The best surfer in history made a machine that creates perfect conditions on demand. Will his invention democratize surfing or despoil it?
The first few hours I spent at the W.S.L. Surf Ranch, a wave pool built for surfing in the farmlands south of Fresno, California, were for me a blur. I was fine on arrival, hiking through a little forest of scaffolding, eucalyptus, and white tents with a publicist from the Kelly Slater Wave Company, which built and runs the place. The valley heat was fierce but dry. House music rode on a light northwest breeze. We passed a bright-red antique row-crop tractor parked on wood chips. Then I looked to my right and felt my mind yaw. The wave was probably six hundred yards away, a sparkling emerald wall, with a tiny surfer snapping rhythmic turns off the top. I had come expecting to see this wave, out here in cotton fields a hundred-plus miles from the coast. Still, my reaction to it was involuntary. Kelly’s Wave, as it’s known, seems designed to make someone who surfs, which I do, feel this way: stunned, turned on, needy. Surfers spend much of their lives looking for high-quality waves. Now a machine has been invented that churns out virtually flawless ones on command. “We call it the smile machine,” someone, possibly the publicist, said. I had trouble paying attention. Every four minutes, I had to turn and crane to watch a wave make its way the length of the pool.
Kelly Slater, who is forty-six, is the best surfer in history. He’s won eleven world titles. He was the youngest-ever world champion and the oldest-ever world champion. When he stormed into the competitive spotlight, in the late eighties, I couldn’t understand what he was doing. He seemed to be always recovering from nearly falling off his board. Slater had grown up riding Florida’s small, scarce waves, and emerged with a style built to stuff the maximum number of hyper-athletic maneuvers into the least possible space. As he surfed better waves, the power and the creativity of his surfing deepened, until he dominated the pro circuit so completely that he grew bored and retired. A few years later, he returned to full-time competition and won five more world titles.
Inseparable from his surfing was his thinking—about what could be done on a wave, about board design, fin design, competition. Slater might turn up at the Pipe Masters, one of the most watched events on the pro tour, riding a bizarrely small and odd-shaped board, and brusquely shove back the frontiers of performance. He’s still doing it. Early this year, a video was released showing Slater slashing through powerful Hawaiian waves on a tiny double-bat-winged board. It was futuristic surfing, and the board he rode, called the Cymatic, is now one of the world’s most sought-after models. Never mind that very few people have the chops to ride it.
Slater has been thinking for decades about building an artificial wave. In an as-told-to memoir, from 2003, he noted, “Surfers have dreamed of creating the ultimate wave machine. The perfect setup would take surfing to every town in America and make the sport as mainstream as soccer.” Wave pools have been around since the nineteenth century, when Ludwig II, the Mad King of Bavaria, had a wave machine built on a lake at one of his palaces. Pools built specifically for surfing began to appear in the late nineteen-sixties, but even the best of them produced only weak, short, messy waves. Slater got serious about developing his ideas in 2006, and began working with scientists at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering.
Finally, in December, 2015, an astonishing video was released. Called “Kelly’s Wave,” it showed Slater, warmly dressed in a quilted jacket and a gray wool beanie, arriving at a misty pond at daybreak. In a voice-over, he calls it “our little secret spot” and admits to nervousness after “working on something for ten years.” As the first wave rolls, the camera stays on Slater’s face. His reaction to what he sees goes from anxious wonder to wide-eyed joy. “Oh, my God!” He throws out his arms, bounding in place. The next wave, when it comes peeling toward us, is coffee-colored, thin-lipped, impossibly clean. It’s breaking so precisely that it’s hard to tell if the film is running in slow motion. Slater puts on a wetsuit, paddles out, and catches one. Now there’s a little wind on it, ruffling the surface, and it looks more like a great ocean wave that happens to be the color of French roast—perhaps the best California point break on the best day in history. Your eye bounces around the frame, trying to place this spot—shaggy pine trees, fences, what look like farm outbuildings. It could be anywhere. Slater appears in a closeup, crouched inside a shining tube, looking thoughtfully up at the pitching lip, now semitransparent. An unobtrusive caption comes onscreen: “Waves roll all day.” Slater’s business partners say that there were more than a million views on YouTube in two days. I say that there were at least that number of texts flying around among surfers, expressing some version of “WTF?!?”
Matt Warshaw, surfing’s unofficial historian, says that the sport now has only two eras, Before Kelly’s Wave and After. It did feel as if something basic had changed—as if technology had, improbably, outdone nature. Still, the artificial wave was not met with universal acclaim. Many surfers felt that the future suddenly had a dystopian cast—mechanized, privatized, soulless. Yes, surfing might now become “mainstream,” with Slater’s magic wave reproduced in pools across the planet, but that is the last thing that most actual surfers want. The critics saw our pointless, difficult, obsessive pastime becoming exponentially more popular, and beloved home breaks ruined by terminal overcrowding. At the same time, there was virtually no one who surfs who didn’t ache to ride it…