Is $30 million wave the future of surfing?

Kelly Slater's Surf Ranch could represent the future of surfing on artificial waves. CNN takes a look at the $30 million project.

Posted: May 22, 2018 9:04 PM
Updated: May 22, 2018 9:08 PM

He was worried he might have created a monster, but legendary surfer Kelly Slater is convinced his artificial wave can take surfing into the future.

Slater's vision -- the Surf Ranch -- is a revolutionary "wave system" located 100 miles from the ocean in dusty Lemoore, a farming town in California's central San Joaquin Valley.

It is dubbed the world's longest open-barrel artificial wave, and offers a variety of wave shapes and sizes -- all of them picture perfect and identical.

"I think it touched something in people," the 46-year-old Slater told CNN World Sport at the Founders' Cup, the first public event at the facility.

"It planted a seed or a dream in people's minds. It captured a lot of people's imaginations in a lot of ways."

Even so, surfing's 11-time world champion also had some misgivings having spent so much of his life in the sea.

"The first day I saw a wave on this property I was taken aback. 'What have we done here and what does it mean for surfing?" Slater wrote on Instagram ahead of the event.

"Is this the best thing ever or is it opening some weird door we can't shut? Will people love it or hate us for it?'"

'Planted a dream'

The $30 million wave, powered by renewable energy, was 10 years in the making, inspired by Slater's long-held dream.

The site in Lemoore was chosen for its affordability, the presence of an existing waterski lagoon, and its hidden location, perfect for building and testing prototypes away from the glare of the surf world.

As rumors leaked and early social media footage came out, the surf world was abuzz.

But there were also critics. Would homogenizing the whole experience strip surfing of its soul? Would a man-made wave replace the freedom and the authenticity of the ocean?

"The sport can evolve with this. I understand the question, I don't take offense with it but nothing will replace the ocean," added Slater.

"That's where we've made all of our dreams and ideas, and our imaginations have grown from being in the ocean and learning from there. This will never replace that, this could just supplement it."

While wave pools have existed for years they have always been more at the recreational end of the sport. There are other technologies currently out there, too, such as the Wavegarden, with public facilities in Spain and Texas.

The Surf Ranch, however, has taken the idea into a new high-performance realm.

In 2006, Slater joined forces with Adam Fincham, a fluid dynamics specialist and an associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California. Together they studied waves in the wild and applied science in the quest to produce perfect, repeatable waves.

'Pretty cool'

At the Surf Ranch's core is what is known as the "vehicle," a giant hydrofoil on rails which creates a surfable wake as it trundles the length of the 2,000-foot pool.

The water it pushes up is shaped by scientifically designed bottom contours into perfect barreling waves up to 6.5 feet tall, with more performance-oriented sections ideal for turns and aerial maneuvers.

The size of the wave is determined by the speed at which the vehicle runs, while a computer system can select any number of pre-programmed wave types.

"You get this consistency, you know the wave is going to be exactly the same every time and it's really made out to better yourself," two-time world champion John John Florence told CNN World Sport in Lemoore.

"You get the same exact lip line every time, so you can time it and hit it here and hit it there and try airs. It's pretty cool, you don't get that anywhere else."

'Game changer'

The World Surf League (WSL) , which runs pro surfing, invested in the Kelly Slater Wave Company (KSWC) in 2016, and the body now wholly owns the Surf Ranch. The plan is for a 155-acre two-pool public facility by 2026, and the WSL is already planning other venues.

For the WSL, a predictable and programmable event tailored for sponsors, paying fans and a digital and TV audience -- without the vagaries of flat spells, tides or sharks, which recently forced the cancellation of the Margaret River Pro -- is an attractive proposition.

"I think this is going to change surfing forever," the WSL's chief executive Sophie Goldschmidt told CNN Sport by phone from California.

READ: Brazilian sets record for biggest wave ever surfed

READ: Surfing contest canceled because of shark threat

Britain's Goldschmidt cites a secret test event at the Surf Ranch last autumn attended by a number of the sport's icons.

"Many were very cynical before the event and every single one of them, having seen the wave live, couldn't help but smile," says Goldschmidt, who joined the WSL in July 2017 after a long career in sports business in the UK.

"We actually had some of them -- grown men in their 70s and 80s -- crying with joy, they just could not believe it, they were like, 'we never thought we would see this.'"

The Founders' Cup was the first of two scheduled WSL events on the pro circuit this season, and Goldschmidt envisages surf contests at artificial waves mirroring disciplines like the halfpipe in snowboarding and skiing, with highly progressive, choreographed moves "pushing performance much more significantly."

Snowboard icon Shaun White, a three-time Olympic halfpipe champion, was blown away by a recent private session at the Surf Ranch.

"My goal was to come here and get barreled because I'd never really been barreled before," he said.

"Man, it was incredible, to just totally get inside of a barrel -- just to have that long of a ride and realize that was just the first wave of many to come. I got pretty excited."

The WSL's investment in the Surf Ranch is a key part of the push to make surfing more commercially viable and bring the sport to a new audience -- the buzzwords across all sports organizations these days.

"Surfing has an authenticity and a coolness that, quite frankly, I don't think any other sport quite captures in the same way ... and I'm going to hold on to that very tightly," says Goldschmidt.

"But that doesn't mean we can't innovate and progress and bring in an even broader and interesting new audience, in addition to still being very appealing to our core fans."

Slater has opened the door. Surfing is staring at a new future.

Terre Haute
Overcast
49° wxIcon
Hi: 52° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 43°
Robinson
Overcast
48° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 43°
Indianapolis
Overcast
47° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 38°
Feels Like: 39°
Rockville
Overcast
41° wxIcon
Hi: 52° Lo: 35°
Feels Like: 33°
Casey
Overcast
43° wxIcon
Hi: 51° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 36°
Brazil
Overcast
49° wxIcon
Hi: 51° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 43°
Marshall
Overcast
49° wxIcon
Hi: 51° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 43°
Rainy Thursday
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

WTHI Events

 

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 393797

Reported Deaths: 9889
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook1811085450
DuPage23780615
Lake21373514
Will19141430
Kane17421348
Winnebago10703182
St. Clair8096221
Madison7373157
McHenry6671121
Champaign639028
Unassigned4786270
Peoria474877
McLean430138
Sangamon424863
Rock Island417393
Kankakee350581
Macon330854
Tazewell280956
Kendall279730
LaSalle255465
DeKalb246942
Coles203040
Adams200422
Boone195325
Williamson193861
Clinton182829
Vermilion181011
Jackson158426
Whiteside158430
Knox136221
Randolph131415
Ogle12717
Effingham12264
Marion110220
Stephenson10759
Franklin103310
Grundy10197
Morgan98324
Monroe97130
Bureau94817
Jefferson92052
Henry8637
Christian84629
Macoupin82911
Union79925
McDonough78920
Lee7692
Douglas7339
Shelby71512
Fayette69924
Livingston69210
Woodford67615
Crawford6636
Montgomery64416
Logan6144
Saline5969
Fulton5571
Jo Daviess5369
Warren5299
Bond5189
Iroquois51519
Wayne50914
Jersey48121
Cass46811
Perry46516
Moultrie4436
Carroll43712
Pike3887
Johnson3760
Lawrence3518
Richland34218
Washington3272
Clay32413
Hancock3214
Mason3175
Clark31417
Cumberland3086
Greene29915
Mercer2876
De Witt2756
White2744
Jasper27210
Piatt2651
Pulaski2451
Wabash2415
Ford20814
Menard1881
Marshall1663
Edgar15910
Massac1582
Alexander1361
Hamilton1352
Henderson1310
Brown1170
Edwards1140
Gallatin1102
Scott1090
Putnam980
Schuyler931
Stark923
Calhoun640
Hardin560
Pope421
Out of IL10

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 169112

Reported Deaths: 4227
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion26448794
Lake14804364
St. Joseph9866173
Elkhart9549145
Allen8886235
Hamilton6541119
Vanderburgh626970
Tippecanoe409816
Porter361451
Hendricks3472138
Monroe342638
Johnson3352131
Delaware318577
Clark312965
Vigo288341
Madison260797
LaPorte244165
Cass232725
Kosciusko214729
Warrick208965
Floyd190569
Howard172566
Dubois153526
Marshall152829
Bartholomew150758
Wayne149833
Grant138140
Henry137730
Boone132550
Noble127335
Hancock127144
Jackson123319
Dearborn105828
Lawrence102238
Morgan100940
Gibson96712
Clinton95216
Shelby94536
Daviess94136
Knox86110
LaGrange83115
Harrison82424
Fayette81022
DeKalb80011
Putnam78817
Posey7837
Jasper7235
Miami6985
Steuben6849
Montgomery65322
White64016
Adams6177
Greene59438
Scott56916
Decatur54739
Whitley5086
Ripley5018
Wells49011
Wabash4899
Clay4757
Sullivan47414
Starke47310
Huntington4725
Spencer4336
Orange43225
Randolph42711
Fulton4118
Jefferson4095
Perry40414
Washington3983
Jennings39613
Franklin38825
Pike36718
Fountain3563
Carroll35213
Jay3516
Vermillion2871
Tipton28623
Rush2654
Parke2644
Blackford2525
Newton24111
Owen2211
Martin2050
Pulaski1814
Crawford1661
Brown1523
Ohio1377
Union1240
Benton1130
Switzerland1030
Warren1021
Unassigned0236