Kelly Slater's Wave Pool Is the Future. And It's Bleak.

Man-made waves, the inaugural World Surf League Founders’ Cup, and other desert oddities

The pool is capable of churning out flawless, mechanical waves at the rate of about one every three minutes. (Sean Rowland/World Surf League)
2017

Experimenting on new technology deep in the desert is practically an American institution. Trinity, Edwards Air Force Base, Area 51, and the NSA’s massive data collection center in Utah are evidence that it’s easier to test and deploy oddities of human endeavor where no one else is watching. Even Kelly Slater specifically cited privacy as one of the main factors that led him and his partners to choose their 11-acre wave pool’s location in Lemoore, California. Rumor has it they also hired a requisite guard detail, populated by ex-military operators to keep prying eyes away from the experiment.

The yield from that years-long prototype phase is known, in its current incarnation, as the Surf Ranch. Co-owned and operated by the Kelly Slater Wave Company and the World Surf League (WSL), the 700-yard-long pool—and its attendant outbuildings and mechanical apparatuses—sits roughly 100 miles straight inland from the Pacific Ocean and is capable of churning out flawless, mechanical waves at the rate of about one every three minutes.

To find it, I drove along Highway 41 through 60 miles of desert, occasionally interrupted by gas stations, Denny’s food chains, and other oases—reminders of how far one might have to crawl for help should the radiator blow a gasket. At intervals, banners hung from derelict trailers, specifically referencing the distribution of water stocks:

California is Running on Empty.

Vote to #Build more DAMstorage.

Vote to Make California Great Again!

Ask Congress if Growing Food is a Waste of Resources.

Eventually, I turned onto a side road lined with doublewide trailers and a concrete-recycling yard. From my research (and social media aggregation), I’d gathered that the wave is generated by a train-like conveyance, which sits on rails above the surface and makes passes, back and forth, across the length of the watercourse. A foil, fixed at each end of the train, runs through the water to generate “swell,” which then breaks over a series of bottom contours that were modeled by Slater and a Ph.D. in geophysical fluid dynamics named Adam Fincham, among others, to produce ideal surf conditions.

Because of its superiority to other wave pools, and its ability to more or less mirror a level of perfection that, until now, was only found in nature (and only given a rare confluence of hydrology and geology), the place has been a major source of speculation and existential dread among surfers and the surf media. 

I was there for the WSL Founders’ Cup, an exhibition contest designed as part pre-run for the coming Surf Ranch Open, a WSL World Tour contest scheduled for September, and part pitch aimed at selling the tech to the 2020 Olympics in Japan, the first Games scheduled to include surfing. The latter was especially apparent given the team format, which seemed to be deliberately catering to Olympic organizers, pitting groups of five surfers (three male and two female) against each other in a bracket system. There were teams representing the U.S., Australia, Brazil, and Europe, plus an all-encompassing World team, made up of surfers from South Africa, Japan, and French Polynesia. Slater also openly discussed the Olympics in Friday’s pre-event press conference, dropping hints that he might view a chance to compete in Japan as the swan song to a 40-year career in competitive surfing. By then he’d be 48 years old. 

The event was being promoted as the “birth of stadium surfing” through coverage on CNN, CBS, and other networks around the world, replete with co-branding from WSL sponsoring partner Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, a low-calorie beer targeting consumers with an “active lifestyle.” I had to see what had risen in the desert from these disparate parts of tech, Americana, and surf culture.

My impression of the pool as a technological marvel, however, was decidedly underwhelming at first glance. When I arrived, the engineers and the event staff were between waves and, aside from a slight ultramarine tint (from bottom-paint and chlorine) the pool looked a lot like the irrigation canals I’d passed on the drive in to Lemoore, aberrations themselves: stagnant tracts of open water to the horizon, their banks lined with egrets and other birds typically associated with  coastal environs.

I watched the sunlight on the surface for a few minutes until a disembodied voice announced over the PA system that a wave was about to be generated. “Thirty seconds,” it said without inflection. Then the whir of the electric train cut through the air and a flawless right-hander formed and ran for two-fifths of a mile through a variety of sections, alternating and changing pace from a thin-lipped tube to open face.

Veteran surf journalist Steve Hawk has described the wave itself as the actualization of every surfer’s sketchbook fantasies. At least voyeuristically, I’d have to say this assessment is accurate. I’ve traveled for 48 hours straight, through the bowels of all manner of air, land, and seaport, to reach natural setups that have half the surf potential of this mechanism. In those cases, though, I also took solace in the eventuality that I’d find the ocean at the end of whatever terrestrial embattlements I encountered.

I’m not sure exactly how other surfers view the natural world versus the artifices of mankind, but I do know that one of the main reasons I’ve always surfed is because I have a healthy suspicion of human structure and endeavor.

Tom Blake, an early 20th century wave rider, who served as a prototype for much of the iconoclasm that runs through modern surf culture, once famously carved the words “Nature = God” into a sandstone bluff to articulate his worldview. Later, he wrote a treatise, Voice of the Atom, and a book, Voice of the Wave, built around that formula. Mostly, he seemed to be trying to articulate what most surfers know—that riding waves is a way to be subject only to the laws of natural physics and to your own abilities to sync with them.

Philosophically, of course, surfing doesn’t need to be anything more than fun, a novel sensation provided by speed and gravity. But I have always thought that there’s some room in the conversation for these man/nature allusions. So, as an observer, you could say I was predisposed to conclude that the wave in Lemoore would be the antithesis of my understanding of “surfing,” before I even laid eyes on it. 

Despite this, after watching Mick Fanning, and then Steph Gilmore, ride a few waves, I actually found myself in awe of the pool’s reproducible perfection, available on demand, again and again, especially given the ephemerality of that kind of surf in nature. I inarguably wanted to ride it, and I was even entertained, for a while, by the contest, notwithstanding the logical conclusion that, if nature equals god, any surf contest, even one held in the ocean, is generally an edifice foisted onto something that seems to be best appreciated without clocks, machines, competitors, or other external interferences. 

Obviously, however, this scene skewed to the far side of that experiential spectrum. A drone hovered over the water, documenting every ride, as analysis from the WSL commentary team, anchored by Joe Turpel and Martin Potter, was broadcast throughout the arena. The surfers, more or less, did the same turns on the same sections, and pulled into the tube for similar lengths of time, making it easy for knowledgeable spectators to telegraph their performances.

During lulls between “runs,” music was piped in for the fan base, who held placards preprinted by sponsoring shareholders with supportive, nationally-focused messaging. The mix in the crowd seemed to vacillate between curious surfers from as far south as San Diego, to local farmers speculating about who might invest and buy out the acreage next door as a real estate venture. Well-heeled onlookers were able to buy five-figure ringside cabinas, which assured them the rare patch of uncontested shade and, reportedly, a chance to surf the wave after festivities closed.

Ultimately, it only took about an hour for me to feel dried out in the desert light, and then a little bored, a familiar instinct to sneak off rising inside me. The event was still underway when I left and I wasn’t particularly interested in who would win (the World team, it turned out, led by captain Jordy Smith), or whether the conditions in the pool might change or get better, because I knew they wouldn’t. The wave would stay the same, more or less, unchanging, identical, regardless of tidal phase, the alluvial shift of sand, or swell forecast.

Somewhere along the 41, I passed a hotel with a derelict pool that had been filled in with sand and planted with cacti. Across the same intersection, a gleaming Tesla recharge station sat amid a sea of gas pumps, and a cherry orchard lay alongside a field of solar lenses. The push and pull of human progress, to harness or command natural power, seemed to be the only thing in abundance in this environment. The drive back to the coast felt a lot longer than the drive inland, which is always the case when you leave a strange place and return to wherever you came from.

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