Photo: Glaser
Photo: Glaser

Opinion: Who Is Kelly’s Wave For, Anyway?

Examining whether or not regular surfers have a place at the machine-made trough

Ever since the first footage was released of Kelly's Wave, the most important technological innovation in surfing since the development of the surfboard, something didn't quite sit well.

At first, I thought perhaps it was merely that a man-made wave, regardless of how perfect, peeling away beneath a steaming locomotive ten feet from a steel pier in the heart of cattle country was still just a novelty. Or maybe on some level I thought that it threatened to usher in a future of swelling crowds born from inland surfers wanting a migrate to the coast to taste the real thing. Neither of which appealed to me, a hairshirt-wearing surfing ascetic.

But then as more and more footage leaked from the pool, I could finally put my finger on what was unsettling about it: at least for now, it's a private club for the one percenters of the surf world. The well-heeled and well-connected were enjoying exclusive sessions, rinsing off in luxurious slate-lined showers with expensive soaps and toweling off with buttery-soft high thread count towels (to be clear, I haven’t been there myself, but reports from those who have more or less confirm my assumptions). It seemed that much coin has been dropped to turn that stretch of Lemoore into a kind of elite surf spa. The first terrific artificial wave has already become a locals-only spot, just with no real locals.

Early on in the frenzy around Kelly’s Wave, surface-level jokes began dropping about Slater as a surfy Willy Wonka, benevolently doling out golden tickets to his fanciful wave machine. But when you think about it, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was actually a morality tale about the awfulness of poverty and class structure, with the wealthy and connected buying their way into a fantasy land and the poor scrapping for a handout ticket.

Once the WSL announced a 'CT-level contest would be held at the Surf Ranch, and rumors began swirling that the Tokyo Olympics might be held in a wave pool, it became clear: The wave pool wasn't meant for us regular surfers at all and probably never was.

When we reported a couple weeks back that the WSL had inked a $30 million deal for exclusive broadcast rights with Facebook, I hadn't thought much about the wave pool's role in the deal. But after reading WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt's interview with Variety last week, it became clear.

"It's a bit of a game-changer for us," Goldschmidt, told Variety. "These facilities we're gonna be rolling out are hugely important to the world of surfing."

In the rest of the interview, however, she goes on to explain that the "huge importance" she describes relates exclusively to two things that are of absolutely no concern to the average surfer: predictable waves that make for increased broadcast profitability (Facebook deal: check), and, as always, clawing at the attention of mainstream sports fans.

Are those two things really "hugely important" to the world of surfing? Only if you think of surfing as something to be bought and sold.

They're moving forward with a new Kelly Slater Wave Co. park in Florida, and it's certainly possible that more will follow, the barrier to entry will drop and regular surfers will flock to the place. At which point, I'll slop two large servings of humble pie on my plate and wait my turn in line at the pool too.

I can't fault anybody who has the means for building a perfect wave. I can't fault anybody for wanting to surf it. I can't fault the WSL for trying to capitalize on it, either. Goldschmidt isn't wrong that the wave pool is a game-changer, and there's no question the trajectory of surf history is forever changed by Kelly's Wave. But maybe not for us regular surfers, for whom it was never meant in the first place.

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