The competitiveness of one Robert Kelly Slater is mythic. In surfing, of course, but in everything else, too. Ping pong. Golf. And, it would seem, wave pool innovation.
Let’s recap. When Kelly Slater dropped the now infamous first look of his artificial wave in December of 2015, the surf world’s axis tilted. Wavegarden’s artificial wave tech was already in full swing in the Basque Country. Hell, our own Zach Weisberg surfed it. Still, to date what would become known as “Kelly’s wave” was the most perfect full-sized artificial wave ever seen.
Fast forward through months of tinkering, invites to Slater’s friends, a few golden tickets, and a bunch of surf journos agreeing to sign an NDA for a crack, and the world wide web was satisfactorily inundated with angle after angle of Surf Ranch’s roping perfection. Maybe that’s the reason the first contest held at the place felt a little off, perhaps overly predictable, with a crowd searching high and low for drinking water in the heat.
In that context, the timing could not have been any more perfect for Waco’s Barefoot Ski Ranch to unveil it’s newest offering – a wave pool powered by American Wave Machines. Punctuated by Seth Moniz’s insane air, Waco showed itself to be the exact opposite of its counterpart in Lemoore. Where the Surf Ranch is a long-running wave for max tube time, Waco is a quick punchy wedge. Some described the Founders’ Cup as the world’s best safety surfing. Waco could quickly become the world’s best training facility for airs, some mused.
Not to be outdone, Kelly Slater and crew have added an air section to their wave, as confirmed by recent posts by Josh Kerr and Albee Layer on Instagram. Whether prompted by Waco’s wave or not, the optics are clear. Kelly Slater Wave Company and the World Surf League are trying to recapture some of the audience they lost as a result of the mundanity of the Founders’ Cup.
“The other day @josh_kerr84 and I flew on a private jet to go surf a perfect man made (sic) wave then after each wave we had the ability to give @kellyslater and the rest of the @kswaveco crew feed back (sic) working on an air section, making it a little better and different every time. A couple sections we try’d (sic) out were starting to get pretty crazy and I had no idea the literally thousands of different settings this wave can offer,” wrote Albee Layer on Instagram.
Josh Kerr echoed Albee’s sentiment. “Can’t wait to see the worlds best in September hit this thing!” he said.
But all this chasing to improve what in its first incarnation was deemed “the perfect manmade wave” reveals a troubling reality that surfers know all too well – perfection is simultaneously relative and unattainable. The continued tinkering of Kelly Slater and Company is proof. The wave can always be better, and it depends what better means. A better air section can be added. The wave could be made bigger. Faster. Slower. The barrel could be more square. Or more almond.
No amount of tinkering can fix what doomed the Founders’ Cup from the beginning, though: its predictability. And that’s the point. The World Surf League and especially its CEO have been outspoken about the power of KSWC technology to allow the sport of surfing to be neatly packaged for television in a specific time slot. But as new artificial waves proliferate, it seems likely KSWC and the League will have to continue to modify their wave to keep things new and fresh for their audience – in my eyes the hallmark of an enterprise doomed to fail.
As training facilities, wave pools in general work precisely because they can perfectly replicate a wave. As for serving as a venue for a surf contest, the replication is precisely the problem.