that was never Slater’s vi­sion. “Our ob­jec­tive is the qual­ity of the wave,” Fin­cham ex­plains. “Kelly made it very clear that if it met his cri­te­ria—if it had shape and power and form—that he would ride that all day long.”

In early May, Slater in­vited his first guests to the Surf Ranch. The group in­cluded three pro­fes­sional surfers and some of the key lead­ers of the WSL, in­clud­ing Com­mis­sioner Kieren Per­row and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Paul Speaker. Per­row is in essence the chief surf­ing of­fi­cer, the guy charged with pro­tect­ing the sport and over­see­ing all things re­lated to com­pe­ti­tion—in­clud­ing, cru­cially, whether the con­di­tions are good enough on a par­tic­u­lar day to surf. Per­row is a for­mer pro; Speaker, a non-surfer, cre­ated Per­row’s po­si­tion when he took over the league in 2012 to help as­sure the ath­letes and the in­dus­try that his as­cen­sion, as a man who came from New York and wore suits, didn’t in­di­cate that the priorities of surfers were about to take a back seat.

Speaker, who’s held ex­ec­u­tive po­si­tions at RKO Pic­tures and the Na­tional Foot­ball League, took an in­ter­est in the busi­ness of surf­ing af­ter join­ing the board of Quik­sil­ver in 2010. He says it stood out as the ac­tion sport with the big­gest po­ten­tial for growth in terms of both fans and par­tic­i­pa­tion. Peo­ple didn’t age out of surf­ing the way they seemed to do with snow­board­ing, skate­board­ing, or BMX, and it was al­most uniquely as­pi­ra­tional, with a cul­ture and es­thetic that’s as much a life­style as a sport.

The As­so­ci­a­tion of Surf Pro­fes­sion­als tour, as the league was then known, was strug­gling un­der a dis­jointed man­age­ment struc­ture—half-owned by pro surfers and hal­fowned by the en­demic surf brands, with a gov­ern­ing body that li­censed the rights to spe­cific events to dif­fer­ent part­ners. This made it dif­fi­cult to ag­gre­gate au­di­ence or sell global spon­sor­ships. Speaker joined forces with Hardy and, with the fi­nan­cial back­ing of the reclu­sive Florida bil­lion­aire Dirk Ziff, took over the ASP and re­branded it as the WSL.

Speaker quickly chased global spon­sor­ships (sign­ing Jeep, Sam­sung, and Inbev) and in­vested heav­ily in tech­nol­ogy to cover surf­ing events—adding he­li­copters and drones. The WSL con­trols its own me­dia rights and archives, but, un­til now, it was at the mercy of the ocean. Surfers can some­times wait a week or more to ac­tu­ally com­pete, and that makes TV next to im­pos­si­ble. In­stead, the WSL broad­casts over the web, via Face­book and its own app.

Speaker, Per­row, and the pro­fes­sional surfers couldn’t be­lieve what they were see­ing that day in Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia. You can wit­ness that in the videos posted to the KSWC web­site, and in the so­cial me­dia posts they all put up later. “It’ll be a day I’ll never for­get for the rest of my life and I can’t wait to see how the sport of surf­ing evolves with this new tech­nol­ogy,” pro surfer Kanoa Igarashi wrote on In­sta­gram. “I couldn’t be­lieve the per­fect­ness of the wave.”

“I think ev­ery surfer at some point has prob­a­bly dreamt of hav­ing a wave like this avail­able,” Per­row says. “Peo­ple have been try­ing to achieve this for a long time. I wasn’t sure if I would ever see it.” As com­mis­sioner, Per­row is charged with “uphold­ing the in­tegrity of the sport.” Among his jobs, then, will be fig­ur­ing out how and where to use Slater’s wave.

Speaker and Hardy are both cagey about a com­mer­cial roll­out. “It’s so early,” Hardy says. “We’re lit­er­ally still test­ing and re­fin­ing.” They know, though, that some pros and fans are fear­ful about what Slater’s wave could do to com­pe­ti­tion. Crit­ics worry that it could ob­vi­ate the vari­abil­ity of na­ture and the ac­quired art of choos­ing which wave in a swell will be the best, both of which are es­sen­tial to the sport’s iden­tity.

“It’s re­ally im­por­tant for ev­ery­body to know that we’re not mov­ing away from the oceans, at all,” Speaker says. “The WSL is the world’s best surfers on the world’s best waves. This is just an en­hance­ment to the tour. We will al­ways have a ma­jor­ity of the surf con­tests take place in the ocean.”

Now that the pool's lo­ca­tion is pub­lic, and even tagged on Google Maps, the com­pany has had to but­ton up the se­cu­rity. There’s a guard at the gate when I visit in late May, and sur­veil­lance cam­eras cover the prop­erty. Still, drones have buzzed over nu­mer­ous times, and once a heli­copter came in low, with a man clearly film­ing out the side, so the hy­dro­foil—the wave’s se­cret weapon—is cam­ou­flaged from above. If you watch any of the videos, shot ex­clu­sively by Kswc-sanc­tioned per­son­nel, they’re care­fully cropped so as not to re­veal much of a hulk­ing, whirring metal ram as it’s dragged along a rail un­der the wa­ter. (The hy­dro­foil is sep­a­rated from surfers by net­ting.)

Just be­fore sun­set, Slater gets word that the crew has fin­ished some main­te­nance and that the ma­chine, pow­ered by so­largen­er­ated elec­tric­ity, is warm enough for a run. Slater zips up a short- sleeved wet­suit and grabs a board from his new line. He left Quik­sil­ver in 2014 to start his own cloth­ing com­pany, Outer­known. He cut ties with his board spon­sor around the same time, and for all of the 2015 sea­son, Slater rode a naked board, opt­ing to earn noth­ing on the two most mar­ketable sur­faces a surfer has—the top and bot­tom of the board. In April he in­tro­duced his own line of boards in part­ner­ship with Firewire Surf­boards, a man­u­fac­turer

that ad­heres to en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly prac­tices.

Slater steps gin­gerly through the acres of mulch that lies along the length of the lake around the eu­ca­lyp­tus trees that shade an old drive­way, and climbs up over the side of the lake’s banks just un­der the newly con­structed con­trol tower. There, in­side a glass-fronted box, the con­trol sys­tem runs on cus­tom soft­ware.

He slips into the wa­ter and pad­dles out to the mid­dle of the lake as a ca­ble that runs the length of the hy­dro­foil hous­ing goes taut, sound­ing as if some­one is whizzing along a zip line. Then, in the dis­tance, it be­gins. A head-high swell rises up sud­denly and grows in size as the hy­dro­foil gains speed. Slater glances back over his shoul­der and pad­dles fast, match­ing his own speed to the wave’s and, as the swell hits the point at which the lake’s bot­tom— by depth and con­tour—forces it to break, Slater is up, tuck­ing into a bar­rel that curls per­fectly and never breaks. When the pros were on- site, Nat Young stayed in one of these tubes for nearly 30 sec­onds, by far the long­est bar­rel ride of his life, and later said, al­most mys­ti­fied, “Ev­ery drop was fall­ing where it had to fall.”

Slater, though, pops out of the tube and cuts up­ward, as­cend­ing to the top of the wave and then slash­ing hard as the roar­ing wall of wa­ter car­ries him past a row of spec­ta­tors. The run lasts al­most half a minute. “In na­ture there are very few if any waves this long,” Hardy says.

The wave is more pow­er­ful in per­son than on film, with­out ques­tion. Slater makes it look easy, but even he wasn’t quite pre­pared for the speed; back in De­cem­ber, he missed his first pad­dle. An­other pro, he says, fell on his first three at­tempts. But this is the foil fir­ing at 85 per­cent of its max­i­mum power. Slater’s girl­friend, an am­a­teur, has rid­den a smaller wave, and so has a 48-year- old wa­ter­skier who lives next door. He’d never surfed be­fore, but he got up on his first wave and rode it the en­tire length of the lake. “I don’t know how many peo­ple we’ll put in here who’ve never surfed be­fore,” Slater says. “But that right there is the proof.”

He likes to say that this is “Ver­sion 1.0”—a “shot in the dark” full- scale prototype that shocked them all by ac­tu­ally work­ing. He’s al­ready mess­ing with the shape of the lake’s floor and the foil’s de­sign. It can be smaller or much larger and, with some changes to the en­gi­neer­ing, even in­stalled in a cir­cu­lar pool, so that a surfer could, in the­ory, ride for­ever. “That’s the dream,” Slater says.

The cost of a sys­tem will de­pend on many vari­ables, most ob­vi­ously the size of the pool and the foil. “If you said $2 mil­lion you wouldn’t be wrong, and if you said $20 mil­lion you wouldn’t be wrong ei­ther,” he says. “It’s lit­er­ally like a buf­fet.”

Be­hind him, the sun hangs just over the tree line, and storm clouds are build­ing. An or­ange Cal­i­for­nia glow has set­tled upon the place. Slater, shiv­er­ing, wants to get into the hot tub that was just in­stalled, but he can’t leave un­til he hears what the vis­i­tors think of the wave he’s been dream­ing about since child­hood.

It seems so un­nat­u­ral to see some­thing like that here, some­one says, ges­tur­ing at the miles of noth­ing in ev­ery di­rec­tion.

Slater laughs, then stops and as­sumes a faux-se­ri­ous face. “Wait,” he says. “You’re sup­posed to say it seems nat­u­ral.” <BW>

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.