Eleven-time World Surf League Champion Kelly Slater has already shaped the sport of competitive surfing — through innovation and sheer dominance — but now he’s about to change it for the rest of us. The Kelly Slater Wave company, Slater's wave machine side project, just got an investor, and it’s "a watershed moment for the sport” WSL Holdings CEO Paul Speaker told Surfline. For once, this isn’t just financial bluster.
People have been building artificial waves and wave tanks for decades now (there was even one in the campy '80s surf flick The North Shore), but none of them have been all that tempting because, for the most part, they haven’t been powerful enough. Kelly’s wave, on the other hand, looks better than 99 percent of the natural ocean waves that even dedicated surfers get to ride. Few surfers get to catch waves this good more than a handful of times in their lives — and it often requires spending a fortune on a boat trip to remote regions like the Mentawai Islands. Slater's wave machine could change all that, and completely transform the sport in the process.
Just look to the rock climbing boom as an example. Once upon a time, climbing was available only to people who lived near cliffs and mountains, when the weather was right and they had the time to get after it. As a result, the athletic gene pool was limited, and performance levels had a natural ceiling. Climbing gyms exploded that reality. Increasingly, climbers are so good before they even get outdoors that performance levels are jaw-dropping, at least to the old-timers who learned on real rock. Of course, there's a downside here: That vast and thriving gym industry mints thousands of new and eager climbers every year, all of whom acquire a yearning to experience the great outdoor crags. As a result, the crags are now crowded beyond belief.
If Kelly’s Wave proliferates, this could happen to surfing, too. Untold numbers of people will learn to surf very quickly indoors. These wave pools will also produce astonishing increases in performance levels, because naturally gifted kids far inland will get to ride countless identical and predictable waves. And then all those kids will grow up to be young people eager to experience the ocean.
On the upside, if these wave pools become truly widespread, maybe surfers won't have to fight constantly over once-in-a-lifetime waves. The great frustration of surfing has always been that there are so few good surf breaks, considering the sheer mileage of coastline on this watery planet of ours. Even on the wave-rich California coast, good breaks are few and far between. That means there are just endless miles of coastline on which endless waves break in shapes that are useless to surfers. Then there is the weather/swell factor. San Francisco has good surf, for example … for about three days a week, four months a year. This keeps surfers crowded together in a few decent spots on a handful of days. Much of the negativity in surf culture (and there is an awful lot; see the Lunada Bay Boys) is a function of those natural limits on available waves. It sure would be wonderful if Kelly Slater's Wave Company, with the help of this new outside funding, could make crowded surf fights a thing of the past.