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Professional surfers in pursuit of the perfect wave will no longer have to depend on the whims of nature. Instead, they can head over to the farming town of Lemoore in Southern California, which is home to the world’s first wave pool dedicated to competitive surfing. Originally named after its founder, American surfing legend, 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, it was rebranded WSL Surf Ranch after the World Surfing League acquired a majority stake in 2016.
In the works since 2015, the $30 million facility opened on May 5, 2018 with a two-day Founders Cup that attracted some of the world’s best surfers and over 5,000 fans. After Slater, competing for Team USA, inaugurated the weekend by flying through one of the waves, 25 professional surfers — divided into five teams representing the U.S., Australia, Europe, Brazil, and the rest of the world — took turns tackling the artificial swells. The fierce competition ended with Team World taking home the gold. For $9,500, amateur surfers also got a chance to test the man-made tides for an hour, on the Monday, following the event. The steep price included perks like a three-night stay at the ranch, a pre-event party, an invite-only concert, and professional coaching.
After the competition, Slater told WSL’s chief executive Sophie Goldschmidt, “It captured a lot of people’s imaginations in a lot of ways. Many were very cynical before the event and every single one of them, having seen the wave live, couldn’t help but smile.” Snowboarding icon Shawn White, one of the lucky amateurs to ride the waves, agreed. The three-time Olympic champion 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 possibility of an artificial surfing facility first came to Slater at the age of 14 following a visit to a recreational wave pool in Texas. "The mind was always spinning: How can you make this great artificial wave, what kind of technology would it take?" he recalls. "The idea was to make something that nobody had done before, a very high-performance wave."
In 2006, the now-professional surfer teamed up with USC associate professor of engineering Adam Fincham to come up with a way to create high-caliber breakers. The two spent the next eight years testing small models based on wave simulations created using aerial footage of beaches across Southern California, Australia, and the South Pacific. After nearly a decade of perfecting the technology, Slater and Fincham were ready to make their dream a reality. The 20-acre property in California’s San Joaquin Valley — selected for its inexpensive land, sunny weather, and a pair of narrow lagoons previously used for water skiing — was perfect to house the 2,000-foot-long, 500-foot-wide man-made lake, required to generate the giant swells.
Of course, imitating the ocean’s fury was no easy task. It took Slater’s team two years to perfect the 6.5-foot-tall waves that can roll the length of seven football fields, but the end result was well worth the effort. The variations in velocity and force help produce 50 different types of waves at the push of a button, allowing riders to test and hone different skills. “It’s an engineering marvel,” said longtime surfer and author Matt Warshaw. “We’re used to seeing mechanical waves that fall ridiculously short of what we’re looking for, but this thing almost exceeds what we ever imagined.” Though the facility is primarily for professional surfers, the wave technology is also capable of creating waves for beginner and intermediate surfers, making it possible for all to enjoy the ranch. The best part? The entire operation is powered by sustainable solar energy.
Critics worry that the Surf Ranch’s perfect conditions detract from what brought many to surfing in the first place: the excitement of working in an unpredictable environment, learning how to read and understand surf conditions, and hunting down the perfect wave. “Surfers have a deep sense of ebb and flow, which is a part of life,” said UC Irvine professor and surfer Aaron James. “The flow periods are joyous and exciting because you spent a lot of time chasing those waves.”
However, Slater’s intention is not to replace the ocean but to serve as a training space and help optimize the surfer’s performance on the open water. In the sea, surfers spend a lot of time waiting, rather than riding. At the Ranch, they’ll have the opportunity to fine-tune the primary 15 to 20 maneuvers in their repertoire. “This isn't replacing surfing, this isn’t trying to necessarily introduce a different culture, or anything like that,” said Slater. “It’s really an addition to the culture we have, hopefully, in the long run.”
In addition to hosting a Surf Cup Open in September, the Ranch will also serve as a training facility for the 2020 Tokyo Games, where the sport will make its Olympic debut. Team Australia has already announced its athletes will be using the facilities to prepare for the international competition.