Last summer I wrote about William Finnegan’s surfing memoir Barbarian Days in an essay that, as David Pinsen pointed out, I should have named “Finnegans Wave”. Finnegan has a new piece in The New Yorker about the artificial wave pool that the world’s greatest surfer Kelly Slater and USC engineering professor Adam Fincham have built in the middle of California’s Central Valley farmlands.
Surfers spend a vast amount of time looking for waves without catching any good ones, so lots of money has been spent over the years trying to bring waves to the public. But the math of getting artificial waves right turned out to be complex. This new wave pool is a major step forward.
The best surfer in history made a machine that creates perfect conditions on demand. Will his invention democratize surfing or despoil it?
By William Finnegan
… The idea of the perfect wave has been around surfing since I was a kid. “The Endless Summer,” a documentary by Bruce Brown, released in 1966, follows two California surfers circling the globe with boards. They find “the perfect wave” in South Africa, at Cape St. Francis. The holy grail in this case was a small, groomed, exquisite wave, peeling just off the rocks, and Brown assured us that, according to local fishermen, it broke like that three hundred days a year.
As narrator, Brown laments the countless perfect waves that had gone unridden before they arrived.
In fact, it seemed to break like that for the ninety minutes that Brown was filming, and then the tide came up, or the wind shifted; waves of that quality have never again been seen at Cape St. Francis. Breaking waves in the ocean are fleeting, complex events, each one unique. There are great surf spots, to be sure, but there is no such thing in nature as a perfect wave.
That said, the wave in the “Kelly’s Wave” video looked objectively flawless. Too much so, actually, Slater and his team decided; they rebuilt the wave immediately after the video’s release. “We realized it was just too much of a perfect barrel the whole time,” Slater told me. “We wanted to make it to where you could do some turns and kind of shred the thing, instead of just sit in the tube.” This, I thought, was a new type of problem. …
I thought of the vaulting ambition to create a perfect wave in Faustian terms—a pact with the Devil, sealed with a drop of blood. But Slater’s early sketches of the ranch were more like renderings for a high-end planned community, with the pool playing the role of the golf course. Slater is in fact an enthusiastic golfer (three handicap). “The idea was, how do you pay for these things?” he told me. He mentioned the possibility of private memberships. So much for Goethe.
Surfing, golf, and skiing all have a fair amount in common in that some places to pursue the sport are better than other places, and there are capacity limits. Surfing might have the sharpest capacity constraints, plus the quality of the waves at any place varies tremendously from hour to hour.
Golf emerged in the coastal sand dunes of Scotland that weren’t good for anything else beside sheep grazing. Oddly, most Scottish linksland doesn’t provide a good view of the ocean.
Around 1900 it was discovered that similar terrain existed here and there inland, such as in the sandy hills around what’s now Heathrow airport in suburban London. After that it was figured out that you could install drainage systems to allow golf courses to be built on clay soils that are otherwise too damp and muddy for enjoyable golf. And then it was figured out that you could push dirt around, or even truck in vast amounts of sand to build any shape golf course you want. In the last couple of decades, the trend in high end golf courses has been to find a spot with a magnificent ocean or lake view and then construct sand dunes to make it look natural.
But nobody has really figured out a way to make golf cheaper. Surfing’s problem has been the mirror image: nobody has figured out a consistent way to make surfing more expensive, so waves get overcrowded, with lots of bad blood and fistfights between locals and outsiders. So surfing includes an enormous amount of hurry up and wait. On the other hand, much of the waiting is done on the beach or bobbing on the ocean, so it’s not so bad.
Basically, only one surfer can ride one wave at a time. This new machine generates 15 waves per hour, each ride lasting almost one minute over 700 yards in a 100 yard-wide pool. That would be an enormously long ride in nature. But still that’s only three man-hours of riding waves per 12 hour day.
So the cost at present is supposedly $50,000 to rent the facility per day, with most surfers with that kind of money flying in on private jets, with say six surfers per group. So maybe they each get a half hour of riding on a perfect tubular wave, which is a huge amount of time spent in the curl, but at a cost of say $17,000 per hour. Yeesh … On the other hand, 30 minutes of peak surfing might take a full-time dropout surfer, what, six months to experience in the ocean?
And the variable cost of the electricity to generate each wave is high so there don’t seem to be obvious ways to tap economies of scale other than to locate surf ranches near big hydroelectric plants that provide cheap electricity (e.g., Hoover Dam near Las Vegas). I think the cheapest electricity in the U.S. might be near Grand Coulee dam on the Columbia River, but that’s not much of a tourist destination.
But somebody might think of something.