On May 5th, 2018, The World Surf League (WSL) held a tournament in a peculiar place. Landlocked and over 100 miles from the sea, the top competitors in the world gathered in Lemoore, California for what would go on to create a unique surfing-only type notation system. Since I haven’t seen anyone else coin this phrase, I’m going to make it my own: B.K.E – Before Kelly’s Era.
Kelly Slater is undoubtedly the king of surfing. He’s both the youngest and oldest person to win a world title, amassing an astounding 11 world championships. It’s safe to say his bald head has seen a lot. Kelly is a polarizing figure in the world of surfing – he’s been the driver behind much of surfing’s recent comeback, as well as the sports commercialization and prior downturn. Like Kelly, there are two sides to everything. Surfing is no different. With the advent of high-priced surfing technologies in the form of boards that make wave riding easier, wetsuits that keep surfers warmer for longer, and even earplugs that offset surfers’ ear, technology is segmenting the surfing population.
Traditionalists believe in an old-school view of a wave-riding hierarchy where those who’ve surfed the mush should have priority over visitors when the stars align. To them, surfing is a holistic, spell-binding ritual where surfers interact with an ever-changing wave that evolves with the ocean floor and wind. The boards they ride come from shapers who spend hours meticulously crafting every inch of the foam.
On the other hand, contemporary surfers, believe in almost nothing. There’s no rhythm or rhyme to when someone is supposed to drop-in. Beaches are littered with massively produced assembly-line boards with Go-Pro cameras stapled to the nose. There are meme pages associated with novice contemporary surfer. Often times you’ll see the newest Rip Curl wetsuit on someone holding a board with the fins on backward. It seems like surfers of today resemble a cutout of what technology has done to much of America.
There’s nothing wrong with either segmentation. Often times, traditionalists are assholes and contemporary surfers are dangerously ignorant just trying to have fun. The main point is that technology is impacting surfing in an unprecedented way. However, the debate among surfers as to where they should buy their boards from, or whether or not they were tough enough to last in the cold ocean is over. The new debate is no longer man vs. man, but instead, man vs. machine.
Flashback to December 5th, 2015 when Kelly unveiled his ten-year-long experiment to the world. A video was released showing him surfing a perfectly shaped artificial wave being ridden in none other than Lenmoore, California. The quest for the worlds perfect wave has ended. It’s not in Tavarua or Teahupoo, but in Lemoore California, and it could be coming to your backyard.
When Kelly unleashed the video back in 2015, the world flipped on its axis. The traditionalists condemned it – the contemporaries loved it – but everyone wanted to try it.
Here’s how the wave works.
- A 100-ton hydrofoil – named “The Vehicle” – run down a track with the help of more than 150 truck tires and at around 18 miles per hour (30 kilometers per hour);
- When the swell hits specific areas of the lake’s bottom, the wave starts to break thanks to the influence of the contour reefs
- Giant lateral gutters mitigate the bounce-back effect that occurs on the pool walls forming the wave
- It takes three minutes for the surf pool water to calm down and return to a completely static state
Today, the wave pool costs about $9,500/hour, plus an additional $288 booking fee. A high price for retail, but this is just the beginning. Have the stars all of a sudden aligned for surfings newest innovation? Or was it strategically positioned for global distribution? The 2020 Olympics will be held in Japan, and with surfing on the docket for the first time as an Olympic event, Kelly Slater’s Wave Pool technology is ripe for the masses.
Normally, surfers head to event locations weeks in advance to prepare for the upcoming tournament. Similarly, tournaments could last weeks at a time because of the sports unpredictable X factor – the waves. In surfing, scoring is subjective and with each wave, rides are incomparable – up until now.
Now, surfers can be scrutinized on a fair playing field, one in which every rider has the same course. Along with its technical predictability for unadjusted scoring, the artificial wave comes with a massive pool – one that’s ~700 meters long and 100 meters wide. At the recent WSL event, spectators came to what could be easily confused as a soccer stadium with big screen televisions publicizing every angle of the event.
Still, the International Olympic Committee, International Surfing Association and Tokyo 2020 maintain that surfing’s debut will take place in the ocean.
Despite being acquired by WSL Holdings in 2016 for an undisclosed price, kswaveco was an arduous project to undergo. It took $30M, ten years, and multiple iterations. Kelly brought the passion, and Adam Fincham, Associate Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Southern California brought the brains. There were no feedback loops, UAT, or product market fit analyses. It’s now up to the consumers to decide whether or not this is something that will complement ocean surfing, or disrupt it. There will either be kswaveco country clubs, or just the infamous one.