Long ago I lived in Santa Cruz, California. Almost every morning I would throw on a wet suit, grab my surfboard out of the garage, and head to the rocky cliffs just a few blocks from my house. I would descend a well-worn path to the ocean below, paddle out to the break, and spend hours surrounded by kelp beds and barking sea lions, catching waves, feeling exhilarated, and floating on my board, a world away from the troubles on land.
Those days are gone. I have a family now and have lived for years in the generally wave-less realms of New York City. But one day in 2016 I suddenly felt that old hunger again. I wanted to race out to the garage and grab a board. It was all because of a wave I saw on the Internet. And not just any wave. Head high, it came in fast, peeling left, its lip throwing off tantalizing moisture droplets before arching forward, a sheet of pristine, sun-dappled water folding onto itself to form a perfect barrel. A barrel that just kept going and going.
The wave’s shape and size were only part of its wonder. It was breaking 110 miles inland on an isolated 700-yard-long, man-made lake in central California. It was the dream project, come to fruition, of 11-time world champ surfer Kelly Slater. With a little help from aerospace engineers. “I’m 100 percent positive our team built the best wave that anyone’s ever made,” Slater said in the video, which quickly went viral. “It’s a freak of technology.”
Not so much a freak but a technological mirror of nature. In recent years, humans’ ability to mimic nature in all realms of movement has exploded, driven by advances in sensing and computing power, robotics and machine engineering. Together these tools are allowing engineers to measure and replicate the phenomena we once thought only the gods could summon forth. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, engineers have built prosthetic limbs that use gears and metallic parts to precisely mimic the way the leg’s hundreds of bones, ligaments, and tendons move in relation to one another with every step. At Harvard, they have modeled insect flight, and are attempting to build flapping wing micro-drones that can replicate the energy efficiencies of a bumblebee. Now, there’s Kelly Slater’s wave.
Slater and his engineers aren’t saying how they built their wave. They denied my requests for interviews. “At this time, we are laying low,” explained Noah Grimmett, the vice president of Kelly Slater Wave Company, in an email. But I traveled to California anyway to interview other wave engineers, entrepreneurs, and oceanographers. The artificial wave business, I learned, is as competitive as a good break on a local beach. And the spoils will be rewarded to the Promethean engineers who translate ocean and wind dynamics into calculations that crest into the perfect wave.
I’m standing on a cliff in Solana Beach, California, with Bruce McFarland, CEO of a company called American Wave Machines, gazing at the Pacific Ocean. McFarland, a slightly doughy, sunbaked surfer, in a pair of red sunglasses and a newsboy cap, is focused intently on a distant patch of empty water near a craggy outcropping. “That’s called ‘Bruce’s Left’ down there,” he says, pointing to a spot flatter than a duck pond. “It only breaks every once in a while. But when it does …”
McFarland doesn’t have to finish. I can guess at the kind of superlative he’s reaching for, the images of barreling, liquid energy he is picturing in his mind’s eye. McFarland and I have been talking about waves for hours—what makes them, why some are better than others, what it’s like to ride them. And why it is that some 20 years ago McFarland left behind a perfectly good career in the aerospace industry, building computer simulations of fighter jets and spacecraft for a defense contractor, to build wave machines.
The wave’s shape and size were only part of its wonder. It was breaking 110 miles inland.
In the 1990s McFarland met an entrepreneur named Tom Lochtefeld, who had patented a device he called the FlowRider. (Their partnership didn’t last: After McFarland left the company, Lochtefeld unsuccessfully sued him for patent infringement.) The device works by shooting water up a sloped rubber mat, creating a thin liquid wall that can be “surfed” with a modified version of a surfboard called a “flowboard.” Of course, balancing on a small board with no fins on a rubberized mat in a pool is a long way from dropping in on a 5-foot right in the ocean. I tried one once on a cruise ship. It was fun, for sure. But it didn’t feel much like surfing. Now McFarland and Lochtefeld, who is also a surfer, are determined to create something closer to the real thing.
How do you start? The answer, McFarland says, is blowing in the wind. Far out in the Pacific, the wind will kiss the ocean’s surface, creating small ripples. Below, the ocean will remain calm and implacable. But on the surface, water molecules will knock into one another, like thousands of microscopic cue balls lined up a few centimeters apart on a green felt pool table. With each collision, the thrust and direction of the forward moving molecules will shift, and as gravity does its work, they will travel in a perfect 360-degree arc known as “orbital motion.” In the process, much of their momentum and energy will pass on to the formally stationary molecules in front of them. These molecules will knock into the molecules in front of them, which will knock into the next ones in line. The energy fueling this molecular-level traffic pile-up will continue on down the chain, causing the water to undulate through the ocean. Presto, a wave.
“One of the most important aspects of surface waves and many sorts of waves, is they transfer energy without transferring mass,” Kenneth Melville, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, tells me later. In other words, the individual water molecules don’t go very far. But the energy moving them can travel from one side of the earth to the other.
The open space over which the wind generates the waves, the length of which surfers refer to as the “fetch,” is the final ingredient needed to make surfable swells. Every time the water rises up at an angle to the wind, the wind feeds in more energy. Over open space, too, multiple smaller ripples can combine to form larger ones. With more time and space, the size and power of the wave grows.
As the wave moves across the ocean, its energy doesn’t just propagate forward, it also goes downward. The pool-ball-like transfer of momentum causes water molecules at deeper depths to move in exponentially smaller circles, until the momentum is dissipated in the deepest reaches of the water.
Isn’t surfing supposed to be mystical, unpredictable, and above all else elemental and natural?
But in shallower water the moving water particles begin to hit the hard bottom before all that energy has been dissipated. The wave energy is focused as it approaches the shore. Above the surface, the water begins to rise until it becomes so steep that it topples over and folds in on itself. It’s the shape of the bottom, the contours, and how they push up that energy that determines the shape of a wave. A gradual slope tilted at the right angle will produce a gently peeling wave. A more dramatic slope will cause it to break more quickly.
Which is why McFarland gets that gleam in his eye when he looks out over Bruce’s Left and imagines the possibilities—not only for the glorious waves that will soon break in the cove, but in the wave park of his dreams.
McFarland’s workshop is located on the ground level of a modest office park, on the far end of Solana Beach’s main commercial strip. Until now, his core business has been a compact technology called SurfStream, which generates a “static” wave more akin to what you might surf at the mouth of the river. The wave doesn’t move forward; you surf it in place. But its compact size has made it cheaper to house indoors and easier to market. And the surf is good enough that two wave parks—Nashua, New Hampshire and Quebec—held indoor competitions using his technology.
Some years back McFarland collaborated with aerospace engineer Steve Harrington, CEO of Flometrics, an engineering company, for an exhibit that showed the difference between waves caused by a tsunami’s massive displacement of water, and the kind of wind waves that build over the open ocean. The two got to talking about waves and surf parks. “The problem with all those wave pools is they don’t make a real wave,’” the engineer told him. “The water at the trough is going toward shore also, but in the ocean at the bottom of the wave, the water’s coming toward you. So the dynamics are much more intense in the ocean than in surf pools.”
McFarland got to work on a wave he now calls PerfectSwell, which debuted at a park in upstate New York. (PerfectSwell systems are contracted at a resort in Sochi, Russia, and at a new development in the New Jersey Meadowlands.) The tool that makes it possible is a prosaic one: a computer. More specifically it’s what that computer can do with McFarland’s programs. They’re based on algorithms that take into account the myriad factors that influence fluid movement: the inherent temperature of the water, the ambient temperature of air, gravity, air pressure, elevation, the internal friction associated with water viscosity, and the space and boundaries that enclose the wave pool itself.
He presses a button, there’s a loud whoosh of air, a ka-chunk, and a perfectly formed wave emerges.
McFarland punches the keys and calls up a file called “SW4 Waterpark Slopes Peeling wave.” On his screen, a virtual wave pool appears, represented by a placid expanse of blue. A rainbow colored wave rises on one end of the screen, growing larger as it moves, its gelatinous mass rippling across the surface, until it curls softly over on itself. This is a simulation of the motion of a 5’7” wave that provides a 14-second ride. “PerfectSwell makes a peeling wave, but we also make peaks,” McFarland says. “We make mushy waves and barreling waves. It’s all at the push of a button.”
On the other side of the room, is a one-twelfth scale model of PerfectSwell. Roughly 8 feet long and 5 feet wide, and filled with about a half-foot of water, McFarland’s model wave pool is capable of translating the virtual water on McFarland’s screen into precisely calibrated real world motion. He presses a button, there’s a loud whoosh of air, a ka-chunk, and a perfectly formed wave emerges from one side of the miniature wave pool and peels perfectly as it moves to the other.
At the back of the pool are water-filled chambers. When compressed air surges into the chambers, it pushes the water into the back wall at a downward angle. When the water molecules hit the wall, they bounce off it, spinning in a circular particle motion analogous to that of the water molecules in an open ocean wave. These molecules hammer into their neighbors like cue balls on the break, and waves shoot out of the chamber and ripple across the pool.
Lochtefeld co-founded the first water theme park on the West Coast, called Raging Waters, in Los Angeles. He heads a company called Wave Loch, whose FlowRider wave pools are installed around the world. He has developed a new wave technology, SurfLoch, which he plans to install in a canal in Rotterdam, Netherlands and a 650-foot pool in Bristol England. Nature, Lochtefeld explains, is very much his blueprint.
“The longer the fetch and stronger the wind, the bigger the wave,” he says. SurfLoch mimics this process by using huge blowers to push water down into a custom-made caisson, making waves crest, and then suck the water up through the caisson to make the wave trough. This wave-motion energy flows from the caisson into the pool. “Once the energy flux is transmitted out into the pool,” Lochtenfeld says, and the water moves over a custom designed reef at the bottom, it kicks up the kind of “barreling wave that surfers prefer.”
One of the most ambitious outdoor surf parks is Surf Snowdonia in northern Wales. It is an artificial lake with a contoured bottom that creates three different types of waves, some over 6 feet, and rides that last up to 18 seconds. The wave design belongs to a Spanish company called Wavegarden, and is generated with a “hydrodynamic Wavefoil,” a snowplow-shaped device that is dragged under the water on a motor-powered track.
This is the technology likely at work in the Slater wave, say experts who’ve studied the video. Motors tow a wing-shaped hydrofoil along an underwater track. This motion lifts the water, while the engineered contours of the foil and the lake bottom sculpt all that liquid into the wave. In footage of surfer Stephanie Gilmore riding a long tube on a Slater wave, Lochetefeld says, the hydrofoil appears to be pulling the water at an angle. “That imparts a certain trajectory to the water as it moves shoreward,” he says. “It’s a difficult wave to catch because the water is moving at an angle, and you’re being sucked into the barrel. So you have to be very quick to catch it.”
Lochtefeld says that making the barrel that has so mesmerized the surfing community is “not difficult when you know what you’re doing.” A number of people in the industry seem to agree. “From a surfer’s point of view, we went, ‘Wow, this is amazing, this is a great wave, it’s bigger and it’s hollower then what we have seen!’ ” says one European investor in wave parks, who asked not to be named while his new project is under development. “But we were not surprised he was able to do it.” Now that engineers have learned all they can from Mother Nature, the challenge, say those in the artificial wave industry, is finding the millions to make the parks attractive to surfers of all skills. That is something Slater, at least, no longer has to worry about. In 2016, Bloomberg Businessweek broke the news that the owners of the World Surf League, which runs professional tours, had acquired Slater’s wave company.
Slater’s wave has generated more buzz about artificial waves than ever before. It tugs at competing impulses and surfers have been debating them in articles and blogs. They love the energy and barrel of the artificial wave. But surfing is about being outside in the ocean’s embrace. There’s something sacrilegious and alarming about what the new technology implies about the future of the sport. Isn’t surfing supposed to be mystical, ineffable, imprecise, unpredictable, and above all else elemental and natural? An artificial wave, even with perfect form, will never come close to achieving that. But would I surf one if it opened nearby? Hell, yeah, I would. It’s not even a question.
This article was originally published in Nautilus Magazine on June 23, 2016.