It took 10 years. But Kelly Slater’s man-made wave can only mean one thing – that Olympic surfing is even more of a possibility than it ever has been before.
Forget the water theme parks. These waves curl, flawless and fast-as-a-whip, forming barrels so real you could swear you were in the ocean. The difference – these barrels go and on. And they're in a pool somewhere in the Californian country. 11-time World Surf League champion Slater, together with the KS Wave Co., spent 10 years focused on an idea many thought was impossible – building a machine which could reproduce the ideal wave, and create it on command.
Talk of surfing being an Olympic event had been going for some time. And that was before Slater released an extraordinary video of his machine in December, after two years of construction in complete secrecy. The excitement the video caused in the surfing community “basically broke the internet,” said Craig Brokensha, surf forecaster for surfing news site Swellnet.
The water from which it rises is glass-flat; the wave’s curling edge is smooth, sharp, sculptural. “It’s the most bizarre-looking thing you’ve ever seen,” said Tom Lowe, a British pro surfer. “A robotic wave which goes forever.” There were only a few people fortunate enough to be the first to experience it - world no. 9 Nat Young, WSL women’s champion Carissa Moore, Californian pro Kanoa Igarashi and Robert Weaver, a veteran American surfer who starred in the 1994 surf movie Endless Summer II. Steph Gilmore end Josh Kerr had their chance too.
Young said the narrowness of the pool – 700 yards long, and only 40 yards wide – struck him when he saw it in person. “My first impression, when I saw the first wave come through, was disbelief,” he said. “It’s a flat pond, and then, all of a sudden, you’re watching a perfect wave.”
Slater’s machine is powered with solar energy, and the wave is created with a specially shaped foil or plough, which is pulled along mechanically beneath the surface, shaping the wave and pushing it forward.
Nick Houndsfield is founder and CEO of The Wave, a British-based company currently constructing their own artificial surf pool in Bristol. He said that only in the last 15 years or so has the technology been good enough to make waves suitable for surfing. While Slater’s foil displacement system creates one eerily perfect breaker, The Wave uses pneumonics - pulsating the water for a variety of waves.
While the idea is exciting, some professionals feel there's nothing like being in the ocean. “I think a big part of surfing is reading waves and being in the ocean,” said Andrew Cotton, a pro big-wave surfer who famously took on the monster waves at Portugal’s Praia do Norte.
But in terms of competition and the much-talked about Olympic event, being able to control the waves would be a tremendous help. “The problem with surfing is it’s so unpredictable,” says Matt Barr, director of UK agency All Conditions Media .
“If you can build this at an Olympic city, you’ve got a surfing event.”
Young reflects this point of view. “It has a set running time, instead of waiting for the swell and conditions so that’s huge. And being able to recreate the same wave over and over gives people an even playing field – because it’s sometimes a bit of luck catching waves [in the ocean].”
So now we’ll wait. Olympic surfing is closer than ever.