Photo: © WSL/Kelly Cestari
The lip of a perfectly clean wave sparkles in the sunlight as a professional surfer drops in. It’s no surprise that this scene is set in California—except that it’s on a ranch in Lemoore, more than 100 miles from the ocean, in the agricultural heartland of the Central Valley.
That farmland is home to Surf Ranch, a man-made waterskiing lake that 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater and a team of engineers and entrepreneurs converted into an artificial wave–making prototype and testing facility. The World Surf League (WSL) purchased the property in 2016 and held the first Surf Ranch Pro Championship Tour event last September. This month, surfing’s stars return with the 2019 Freshwater Pro (September 19–22), a stop on both the men’s and women’s tours.
How does Surf Ranch replicate Mother Nature’s waves? A hydrofoil, which looks like the hull of a ship, runs along a track, pushing against the water to build a swell. As the swell moves along a carefully designed artificial reef, a wave builds, changes shape, and breaks. The wave travels 700 yards, varying from 5 to 7.5 feet in height and featuring barrel and maneuver sections.
While purists have railed against artificial waves, the technology could be huge for competitive surfing, which is vulnerable to the possibility of waves going flat just as a major contest begins. “We see huge potential for Surf Ranch as a competition venue after the success of our previous events,” says Nick Franklin, president of WSL WaveCo. “We’re also really excited about surfing making its Olympic debut in 2020.”
While a new multisport park with a wave pool, Sporu Shinagawa Oimachi, opened in Tokyo last year, as of now the Olympics are holding out for natural waves. (The competition is slated to take place in nearby Chiba Prefecture, at Ichinomiya’s Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach.) The wave park trend is growing worldwide, however, so watch for artificial waves—and the increased predictability they offer television broadcasts—to receive consideration for the 2024 Paris Games. Surf’s up on the Seine?