Bloomberg Businessweek (North America)
Surf’s Up Forever
How Kelly Slater plans to roll out his near-perfect man-made wave
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>