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On a California ranch, perfect conditions for pro surfing

Updated: 
September 21, 2017 - 12:05am

The world’s top professional surfers got a glimpse of their competitive future on Tuesday: an assembly line of perfect waves, each one identical to the one before it, and all breaking at perfectly timed intervals.

The strange part? The surf was created by a manufactured wave system, and the whole thing took place on a man-made lake in the middle of central California.

The long-rumored test event was hosted by the World Surf League behind closed doors at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California, and unofficially called both the Future Classic and the Test. Each wave is manufactured for the perfect ride by a 70-ton hydrofoil, with each one breaking in a scheduled succession across 700 yards of a man-made lake originally constructed for water-skiing. Slater, a former world champion, has spent nearly a decade pioneering the technology.

“It’s kind of like a brand-new toy that you’ve been wanting for a long time,” Jessi Miley-Dyer, a commissioner at the surf league, said before the event, which was closed to the public. “In a sport that’s been contingent on waiting for the ocean and waiting for something to show up, it’s a whole different ballgame in terms of being able to plan out the day.”

The system has the potential to turn pro surfing, where luck and timing and the ability to read the water are sometimes as important as skill, on its head. The waves it creates are much longer than those found in nature, but with power and speed that mimic the ocean. On Tuesday, the waves ran every four minutes, but the system can be programmed to run every three.

It was the first time this wave system, which released its first version in late 2015, had been used competitively, even for a test. In Tuesday’s competition, 10 of the top men and eight of the top women on the WSL Championship Tour competed on the second version of that wave system, one that was re-engineered with surfers’ suggestions in mind.

It was an event unlike any other the surfers had taken part in. Broadcast networks and advertisers took note, too. Never had professional surfers, or broadcasters, been able to count on consistent surfing conditions, or a set schedule.

In the ocean, surfers compete in heats. Two to four surfers go head-to-head in an allotted amount of time, sharing spaces and angling for the best waves. But in the ocean, surfing conditions can change drastically from one heat to the next, sometimes making comparisons difficult.

That variable is removed at the Surf Ranch; in Tuesday’s test event, waves nearly identical in size and shape were programmed to break both left and right. That allowed competitors to focus on style, and skill, rather than on unpredictable variables like timing and wave selection.

“We have this unique, incredible platform for waves to be almost identical,” the surf league commissioner Kieren Perrow said. “We’re going to have much different ability to compare rides among athletes, something we haven’t had in our past.”

In the test event, instead of getting a certain amount of time to surf, athletes were allotted a number of waves. Their performances were then compared in a leaderboard format. If a surfer wiped out, there was no hoping for a good set of waves on the horizon. That change in mentality was one of the biggest differences.

“It was nerve-racking,” professional surfer Carissa Moore said. “There are no excuses. There’s no Mother Nature. It’s all you. You have one chance.”

Moore, an American, was able to tame her nerves and won the women’s event. Gabriel Medina, a Brazilian, ended the day atop the men’s leaderboard.

“It’s a legitimate high-performance wave,” he said, adding that he was eager to compete at the Surf Ranch again.

He won’t have to wait long. The World Surf League will hold its first public event at the Surf Ranch in May 2018. But surfing officials have even bigger plans.

Wave system technology has the potential to affect the future of surfing worldwide, especially in inland markets and landlocked countries. And with surfing set to make its first appearance in the Olympics, in 2020, many are looking to wave system technology — reliable, consistent, adjustable, schedule-friendly — as the key to the sport’s longevity in the Games.

“From a technology perspective, we’re definitely at a tipping point,” Sophie Goldschmidt, the WSL’s new chief executive, said, comparing the moment to a surfing Space Age.

The surf league is trying to put itself on the leading edge of that development: In May 2016, WSL Holdings, the parent company of the WSL, announced that it had acquired the Kelly Slater Wave Co. for an undisclosed sum. The acquisition was a statement: The future of professional surfing would take place on Slater’s wave system.

Perhaps no one was more excited about the event, or the possibilities for the technology, than Slater.

“I haven’t been able to sleep for the past few nights,” he said Monday. “It sort of feels too good to be real.”

Slater, an 11-time world champion, helped design the waves with a professional’s eye, like a pro golfer might craft a new course, but he had planned to spend Tuesday on the sideline nursing a broken foot. Instead, to the surprise of few in attendance, Slater decided to claim the first wave for himself.

“I don’t care if it takes an extra month to heal,” he said. “It was worth it.”

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