Surfing on Kelly Slater’s Machine-Made Wave
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Surfing on Kelly Slater’s Machine-Made Wave
William Finnegan discusses his reporting on the best surfer in the world, Kelly Slater, and how his revolutionary wave machine both advanced and disrupted the surfing industry.
Released on 12/07/2018
This idea of the perfect wave
has been lodged the middle of one's brain
for a long long time.
When I was a kid, The Endless Summer was really influential.
It was about two surfers from California
who travel around the globe looking for waves,
and they find the perfect wave in South Africa.
They show this beautiful beautiful little wave
just reeling down along the rocks.
[Narrator] He knew he'd finally found that perfect wave.
The narrator saying these waves
look like they've been made by some kind of machine.
But there is no such things as a perfect wave in the ocean.
In nature, a wave is this kinda complex, violent event.
I ask people sometimes,
have you ever heard of a guy called Kelly Slater?
And just around New York,
people who might read The New Yorker,
and they routinely say no.
They've never heard his name, they don't know who he is,
which it funny to me because within surfing
he's such a big deal.
He was the youngest ever world champion
and he was the oldest ever world champion at 39,
11 world titles.
He's just absolutely dominant.
Consensus, best surfer in history,
but just as important as what he does is how he thinks,
which includes how he thinks about waves.
He's just got a very very advanced understanding,
but he has given away that advantage with this pool.
In a 2003 memoir,
he was talking about the ultimate wave machine
and how it could bring surfing to every town in America,
make it mainstream like soccer.
It just seemed like a sort of idle fantasy,
but it wasn't that idle.
He went to The University of Southern California
trying to find scientists,
and he ended up with a guy named Adam Finchum,
and Finchum, who's specializing in fluid dynamics,
loves a challenge and he just took it on.
To get the wave that Slater had in mind,
his first idea was a kinda donut shaped lake,
a wave that just went and went and went.
In the end, they ended up with a rectangular model,
a single wave that just propagates and doesn't lose energy.
He came up with this hydrofoil shape,
just pushing water sideways.
Apparently it's very very complex.
Horrendous mathematics is how one guy described it,
but they cracked it.
[Kelly] It's a lot of pressure
working on something for 10 years,
and then I think it's a big thing for surfing.
[William] They dropped this video in December 2015
called Kelly's Wave.
Oh my god.
[William] He starts jumping up and down.
I mean, you've never seen anything like it.
[Kelly] This is the best manmade wave ever made, for sure.
Beautiful, beautiful wave.
It's so, I mean, it's entry-level surrealism, right?
This wave in the middle of farm country.
You come in at a certain point,
suddenly you can see the wave.
You can't be prepared for seeing this thing
in the middle of fields,
and it's in a pool that's 700 yards long,
100 yards plus wide.
It's this patch of ocean, Ersatz Ocean,
and the waves created by this huge thing
they called a vehicle is this big sort of Mad Max-y machine.
It's up on rails, it's three train cars,
and it kind of whips down these rails on 150 truck tires
and it has, on the side of it, the key part,
is this huge, I think it's 100 tons,
this iron blade kind of the size and shape
of an airplane wing, which is called a hydrofoil.
And it pushes this wave out they call a soliton,
it's just a solitary wave.
The bottom of the pond is contoured in such a way
that it makes the wave break like an ocean wave
in a certain pattern.
I mean, there are a lot of wave pools around.
They've been around for 50 years or more.
There have been lots of commercial efforts
to make surfing waves,
but this thing that Slater and his team came up with
is of a completely different order.
I mean, it's like the best wave
you've ever seen in your life.
Matt Warshaw who's kind of
the unofficial historian of surfing,
he says that surfing now has two eras,
before Kelly's wave and after Kelly's wave.
This has changed everything.
Technology has outdone nature
and the consequences are gonna be with us forever.
On the pro tour,
everybody goes and hangs out in Tahiti
waiting for the spot to get good, and then you surf.
With this wave machine,
you can schedule a contest and you can put it on TV.
They'll be a wave every three minutes
and they can show replays and commercials in between.
I was there in September for the first pro contest.
Slater said that he thought it was a pure test
of people's skills.
You could really see what he called
the depth of people's surfing,
and he said the cream rises to the top in this situation.
All the stuff in the wave,
how you could turn, how you could get in the barrel.
[Announcer] Another opportunity in the tube.
There was a kind of sameness to it,
and I guess it was something to Slater's point that
any kind of hitch or flaw in your surfing
just came up in bold relief
because there was no variation in the wave.
As surfers, we spend a huge amount of our time
looking for good waves, trying to find a great wave.
It becomes very much about that search,
and then I'll figure out what to do with it
when you find it,
and all the mediocre waves you ride in the interim.
And this kind of eliminates all that.
You can just jump ahead to nirvana,
this incredibly perfect wave.
Just push a button and it comes out.
So, all the reaction was mixed.
Everybody, everybody who saw this wave
was just aching to ride it.
I mean, that was an involuntary response,
and I was there as a reporter.
I'm supposed to be the, you know, interviewing people,
paying attention, being objective in some sense,
and I was just...
I couldn't take my eyes off this wave.
It's like it's built to reduce you to this needy,
turned on, desperate character.
Slater came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder
and said 408 or 608?
And I knew as a reporter I shouldn't be taking this freebie,
I should decline, and instead I just said 608.
So, I ended up surfing it.
Just a couple of waves.
It was not the sort of religious experience one hopes for.
It really is quite hectic.
Get ready, get ready,
and there's a buzzer saying one minute
and you don't paddle out,
you don't catch a few inside waves,
figure out where you wanna sit, any of that stuff.
It's just bang, you're in the apex of one of the best waves
you'll probably ever surf in your life.
I was talking to Stephanie Gilmore,
the number one in the world at the moment,
and I said can you picture some kid
who just learns in a wave pool,
but has this perfect wave at his disposal
and just becomes unimaginably skilled,
becomes a world champion because they trained
on this incredible wave.
And she said yeah,
and then they paddle out at pipeline and drown.
And we both laughed.
Why are we laughing at the idea of somebody drowning?
There's this side of surfing,
which is you gotta earn your stipes,
you've gotta be able to deal with danger
and fear and punishment of various kinds,
and you haven't paid your dues, don't paddle out here.
Slater is a little conflicted about what he's done.
I've heard him say have I created a monster here?
He acknowledges that this thing
is very much a product of the human obsession,
the human desire, to control things.
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