Courtesy The Surf Ranch

Living

Surfing in the Valley: How a High-Tech Wave System Is Bringing the Sport to Dry Land

Surfers yearn to travel to places like Australia’s Gold Coast, Bali or South Africa’s Jeffreys Bay to ride some of the world’s most epic waves. But if the buzz over The Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California is any indication of the sport’s future, heading to distant shores to enjoy the thrilling mix of wind, energy and water could become a thing of the past.

The Surf Ranch, located in California’s Central Valley, boasts what’s touted as “the best man-made wave in history”: a 700-yard, high-performance, bi-directional wave featuring both barrel and maneuver sections. The Lemoore facility also puts surfing fans a lot closer to all the action than they’d experience when watching to sport in its natural setting. Eleven-time World Surf League (WSL) Champion Kelly Slater, the brains behind the Lemoore facility, says he’s been dreaming of a high-performance man-made wave for years. “When I was a kid I imagined someone would make a great wave technology in the future,” Slater tells Playboy. “I never thought it might be a team I put together, but as I got interested in it I realized we could make it happen. The idea we can make a designer type wave for anyone was appealing.” 

Slater started working on bringing his vision to life in 2006, sharing his idea with Adam Fincham, PhD., a Professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering (USC) and expert in fluid dynamics. The two then began exploring the feasibility of actually building a wave, finding an investor along with an international team of scientists, engineers, wave experts and surfers to further develop the early concepts. 

Some of the team’s early wave testing was done on computer models, using simulations known as Computational Fluid Dynamics. The first full-sale prototype was built in 2014 by the Kelly Slater Wave Company (KSWC), after examining the science behind some of the most popular waves in the world, assessing factors like the wave’s energy, reef structure and the most powerful part of the wave. 

The Surf Ranch wave system is capable of producing more than 50 types of waves at the push of button, with the potential to create a variety of different wave profiles, such as a twoo-foot swell for longboards, followed by a six-plus-foot high-performance wave.

Primarily a testing facility until recently, the Lemoore site has spent the past two years dialing in the technology, using feedback from visiting WSL surfers. Surf Ranch, which lies 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean, hosted it first public event in early May with the legendary Founders' Cup of Surfing, in a historic region-versus-region teams event that featured a cross-section of the best surfers in the world. 

"It's incredible what the WSL and KSWC teams have developed at Surf Ranch over the past year, and California's Central Valley now boasts a world-class wave," notes WSL Commissioner Kieren Perrow in a press statement. "This technology, and its ability to deliver high-quality waves at any location in the world, opens so many possibilities for how we can complement and evolve the competitive experience."

WSL’s World Team Captain Jordy Smith tells Playboy he was actually a bit taken back by his first experience on the man-made wave in Lemoore. “It was really a lot more foreign than I expected,” says the South African native. “I was super nervous but at the same time excited. The wave itself is perfect—almost too perfect. It’s so mechanical and tailored to be surfed perfectly that you almost get lost in the moment and forget you’re riding a wave pool, 100 miles inland from the coast.” 

The Lemoore facility is now preparing for a Championship Tour points-surfing event, being held in early September. The team there is looking to build on many of the things it learned during the May WSL event to improve the experience for the surfers as well as the spectators. The facility is also hosting training sessions for the Surfing Australia National Squad men’s and women’s teams. 

As the Surf Ranch team continues to develop the technology, there is really no limit to the possibilities of what it could add to the sport, says Slater. “We can potentially surf great waves of any type anywhere in the world,” says Slater. “That changes a lot of possibilities for the sport’s viewership, but also for the evolution of skill sets and timing for people who don’t have time or money to leave home and go on surf trips anytime there is a swell. There are a ton of possibilities and it’s only going to get more advanced and exciting.”

Smith is quick to note, however, that man-made technology will never fully replace the experience of conquering a wave in its natural environment. “You have to enjoy it for what it is—a 700-yard wave, 100 miles inland,” says the champion surfer. “The wave itself has moments, but it will never be the same. I think it’s better that’s it’s…different, because it allows you to enjoy it for what it is.” 

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