Engineering the Perfect Wave

A technology breakthrough allows surf legend Kelly Slater to manufacture the same wave over and over again

Surf Ranch
At Surf Ranch in May (where Kelly Slater leaned into a cutback), 5,000 spectators gathered to watch 25 world-class surfers compete for prize money. Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images

The World Surf League’s championship circuit reads like a bucket list: Bali, Tahiti, Australia’s Gold Coast, Oahu, the South African Cape. To be an elite competitor is to jet from one iconic coastline to another, each destination a fortuitous collision of earth, wind and water.

Now that circuit is taking a detour—to the California farm town of Lemoore. Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, across a blanched landscape of industrial orchards and gaseous feedlots, and a good hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, Lemoore is the unlikely home of Kelly Slater’s WSL Surf Ranch, an artificial-wave laboratory that is reshaping the future of the sport. Devised by the 11-time world champ, who has since sold a controlling interest to the World Surf League, the Surf Ranch hosted its first public competition in May and will make its official debut on the men’s and women’s championship tour in September.

“I was kind of blown away by how random it is,” says Sophie Goldschmidt, the WSL’s chief executive, recalling a three-hour slog out of the clamor of Los Angeles, over the notoriously twisty mountain route known as the Grapevine, and through the dust-caked flatlands of the San Joaquin Valley. “Then you come across this kind of oasis.”

A formerly abandoned water-ski lake, the 700-yard-long pool offered a clandestine testing ground for the technology that Slater, like generations of surfers, has long dreamed of—a machine capable of churning out perfect, replicable waves at the push of a button. Slater collaborated with Adam Fincham, an expert in geophysical fluid dynamics at the University of Southern California’s department of aerospace and mechanical engineering, who developed a kind of underwater plow, much like a train engine pushing a submerged airplane wing, which forces water against a contoured bottom until it curls into a head-high wave. Slater’s goal is not height but quality—shape, power, consistency—so that a surfer can ride in and out of the barrel for an unheard of 40 to 50 seconds.

Kelly Slater rips at his Surf Ranch

“I’m at a loss for words with this place,” Slater, after a day of test-riding last fall, posted on his Instagram account. “The Machine keeps delivering.”

Cynics will say the Surf Ranch robs surfing of all that feeds its mystique: the spontaneity, the iconoclasm, the rapture (and folly) of man’s aquatic dance with the caprices of nature. Yet that, at least partly, is the point. By spitting out waves on command, the Surf Ranch spells the birth of surfing as a stadium sport—one that can keep to a schedule and entice broadcast executives. With surfing approved for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the incentive to stage a TV-friendly event is huge.

“This technology opens people’s eyes,” says Goldschmidt, who plans at least five more wave-making facilities around the world.

“But it’s not an ‘either-or.’ The ocean is still there.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.