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Surf Legend Builds Artificial Wave That Could Bring Surfing to the Masses

The World Surf League just bought Kelly Slater’s artificial wave technology, a move that could bring surfing to places like Nebraska

Kelly Slater tests his new wave machine in Lemoore, California (Kelly Slater Wave Company)
smithsonian.com

More than perhaps any other sport, surfing is dependent on Mother Nature. A storm thousands of miles away can affect waves on the other side of the world a week later. One surfer in a lineup may get the wave of a lifetime, while the next set may be barely rideable.

While ski areas can make snow and baseball stadiums can close the domes of their stadiums during storms, surfing competitions can’t do much to create an equal playing field or correct for bad waves. That’s one reason the World Surfing League just bought the Kelly Slater Wave Company, which has produced the first surfable, consistent man-made wave pool.

“KSWC technology creates an opportunity for surfers to practice and develop ever-higher levels of performance in a repeating environment, with unprecedented opportunities for surrounding camera and sensor arrays providing immediate and perfectly accurate feedback on their progress,” a press release from the World Surf League (WSL) says. “This is the first repeatable man-made wave that convincingly delivers the power and shape of ocean waves most sought after by accomplished surfers, including a hollow barrel allowing for long tube rides.”

The League says that over the next few months it will assess the potential of the technology, but in the future they expect to be able to build artificial wave pools surrounded by stadiums that could host surfing events.

According to Josh Dean at Bloomberg Businessweek, the technology could also become an attraction at water parks, resorts and landlocked locations. The waves can be tuned to produce waves for beginners and intermediate surfers as well as pro-level barrels.

The fact that Kelly Slater is leading this project gives it instant credibility. Slater, 44, is arguably the Michael Jordan of surfing with 11 WSL championships under his belt. Growing up, he had some experience with the small artificial standing waves like the FlowRider, but he always dreamed of creating a real, powerful surf wave. “I just thought, how cool would it be?” he tells Dean. “People have tried for a long time to have a high-performance wave that’s controllable.”

Almost ten years ago, Slater began working with fluid mechanics specialist Adam Fincham who is a professor at the University of Southern California. They developed scale models of a machine capable of producing a barrel wave using a hydrofoil. Then in 2014, Dean says, they bought a cheap piece of land in Lemoore, California, with a waterskiing pond on it. There they began testing and refining their machine, and last December Slater posted a video of himself riding the wave on his website. The surf world went a bit crazy, and excitement has grown as more pro surfers and officials have experienced the technology. 

When Kieren Perrow, commissioner of the WSL visited the wave facility, he was impressed. “You don’t know when you see it on video what it’s going to be like when you’re there, but the scale of the project is pretty mind-blowing,” Perrow tells Marcus Sanders at Surfline. “The pool is a lot bigger than I imagined and the wave a lot longer. There’s more power in the wave than I expected, too.”

World Surf League CEO Paul Speaker tells Sanders he’s still trying to wrap his head around the possibilities, but the technology will allow surfing to engage more directly with fans, lead to more live-televised competitions, since meets can be more accurately scheduled, and the building of artificial waves will help grow interest in the sport in non-coastal markets.

Kelly Slater admits that man-made waves strip some of the romance from surfing. “It’s not going down to Mexico in the '70s and finding some empty point no one’s ever surfed. It’s not discovery like that and it’s not the journey and the safari that our lifestyle offers — and those things are arguably why I love surfing so much,” he tells Sanders. “This is just the riding part, and you’re not dealing with having to try to figure out what the lineup is or how to outdo this guy or snake somebody for that wave. But all the other experiences connected to that, you can never replace them—and that’s not the intention of this at all.”

Instead, he says his wave is great for technical training and most of all highlights the athletic side of surfing. It could also be the first step toward in bringing surfing to events like the Olympics.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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