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The Founder’s Cup Exposes a Perfect Wave to the World

Paul Simon once sang: “These are the days of miracles and wonders,” and that certainly was true over the weekend of May 5-6, as Kelly Slater pulled a Willie Wonka and let some of the world into his fantasy candy factory, also known as The Surf Ranch.

The gates swung open several thousand paying customers who forked over $200 for the weekend tickets flooded in to see surfing’s version of the Golden Ticket: An artificial wave, breaking in a former water-ski and wake-boarding pool, in the middle of California’s Central Valley.

California uses an astonishing 84 billion gallons of water a day, every day, and 70% of that is used by the agriculture that surrounds the Surf Ranch in every direction and off to the horizon: Alfalfa fields, goat ranches, everything the world needs.

It’s unknown how much water is in the 2,000-foot long former water ski tank where the Kelly Slater Wave Co have installed Perfect Wave 1. That’s one of many numbers that boggle the mind about this wave, along with:

  • Total cost for all the engineering, R and D and construction of the facility.
  • How much energy does it take to propel the hydrofoil for one wave?
  • What is the per-wave cost for energy and etc?
  • How much will it cost to install one of those waves somewhere else?
  • How many people tuned into this event around the world?

The thousands of people came in a sort of Coachella festival vibe – with who knows how many more watching the event on the webcast, but also on CBS. There was a time when surfing on TV was a big deal – that seems to have returned with Kelly’s wave.

Surfing was the centerpiece – with waves being ridden every four minutes – but around that there was music, food, entertainment, Surfrider booths and a happy vibe. This was something new, very new and as the two days went on, it was cool.

Kelly’s wave does the same thing, every time, with not much variation. The right seems to be crisper, faster and more hollow than the left, but that could have been because of the prevailing winds, as the lefts seemed to tighten up during the day and that couldn’t have been tidal, because that 2,000-foot-long pool isn’t big enough to have tides.

Kelly Slater’s wave is a perfect wave that demands perfection. It is not an easy wave to surf, even for the best surfers in the world, who were represented in five teams of five co-ed surfers representing Australia, Brazil, United States, Europe and a World Team which was lead by Jordy Smith and had two South Africans, a Tahitian, a Japanese and a Kiwi.

The Founder’s Cup was meant to be many things, but one of those things was to throw the world’s best at this wave, see what they could do with it, see if they were challenged and see if there was a competitive format that would hold up to Olympic scrutiny.

This is a wave breaking in fresh water in the middle of nowhere – a hundred-plus miles from the nearest ocean. Would it be the bomb, or a bust?

This wasn’t an Expression Session, this was a contest, and the format ran like this:

Five teams of five athletes. Three men, two women per team.

  • Each athlete surfs two waves per run (left and right) – each wave scored out of 10.
  • Each athlete will surf six waves across three runs during the Qualifying Round – three rights, three lefts.
  • Each athlete’s top-scoring left and top-scoring right will contribute to the Team Total.
  • Ten waves (each of the five team members’ contributing top-scoring left and right) are added up to a maximum team total of 100.
  • Top three scoring teams out of the five qualify for the Final.

Looking at the contest in Olympic terms, the format is closer to floor exercises in gymnastics. The surfers go one at a time, standing in waist-deep water, and waiting for the train-like contraption to move forward, and the hydrofoils to kick up a lump of water that starts small and lumpy but grows in size and speed as it moves along the 2,000-foot long tank.

The wave does the same thing, every time: A kind of mushy, workable wall, then the first tight, spinning barrel section, which backs off a bit for more turns, then barrels again at the end with enough speed for a Felipe Toledo or a Silvana Lima to come out of the barrel and try something tricky, in the air, and sometimes make it – but not every time.

The same thing, every time, but this is a perfect wave, and it’s mesmerizing.

The wave breaking at the Surf Ranch is the aquatic version of a Tesla – expensively, beautifully, thoroughly modernly engineered, a blast to ride/drive, very very fast and completely addicting.

And like Teslas, the supply of Kelly’s waves is limited to the elite, and people with money. But hopefully that will change in the near future – for Tesla and for the Kelly Slater Wave Co.

But as it is now, it’s pretty choice. At the Founder’s Cup, each surfer got to go right once, and go left once, the scores were tabulated and the contest moved forward.

The best surfers in the world sometimes struggled with this wave, but by no means do they have it wired. The big challenge is to get some speed on takeoff, hit the lip a few times and then fling something fancy into the air. The wave has more than enough power for that, but the problem is, it is fast and unforgiving. Blow your landing and have to readjust, and the wave heads off without you.

This is a perfect wave that demands perfection and that’s what makes it a success – it’s not easy. It’s challenging. Some of the best surfers in the world were pulling into the barrel frontside and backside and getting passed by.

John John Florence pretty much screwed up going both ways in the final heat – and some people wonder if the fresh water is less buoyant or doesn’t feel right in some way, which lead to a lot of blown turns from John John, Kelly and just about everyone else.

John John did win the Quiksilver price for best aerial, and Felipe Toledo scored a perfect 10 for nailing an aerial between the first and second barrel sections.

Steph Gilmore and Carissa Moore looked smoothest and most stylish of the wahine, but this is a wave that was clearly made in Kelly’s Image: The wave fits him like an expensive, bespoke suit and he just looks right riding it, whether he’s going right or left.

Kelly was having a good time, that was clear. He probably still can’t believe what he and his team have brought into the world, and he was giddy as Willy Wonka throughout the event – leading his Team USA, talking to the crowd, riding on the PWC with Raimana – having fun out in the middle of the Bread Basket of the World.

In the end, the World Team lead by Jordy Smith won the overall title. A surprise, but a good surprise because this is a wave that hopefully the world is going to embrace.

The Surf Ranch is never going to be open to the public, apparently, and will remain a test tank. Rumor has it the first public wave will be installed in Orlando, Florida and after that, who knows

The Founder’s Cup proved that an artificial wave breaking out in the middle of nowhere can be challenging to the world’s best, and mesmerizing to the world. It was a well-run event that did not get boring, because perfect waves are anything but boring.

Is this something the Olympics will like? Probably.

Arthur C Clarke once claimed: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Kelly’s Magical Wave is sufficiently advanced already, but this is merely Perfect Wave 1.0. The first one.

It’s going to evolve from here, and who knows where it will go: How big? How long? Will they sometimes be able to randomize the bottom contour so you don’t know when that first and second barrel section is going to pop up.

Make it bigger, longer and more random, and they will have perfected the perfect wave.


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