Over 5,000 people came to the Central Valley this weekend to watch the first World Surf League team competition, live. The event took place at Kelly Slater’s world-class wave pool in Lemoore, and some think this surf ranch is the next frontier for the sport.
Chris Estep loves to watch surfing. He says he and his wife watch the competitions whenever they can, but always from their home in Fresno, via livestream video.
“Most competitions are nowhere near us. The other competitions are a two-week window, if the conditions are right the competition will run. If not, then it won’t,” says Estep. “Just timing that right has never made sense for me.”
For the first time this weekend, Estep watched some of the world’s best surfers compete in-person, at a location where the conditions are always right.
“It's pretty awesome and I have to force myself not to use expletives in there,” says Estep.
Estep was one of the 5,000 attendees from all over the world who came out to Lemoore to watch the World Surf League Founders’ Cup competition. This weekend held many firsts for the league: the first public event held at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch, the first team competition, and the first look at what the future of competitive surfing might be.
The league called the Founders’ Cup a specialty event. Surfers have always competed individually. For this event, athletes were grouped into co-ed teams of three men and two women. The teams represented USA, Brazil, Australia, Europe, and the World.
Kelly Slater captained Team USA. He’s someone that many call the greatest surfer of all time. Slater has won the World Surf League Championship 11 times, and his career spans over 25 years. He’s spent the last 10 developing this wave pool in the middle of California. Slater says its location in Lemoore just happened to work out.
“We were just looking for a place that had ample land and and water, and the right permitting, and access to the amount of energy we needed to run the wave,” says Slater.
Like much of the Central Valley, Lemoore is a center for agriculture. To see surfers on 6-foot waves there is surreal.
Kelly Slater worked with a team of engineers and surfers to create this phenomenon.
“The real idea is to make a perfect wave, which i believe we've done,” Slater says. “We can evolve that technology into something else, into a different blueprint of a wave whether it’s for a beginner or advanced.”
Artificial wave pools aren’t particularly new technology, but wave pools that are ideal for surfing have been elusive, until now.
Slater’s man-made lake itself is the length of seven football fields. The waves are powered by a 200-ton shovel of metal that’s pulled the length of the pool, pushing water over a fake reef designed into the floor of the lake.
The result is consistent: surfers get a 45-second ride and a wave perfect for performing. Slater says this wave pool will even the playing field for surfers.
“In terms of luck and the ocean, you're dealing with Mother Nature and this person or that person might get the good wave,” says Slater. “This eliminates that so it comes down to more of a performance thing.”
World Surf League CEO Sophie Goldschmidt agrees that this technology will change surfing.
“I don't think surfing will ever be the same again, I think we're going to learn a lot,” says Goldschmidt. “This is a test event in many ways, we've never done anything like this before, and this is a prototype technology.”
The Surf League has already bought the rights to the Kelly Slater Wave Company and there are plans to build the next pool in Tokyo, in anticipation of the sport’s debut at the 2020 olympics.
Some are concerned that surfing in a pool with machine-made waves is not in the spirit of the sport. They argue that part of surfing is dealing with the challenge and unpredictability of Mother Nature.
Goldschmidt says this technology isn’t a departure from the ocean, and but is something that could benefit the sport.
“This is additive to surfing in the ocean. We're fortunate this isn't an either-or, we can have both,” Goldschmidt says. “The ocean is still super important to us, we'll still have the majority of events in the ocean, but this technology allows us to go to markets that we would never be able to go to otherwise.”
Most surfers at the event agreed; the wave pool is one-of-a-kind.
Kolohe Andino surfed for Team USA this weekend. The 24-year-old ranked seventh in the world last year. He says riding these waves feels incredible.
“It's just super, like different because you're just in the middle of the desert,” says Andino “You drive here, you're like, ‘Whoa this is so weird.’ And you get here, and it's paradise for a surfer; just perfect waves and a really nice set up.”
By the end of the Founders’ Cup this weekend, Team World came out on top, with surfers from South Africa, Japan, New Zealand, and French Polynesia.
The competition didn’t affect the athlete’s standings in the league, but it was a taste of what might be to come for surfing, and it might include a generation of Central Valley surfing fans.