A perfect wave, again and again, made to order? It is the sort of thing that surfers all over the world might dream of as they bob about in the ocean, waiting in vain for the next foaming ticket to ride.
While nature might be unreliable, a machine on display in this sun-baked corner of rural California this weekend, more than 160km from the Pacific Ocean, is to serve up wave after wave for an elite-level surfing competition.
The Surf Ranch is the brainchild of 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, a prototype of the giant wave pool that might one day be used to stage surfing competitions at the Olympics.
With surfing set to make its bow at the 2020 Tokyo Games, the venue for the competition — natural or artificial waves — is still to be formally confirmed.
The Slater-inspired facility on show in this sleepy California town aims to present itself as a viable option for competition.
The centerpiece of the Surf Ranch is a giant, 640m-long pool, where a huge metal hydrofoil is pulled along a track at one edge of the water, churning out consistent barrels and tubes.
“I always thought that if surfing is to grow, it would have to be in a controlled environment,” Slater said, but added: “I think the ocean can’t be replaced. I think big waves can’t be replaced. I think the randomness of what happens in the ocean and in mother nature is a big part of why we love surfing.”
Unlike conventional surfing competitions, where the timetable is often at the mercy of the elements, at Surf Ranch, waves are delivered more or less to order. For a competition like the Olympic Games, ever mindful of television audiences, that makes it an attractive proposition.
The World Surf League has bought the facility and the concept from Slater. Construction on a similar site in Japan is set to begin later this year and is to be available to Tokyo 2020 if required, league chief executive Sophie Goldschmidt said.
“So we are going to be building one in Tokyo and we hope that if it’s built and tested in time, then the Olympics will consider using it, because the waves at that time of year are not the best,” Goldschmidt said. “Ultimately, it is not our choice.”
Last weekend, Slater captained a US team in a league exhibition tournament that also included Brazil, Australia, Europe and a team from the rest of the world.
Brazil’s Gabriel Medina and Australian veteran Mick Fanning, and women’s stars Stephanie Gilmore from Australia and Lakey Peterson from the US are just some of the surfers who took to the water.
The surfers were impressed by the artificial lake that delivers waves averaging about 1.8m high and traversing about 640m, offering barrel and maneuver sections.
“It’s easier,” Brazil’s Filipe Toledo said. “In the ocean it is more challenging, because you’re relying on nature, waiting. Here you get a perfect wave every three minutes.”
“Everyone gets the same conditions, the same opportunities, so the best surfer will win, and not necessarily one who makes a mistake or does not take enough risks,” he added.
Gilmore also believes the venue makes for a true test of talent, saying competitors would no longer be able to “blame it on the ocean” if they failed to deliver.
However, the league is adamant that artificial waves or “stadium surfing” will never replace traditional beach competitions.
“The ocean is as important as ever,” Goldschmidt said.
Meanwhile, Slater is dreaming of crowning his career with an appearance at the Olympics.
“It would be a great honor, to mark 40 years of competitive surfing like that,” he said.
Team USA was in the lead going into the final day of the Founders’ Cup yesterday, with 80.83 points over second-place Australia’s 75.82 points.
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