The Future


Will man-made waves change the soul of surfing?

Lemoore, California, is not a beach town. It sits in the fertile San Joaquin Valley, 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean and 30 miles south of Fresno. The almonds, cotton, and tomatoes grown in the area yield more than $100 million each in annual production. Water there is a precious and highly political resource; it is neither saline nor subject to the tides. But for two years, man-made waves have been churning quietly in Lemoore. Someone is playing god with the water.

Nestled between fields and dairies, a 700-meter by 150-meter pool has been retrofitted with what looks like an Amtrak car and a shipping container combined. As it travels a track set above the pool’s long edge, the contraption drags a 70-ton hydrofoil: a partially-submerged object resembling an airplane wing laid on its side. The effect of this hydrofoil’s movement is a wake that ripples diagonally across the pool. The crucial moment comes when the wake transitions from deep to shallow water and becomes a breaking wave: a cylindrical, tube-like shape that peels for 50 endless, elegant seconds. It crests unblemished by rocks, kelp, and backwash. Every ounce of water is perfectly arranged.

In nature, a surfable wave is the culmination of many forces: distant storms, local winds, swells, tides, the contours of a reef or sandbar. In the Lemoore pool, artificial waves are driven by scientific research and consumer potential. The technology comes courtesy of the Kelly Slater Wave Company, a venture founded by the eponymous surfing champion in 2007. Since the wave-generating apparatus was unveiled in a December 2015 video, the “Surf Ranch,” as it is known, has become a site of equally intense debate and desire. The most immediate questions are categorical: is what takes place in Lemoore really “surfing”? Can one truly “surf” without the ocean? — on a wave guaranteed by admission tickets, equipment rentals, and concessions?

Here is one thing I can say for certain: to surfers like me — able but not expert — the Ranch is unambiguously seductive. For professionals as well, it is no less thrilling a sight; the Ranch represents a training instrument that may revolutionize the sport. What’s most interesting about it, then, is not whether the waves that break there count in any esoteric sense as “waves,” but how surfers are confronting their thirst for the unnatural. Now, as the Surf Ranch moves past the prototype phase (according to a member of the Kings County Planning Division, the company aims for a March hearing on future business plans and local impact), surfers must ask themselves: is lusting for artificial waves a corruption of surfing’s quasi-religious nature? Or can surfers embrace the artificial-wave future without cheating on the ocean?

At the forefront of the quest for the perfect man man-made wave is Kelly Slater, who is not so much surfing’s Michael Jordan as he is a cross between Jordan and Henry David Thoreau. His career, which includes 11 world titles in surfing (earned as young as 20 and as old as 39), is unparalleled. In interviews, the 45-year-old Slater is keen to riff on geopolitics, ecology, and the nature of happiness, although not without a whiff of conspiratorial thinking — he’ll follow a reasonable critique of Monsanto with an eye-roller about the fishiness of 9/11. Still, in a sport that too often confirms its unintellectual stereotype, Slater is a philosopher king.

If Slater is the left brain of the Surf Ranch, then Adam Fincham is its right. An engineering professor at the University of Southern California, the Jamaica-born Fincham’s research into fluid mechanics has taken him around the world. Fincham was introduced to Slater in 2007 after a colleague at USC got wind of the surfer's burgeoning interest in constructing an artificial wave. Not long after, Slater contracted the professor and his team to develop scale models of wave systems in indoor tanks. Midway into the next decade, Fincham’s research would bring the Surf Ranch to life.

The Surf Ranch is located on a scrubby, 20-acre plot of land that was purchased in December 2013 for $575,000 — much of which, according to Bloomberg, came from Slater’s own bank account. Following improvements (including patio additions, new residential structures and building remodels, and the wave mechanism itself), the property is valued at almost $15 million. While his early role was financier, Slater told Bloomberg in 2016 that his task in developing the Surf Ranch was to “create and refine and evolve the technology.” (Representatives at the Kelly Slater Wave Company did not respond to The Outline for comment.) Until 2016, wave testing at the Ranch took place primarily in secret; its location remained undisclosed until the release of the first video in 2015. Immediately, crews of online sleuths scoured Google Maps for the wave’s site. One intrepid investigator, hoping for an incidental invitation, drove three hours from the central coast of California to Lemoore with board and wetsuit in tow. The invitation never came, but his photos of the site made for a popular post on the Surfer magazine forums.

That the perfect wave could be manufactured rather than sought is a fantasy central to American surfing. In 1966’s The Endless Summer, surfing’s seminal flick, filmmaker Bruce Brown could find no words better to describe the perfection he’d found in South Africa than “the waves looked like they’d been made by some kind of a machine.” Look up “wavepools” in The Encyclopedia of Surfing and you’ll find pro surfer Richie Collins quoted in 1989: “As for the future of surfing, all I gotta say is, why doesn’t every country try to build an unreal wavepool?” Big Surf — a waterpark in Tempe, AZ, developed for $2 million and backed by hair-coloring manufacturer Clairol — was first to make wave-riding a reality for landlocked Americans in 1969, though surfing was permitted only for an hour each evening. The waves at Big Surf were slow and crumbly; rides lasted between three and six seconds.

Since the late ‘60s, progress in machine-made waves has been significant but underwhelming. The first Inland World Surfing Championship was held at a waterpark in Allentown, PA, in 1985, though the pool’s sloshing undulations were short-lived and “tissue-weak,” waves that barely splashed at competitors’ knees. In 1989, Disney World sought to cash in on artificial waves by opening Typhoon Lagoon, a Caribbean-themed attraction featuring a pool so blue its contents could be served in fishbowls. Surfers at the resort could find head-high, wedge-like breakers, and a handful of contests have been held there (the champion of 1997’s was none other than Kelly Slater ).

Systems developed in recent years have done better but not without limitations. The Spain-based company Wavegarden, in which the co-working giant WeWork recently bought a stake, has additional locations in Wales and Texas that offer waves replicable in shape and far lengthier than those in previous decades, with rides of about 35 seconds. The company’s pools have been been plagued, however, by regulatory and mechanical issues. In 2016, Wavegarden’s NLand Surfpark in Del Valle, TX, became enmeshed in a legal battle with the commissioners of Travis County over whether the park should be categorized as a pool or a lagoon. In Wales the same year, it took five months and $1.5 million to repair the Surf Snowdonia project after a crucial mechanism failed.

That the perfect wave could be manufactured rather than sought is a fantasy central to American surfing.

The environmental impact of wave pools is another source of concern. The Surf Ranch claims to operate on 100 percent solar power, but for wave pools the main issue is water use. A proposed Wavegarden site in Perth, Australia, would require 4.4 million gallons of water per year to replenish what is lost to evaporation (the company argues it can do so sustainably by sourcing groundwater that would otherwise be used to irrigate the surrounding complex). While an environmental review of the Surf Ranch is pending, documents related to a future project in Florida suggest that Surf Ranch technology consumes about 8,000 gallons of water daily.

Despite such earthly concerns, some surfing boosters are as excited for the Ranch’s waves as a teenage hypebeast first in line for a new Supreme drop. As the journalist and lifelong surfer William Finnegan put it to me, Surf Ranch technology represents “a total quantum leap above anything that has ever been seen in the way of artificial waves.” Paige Alms, a Maui pro who specializes in riding the biggest, scariest waves on the planet, agreed. “It’s completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced,” she said of her visit to the Ranch last November, “but it’s also something you can get used to. I left wanting to stay.”

The most remarkable aspect of a Surf Ranch wave is that it will crest beyond its trough — the wave’s lowest point — creating a hollow space for a surfer to tuck inside. This experience — referred to as “getting barreled” in surfer parlance — represents the pinnacle of surfing, and the luxuriously-long barrels one can complete at the Ranch are rarely experienced in nature. Nat Young, a California pro who was among the first to surf the Ranch in spring 2016, captured what he called the longest barrel of his life there, at 20 seconds. On the day he visited, he told me that the feeling among surfers was one of stupefaction; everyone was “excited and happy and amazed at what they’d created.”

“Fake president, fake news, now fake surfing.”

The Surf Ranch’s highest-profile appearance yet came last September, when the World Surf League held a no-stakes contest at the pool. Appropriately-named the “Future Classic,” it included World Tour standouts and middle-age surfing legends, and featured a private concert by Eddie Vedder, who is a close friend of Slater’s. The unstated but obvious implication of the Future Classic was that the League aimed to test the site for a potential money- and points-awarding event. A World Tour contest at the Ranch would be both tangible and symbolic: it would effectively put the artificial wave on par with legendary breaks and tour mainstays like North Shore Oahu’s Pipeline, South Africa’s Jeffrey’s Bay, and Australia’s Bells Beach. Last November, the rumor was confirmed — for the World Tour’s 2018 season, the usual September contest at Trestles, one of Southern California’s most iconic surf spots, will be moved to Lemoore.

Reaction in the surf world has been mixed. Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, surfing’s 1978 world champ and a former World Tour director, characterized the contest as nothing less than “the future.” Surfing journalist Chas Smith wrote that the sacrifice of Trestles represents a tragedy for all “professional-surf-loving people.” Surfer magazine features editor Justin Housman was similarly pessimistic. “I’d watch about two-three waves tops at Kelly’s Wave before growing bored,” he said. “I’m far more interested in how good surfers handle the weird bobbles and sections that a real wave throws at them.” But perhaps the most telling response came from one anonymous commenter on “Fake president, fake news, now fake surfing.”

A key aspect of a surfer’s development is learning how to “read a wave”: to anticipate a wave’s movements (those “bobbles and sections”) and match them with physical maneuvers. Will a wave bend into deep water and dissolve? Will it hug the reef and steepen? Will it have space for two top-to-bottom turns or one sweeping cutback? A ramp for an aerial maneuver? The most experienced surfers develop a sixth sense for these things.

Nature has little regard for professional surfing.

While unpredictability is one of surfing’s thrills, it also makes competitive surfing a sport of anticlimaxes. Even the most talented surfers will lose competitions for reasons having nothing to do with technical ability. In a World Tour contest, judges score rides from zero to ten points on the difficulty, creativity, and variety of maneuvers a surfer performs. The best two rides count for a surfer’s total, and the top-scoring surfer advances to the next round. It is rare, however, that a wave will accommodate a ten-point ride; most lack the curvature necessary for a mind-bending aerial or the concentrated power that forms a barrel. More frustratingly, the ocean can go flat at any moment. A wind squall can confuse its surface. A shark can attack a world champ. Nature has little regard for professional surfing.

But at the Surf Ranch, a wave identical in speed, length, and shape emerges every three minutes (time must be allotted for the pool’s surface to settle and to return the hydrofoil to its starting point). The purpose of the Future Classic was therefore to rebut pessimists like Housman and show just how thrilling an artificial-wave contest might be. The contest was not broadcast, but throughout the day clips were released on social media.

The surfing that took place — what we’ve been able to see, at least — was astonishing. As Brazilian prodigy Felipe Toledo made clear when he launched an aerial rotation seemingly into the stratosphere, whatever surfers can imagine, they will be able to perform on this wave.

For surfers who count themselves among the pool-averse, the Surf Ranch has occasioned an existential crisis. The most vocal of this group is the surf historian Matt Warshaw, who has been a vociferous critic of artificial waves. In a May 2016 piece for Surfer Warshaw reasoned that surfing is defined as much by the pursuit of wave-riding as by the action, that surfing is a grand accumulation of “10,000 bad decisions, the crazy burn rate of time and money, the volumes of arcane and otherwise totally worthless knowledge gathered and deployed, the rivers of espoused bullshit.” To surf, he told me, is “basically to piss your life away.”

William Finnegan explained it this way: “The thrill and the drama of a great wave has to do with surprise and reward for work.” The best of surfing, he said, is “being in the right place at the right time.” Finnegan shares Warshaw’s fear that when the perfect wave becomes a commodity rather than a fleeting miracle, surfing may lose its essence. What takes place at the Surf Ranch “is profoundly different from what we do as surfers,” he described, and “it’s true that if this thing gets replicated all over the place, it’s not unreasonable to think that subtly or unsubtly the subculture will change.”

What will a perfect wave be to those who have only experienced perfection?

In the broader wave-pool discourse, alarm bells sound loudest on the subject of metaphysical corruption. The New York Times last May pondered whether the Surf Ranch will breed a new kind of “high-paying customer” desiring a “Pebble Beach for surfers.” “If this wave becomes fodder for the masses,” went an article by the Oahu-based Sid Johnson, “surfing may lose its soul.” (A valid point, but it’s important to ask whether that soul, which has a long history of racism, sexism, and homophobia, is worth saving.) Johnson’s greatest fear is of the “techno fiends” the Ranch might breed, surfers who will “misunderstand beauty” and “fail grace.” Johnson is no doubt guilty of hyperbole — did the indoor gym ruin rock climbing? — but his warnings are not entirely without warrant. What will a perfect wave be to those who have only experienced perfection?

The Surf Ranch has yet to open to the public, and in what capacity it will remains nebulous. In a permit application reviewed by Kings County in April 2017, the Ranch’s primary function is described as a “surfboarding and wave research development study facility.” It plans to employ as many as 80 seasonal workers to operate and maintain equipment and sets a cap of 150 daily visitors (up from the current occupancy limit of 30). The Surf Ranch’s proposed secondary use — though clearly its main request of the county — is to run up to six three-day “reactional/competitive surfing festivals” per year, which could include camping, concerts, and concessions for 8,000 visitors.

In 2016, WSL Holdings, parent company of the World Surf League, acquired a majority stake in Slater’s wave company, though, per the League’s own press release, financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. Given that the wave company remains privately held, investors are difficult to identify. But it is known that the League has six future wave pools in mind; the three that are known to be proposed or in development are in San Diego, Palm Beach, and Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. The East Coast sites in particular signal an intelligent business strategy: to seek out locations flushed with surfers but lacking in consistent, quality surf.

The League’s CEO, Sophie Goldschmidt, has walked a fine line in describing the ramifications of wave pools for professional surfing and surf culture. On the subject of competitions, she said in a November 2017 interview with Surfline that the Ranch has “accelerated our ambitions around how meaningful [wave pools] can be for surfing.” She then clarified that the League remains “committed to the ocean, and our events in the ocean have become as important as ever.”

At a May 2017 informational meeting of the Palm Beach County Zoning Division, wave company representatives predicted 322 new jobs, 83,000 annual guests, and a $33 million “economic impact” for the proposed pool. According to the project’s justification statement, Surf Ranch Florida will serve a variety of functions: water safety instruction, surf school (with a program for underprivileged children), and education on the surrounding environment. Only after listing these uses does the statement include what will truly make the development viable: “corporate retreats and a high performance training center for elite athletes and competitive junior surfers.” Reward for work, like Finnegan put it, but work of a different kind.

The idea of a perfect wave depends on more bad rides than a surfer could ever count. Picture this: 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning, coffee in hand, board and wetsuit packed, you drive an hour to the break most fitting for the day’s conditions. The sun rises and… shit. A promising swell turned thigh-high and gutless by a change of wind. You did everything to prepare for the session, but it happens. A lot. Once a surfer has developed a level of aptitude, mediocre days like these become less appealing. The most dedicated surf anyway, the less so turn back for breakfast. The point is: there may be no element more crucial to surfing than disappointment. Pissing your life away, to use Warshaw’s term, involves far more three- than 30-second rides. What makes an epic day truly epic is that it’s so far from ordinary, that it makes a wave off Long Island for a few moments indistinguishable from one breaking on an Indonesian reef.

There may be no element more crucial to surfing than disappointment.

Even in a surf-locale as fetishized as Hawaii, perfection is far from constant. As Paige Alms described the majority of her days surfing in Maui: “You go a whole session and you get maybe one great wave.” For existentialists like Warshaw and Finnegan, this is exactly the point. Alms continued, “Learning about the intricacies of how waves come and flow, learning currents, dealing with the different aspects of riding waves in the ocean: that’s like 95 percent of our sport. You spending way more time paddling around and learning the lineups than riding waves.”

Reverse this equation and you get something like the Surf Ranch — a wave that is all perfection, no uncertainty, that gives up what Alms called the “connection with mother nature” for a simulation of the best mother nature can provide. This is no contradiction, however: it’s the key to the surfing imagination. The virtue of a simulated wave — if it is, in fact, simulation — lies in making an otherwise avoidable tension at once visible, uncomfortable, and tantalizing. The Surf Ranch is the technical underbelly that betrays surfing’s pseudo-spiritual ethos, the mechanical metaphors that make the “perfect wave” imaginable. To desire the perfect wave, after all, is to desire a machine.

Aaron Colton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia. He last wrote for The Outline about postmodernism and Trump. Illustration by QuickHoney for The Outline.