California surfing has always been a technology sport. The first surfboard light enough for the average person to carry to the beach was the ribbed, hollow Water Sled, patented in 1932 by Santa Monica lifeguard Tom Blake. After consulting an aerospace-designing surfer bud from Caltech, Blake modeled the board after the wing of the Lockheed Vega monoplane famously flown by Amelia Earhart.
Flash forward to 2006, when pro surfer Kelly Slater turned to USC engineers to conjure the wave pool of his dreams, with adjustable swells to satisfy any surfer’s desire. Nine years and $30 million later, in the dusty Central California city of Lemoore, Slater unveiled Surf Ranch, a million-square-foot artificial lake that relies on a system of 100-ton hydrofoils running along a track to produce UV- and chlorine-treated curls as big as six and a half feet high. Fifteen perfect waves an hour. Pure stoke at the flick of a switch. The waves are elusive to the general public, but the pool is open to spectators, with tickets starting at $99 and going much, much higher.
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
Surf Ranch isn’t the first to manufacture breakers—North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s dad installed a wave pool in 2002, for instance—but this particular barrel maker taps a current of the California mindset as native to this coast as the golden poppy. It’s a machine for good, good, good, good vibrations. As Slater once said, “Surfing is supposed to be about making you happy and creating good experiences, and I can say with 100 percent confidence that Surf Ranch provides that for people every single day.”
That sounds like marketing-speak, but the ethos of Slater’s wave pool, and of the joyful pursuit of the perfect wave, tugs at what makes Cali Cali. “Surfing is the manifestation of everything optimistic and soul satisfying that lures people to this far edge of the continent and keeps them here,” says Aaron James, a philosophy professor at UC Irvine and the author of Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning. “No matter what else is happening, the idea that you can ‘slide on water,’ ” as Sartre said, “under blue skies practically every day of the year—it’s the California cure for the 40-hour workweek, the glutted freeway system, and whatever ugly history you’ve come all this way to wash away.” The fact that Surf Ranch lets you dial up waves on cue only adds to the serotonin-rich uplift. “It’s peak flow state as if by prescription,” James says.
Kelly Slater Wave Company (World Surf League acquired a majority stake in 2016) has plans for new pools in the Golden State and elsewhere, beginning with the ultimate derring-do of a surf retreat in the desert. Sometime in 2022 in Coachella, KSWC’s perfect waves will rise out of a vast ancient seabed that’s now mostly sand and saguaros, at an under-construction resort at Coral Mountain. “It speaks to the magic of what’s possible in California that you’ll soon be able to ride a giant wave where the sea dried up thousands of years ago,” says Rich Carr, a partner at CCY Architects, the firm designing the resort.
Call it the uncanny valley of gnarl. Now 49, Taylor Knox has been bombing California waves as a pro since 1990, yet he’s never encountered anything quite so righteously confounding as the forever wave at Slater’s Surf Ranch. “It’s the strangest feeling knowing someone is pushing a button to give you these beautiful swells,” he says. “So much of a surfer’s time is spent waiting for the right conditions, but there it’s curl after gorgeous curl. Really you just give yourself over to it. It makes an old man giddy. That elusive perfect wave comes, and instead of moaning that you’ll never get another like it, you say to yourself, Shit, I’m going to get to ride this one again and again.”•