Liquid Ideals

Breaking down our ever-shifting definition of the perfect wave

[This photo feature originally appeared in our April 2017 Issue, “Evolution,” on newsstands and available for download now.]

We surfers are a fickle bunch. We'll latch onto a certain break every few years, convinced that it represents everything we love about waves, right until the next fantasy-fueling discovery comes along. To think that there was a time when we believed Waikiki was as good as surf got—that's right, the same stretch of mostly crumbly reefbreaks where thousands of tourists now search for their sea legs every year. But as our boards evolved from crude redwood planks to finely tuned composite craft, and our idea of high performance shifted from standing statuesquely on the shoulder to launching over lips and tucking into deep caverns, our criteria for great surf followed suit. For the last six decades our concept of perfection has changed from gently tapering California pointbreaks to bone-rattling Hawaiian reefs to exotic slabs once deemed unsurfable and beyond. With every new era, there's always a new break just around the bend, waiting to redefine our idea of the perfect wave.

1960: MALIBU, PHOTO BY STONER

You could say that the long, tapering pointbreak at Malibu served as our introduction to the very idea of a perfect wave. From the 1940s into the mid-'60s, Malibu's groomed, machine-like right-hander gave surfers a flawless canvas on which to hone a budding art form, while the scene on the beach acted as a powder keg for a cultural explosion. The break was ground zero for innovations in board design, with craftsmen like Bob Simmons, Dale Velzy, and Joe Quigg (among others) replacing redwood planks with the balsa-borne Malibu chip—a lighter craft with an affixed fin that enabled surfers to actually turn. Armed with more-maneuverable surfboards, early stars like Mickey Dora, Dewey Weber, and Lance Carson set a new bar for surfing performance, linking turns and noserides with panache. Malibu became a mainstream cultural phenomenon, for better or worse, after Gidget hit bookshelves in 1957 and theaters in 1959. But if you took out the glitzy Hollywood hangers-on, the rubbernecking tourists, and the droves of novice surfers flooding Malibu in the 1960s, you'd still be left with one of the most gorgeous waves in California.

1970s: PIPELINE, PHOTO BY DIVINE

As the shortboard revolution took hold in the late '60s, shrinking boards to a size that could fit more easily inside the curl, surfers all around the world became obsessed with innovating tube riding. And, of course, no wave offered more-impressive tubes than Pipeline—the thundering Hawaiian reefbreak pioneered by Phil Edwards, which literally shook the beach on big winter swells. No one would ever accuse Pipeline of being a user-friendly wave, but the perfect-looking lefts on offer were enough to coax countless surfers into tempting fate at the infamous reef. In the 1970s, the break became the foremost proving ground for would-be surf stars, and those who excelled there—like Gerry Lopez, Rory Russell, and Jackie Dunn—became instant icons for their heroics. As the decade wore on, growing crowds and news of similarly perfect lineups in Indonesia would drive many of Pipe's early standouts to strike out in search of the world's next great tube, ushering in a new era of surf exploration. But in spite of the countless high-quality breaks discovered during the travel boom of the '70s, Pipe remained the yardstick of perfection by which all other waves were measured.

1980s: CLOUDBREAK, PHOTO BY PETERSON

Surfers in the '60s and '70s who were keen on exploring exotic locales in search of perfect, empty lineups had to do so the hard way. Those adventurous enough trekked through jungles, slept in tents, and followed blind leads to breaks they hoped would match their world-class ideals. Surfers dirt-bagged their way to tropical perfection. But when people caught wind of a "surf resort" located on a tiny heart-shaped island in the South Pacific with a reeling left-hander just a mile offshore, the idea of traveling like a vagabond to scratch the itch for perfect, exotic waves suddenly seemed outdated. Cloudbreak was a surfer's fantasy—a picture-perfect barreling wave without all the hassle that normally comes with surfing on a tropical island. Visitors could sleep in rooms with ceiling fans, be served smoothies in the morning and fresh fish at night, and still surf an idyllic wave with hardly a soul in sight. If there's anyone who felt what a game-changer this was, it'd be Kevin Naughton, half of surfing's most famed vagabond journalist team. "After all the off-the-beaten-track adventures that Craig [Peterson] and I endured in our search for the perfect wave, suddenly we were introducing a new spot that would come to embody everything you could ask for in a surf trip," says Naughton, seen here during his first visit to Cloudbreak, in 1984. "Now anyone had the ability to buy a ticket to Tavarua and get a first-class, as opposed to a feral, surf experience. Every surfer who saw that wave wanted to surf it, and so many have it would be impossible to count the numbers."

1990s: LANCE’S RIGHT, PHOTO BY GRAMBEAU

By the time the '90s rolled around, much of Bali had been overturned and bum-rushed by surfers from all over the world. But Indonesia's outer islands, which were a bit more difficult to access, were still an untapped gold mine of flawless waves. Only the most determined surfers were daring enough to voyage out to uncharted islands like the Mentawai archipelago and track down new, pristine setups. But all that changed when Australian surf explorer and Indies Trader captain Martin Daly ushered in the era of the boat trip. Surfers could now bring their accommodations with them while they explored the farthest corners of Indonesia. Lance's Right, the crown jewel of the Mentawais at the time, became the new paragon of the perfect wave—not solely for its newfound accessibility, but also because of its long and almost unbelievably perfect barrels. When movies like The Search (and photos like this one of Shane Powell) hit the masses, Lance's Right was instantly added to every surfer's bucket list.

2000s: TEAHUPOO, PHOTO BY SERVAIS

Bodyboarders Mike Stewart and Ben Severson are credited as the first to charge heavy Teahupoo in the '80s, which makes sense; at a glance, oversized Teahupoo would have looked impossible to ride on a traditional surfboard by any sane person's standards. Rising from a shallow slab of Tahitian reef that juts up from deep water, Teahupoo breaks with perhaps more power per foot than any other wave in the world. Over the next two decades, surfers' standards of rideability slowly nudged into less-sane territory. By 1997, Teahupoo was a 'QS venue, and the nerve-wracking drama of every ride made the wave's graduation to the World Tour two years later all but inevitable. But Teahupoo's real glory days started in the early 2000s, when Laird Hamilton, Malik Joyeux, and Cory Lopez (pictured here) pushed surfing Teahupoo—and barrel riding in general—into a wholly unhinged frontier. All the while, the thing that made Teahupoo so intriguing to everyday surfers was that its power was matched by its perfection; you'd be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful wave anywhere on Earth. For most of us, however, this perfection was best enjoyed from a safe distance, through a screen or on a printed page, while wearing a helmet and water wings… just in case.

2010s: KELLY’S WAVE, PHOTO BY GLASER

Perhaps no Earthly wave has ever captured our imaginations quite like the one currently breaking in a pool in the middle of cow country. Lemoore, California, is mostly made up of sprawling farmland, which means the location for Kelly's Wave makes an odd sort of sense: like the local farmers, Slater is also using sunshine (via solar panels) and water (the pool) to cultivate a crucial resource (perfect waves). And they most certainly are perfect. Not only are they long, shapely tubes with sections for just about any maneuver you can think of, but they also break on command. It's that last part—the fact that these waves break at the whims of man rather than nature—that makes Kelly's Wave the most captivating right-hander on the planet, and the latest in a long line of waves that every surfer would kill to ride. "I think we all have this fascination with surfing a 'perfect wave,' and the idea of building one where we control the parameters is nothing new," Slater said in an interview shortly after the wave's unveiling. "When I first surfed wave pools as a kid, it was a novel idea. I tried them all and they were fun, but they left a lot to be desired. When I was finally exposed to the endless surf-ring concept, it all clicked for me. I thought, 'I have to do this.' My mind became absorbed with the idea of creating a wave comparable to those found in nature."