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Sport and Outdoors

Kelly Slater made the perfect wave... in a desert

Slater knows what surfers want, so he built a pool that creates the ultimate wave. It's one way to get ready for the 2020 Olympics.

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

This is part of our Road Trip 2018 summer series "Taking It to Extremes," which looks at what happens when people mix everyday tech with insane situations.


So many people would kill to be where I am right now, I think.

I'm standing next to Kelly Slater -- who's been called the greatest surfer of all time -- while he steadies a surfboard for me so I can hop on.

"Jump up fast, crouch low and keep your feet on the center of the board," he tells me.

"Just stand up when I say GO."

He holds the board as I flop forward on my stomach when a wave approaches.

"Whenever you're ready," he says, just before the wave reaches me with full force.

I take a breath, jump to my feet and manage to wobble on the board for a few seconds before falling into the water. I'm pumping with excitement and adrenaline.

We're in Lemoore (population 26,355), a farming town in central California that feels, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. The nearly four-hour drive from San Francisco takes me past miles of cornfields, brown grassland, horses, trailer parks and cows. Lots and lots of cows. The US Navy says it opened an air station here because of its "congestion-free airspace," which translates roughly to, "There's nobody around."

The Pacific Ocean is more than 100 miles to the west.

And yet here's where the 11-time world surfing champion has built a wave machine that's got the surf world talking.

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I get surfing pointers from Kelly Slater -- Kelly Slater! 

Mariel Myers/CNET

In 2014, Slater unveiled the Surf Ranch, a 20-acre resort that's been dubbed "Disneyland for surfers." A blue, 100-ton hydrofoil on rails resembling a locomotive rolls along the side of the 700-yard pool, pushing against the water to generate swells. The hydrofoil creates perfect, tunnel-shaped waves time and again. It's a rare experience in the ocean. Here in Lemoore, it can happen 100 times a day.  

On this mid-August morning, about 40 people lounge around the massive wave pool in the 103 degree heat or soaking in the hot tub, sipping watermelon juice from mason jars. Most of them are young, blond and fit. It feels like I'm in a real-life episode of Baywatch. (Or maybe I'm just reacting to the fact that Slater, now 46, had a key role in the series from 1992 to 1993.)

This little oasis, purchased by the World Surf League in 2016, isn't open to the public. Only friends, family and participants in the occasional surfing competition can come here -- like the men's and women's Championship Tour event held last week. (Slater, surfing with a broken foot, came in third.) Companies can also reserve the Surf Ranch for retreats or conferences.) But many surf enthusiasts dream of coming here to ride Slater's wave.

Wave pools aren't new. Water parks like the five Schlitterbahn resorts in Texas and Kansas, and Typhoon Lagoon Surf Pool at Walt Disney World in Florida have been around for years. But now venues geared specifically to surfers are popping up around the world. These include Wavegarden pools in Spain, Australia and England, BSR Surf Resort in Waco, Texas, and Slater's Surf Ranch. These and other places let surfers practice maneuvers and hone their skills on nearly every sort of wave imaginable, with just the push of a button. The World Surf League is already planning to build pools like the one in Lemoore in Florida, Japan, Brazil and Australia.

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Such pools could open the sport to places where there's not an ocean in sight, even as they help athletes get ready for the 2020 Tokyo Games, when surfing makes its debut as an Olympic sport.

The future of surfing?

Slater is no longer the baby-faced, sun-bleached 20-year-old from those old Baywatch episodes (which he now says he never wanted to do in the first place). He's bald now. He jokingly asks if I have an extra head scarf he can use to protect his head from the sun. It doesn't take away from his electric blue eyes and chiseled chest, and the deep tan that comes from years of surfing.

He's also the chillest guy I've ever met.

In between speaking with friends and catching waves, Slater stops to play with a golden retriever named Bowline and to chat with kids. He talks to me as if we've known each other for years, sharing stories about sharks he's seen (there've been plenty) and riding waves in Lemoore with famous friends like Tony Hawk and Shaun White.

Slater sounds almost spiritual when he talks about what he's created.  

"This thing was built to be a perfect wave, more of something you would draw or imagine in your mind," he says.

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The master at work -- and at play. 

Todd Glaser

In 2006, Slater decided he wanted a place where he could surf that perfect wave to his heart's content. He approached Adam Fincham, an expert in fluid dynamics and a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California. Together, they recruited a team of engineers, scientists, wave experts and surfers from around the world to develop early concepts. They created computer models to study wave behavior, and they developed simulations. Two years later, they built a small-scale model at a warehouse near Los Angeles. A group of private investors and partners funded the project.

The Surf Ranch came into being eight years later. It reportedly cost $30 million to design, develop and build.

Slater says he picked Lemoore for its existing infrastructure (it previously held a wakeboard training facility), access to solar power and affordability (being in the middle of nowhere has its perks).

Today, surfers can choose from different wave heights and skill levels, from beginner to professional, as well as piece together parts of different waves. As the contours along the pool's concrete bottom change shape, so do the waves. They range from 2 to 8 feet in height, and come as often as every four minutes. Rides last for about 45 seconds -- a lifetime in surfing.

"They might say, 'I like the beginning of that wave, but I like the end of that one,'" Fincham explains. "It's just like video editing. You can do whatever you want."

Lifeguards radio a surfer's selection to the control tower, where a wave operator commands the machine from a touchscreen.

Kelly Slater surfing

Surf Ranch's hydrofoil does its thing. 

Lexy Savvides/CNET

"I could take you to a wave pool and get you that ultimate feeling that took me years and years to get to," says Bianca Valenti, a professional big wave surfer. She's talking about how the Surf Ranch and other pools like it make it easy to experience some of the best moments in surfing, like getting "barrelled" -- the sport's term for being surrounded by a tunnel of water.

"But at the same time," Valenti says, "part of the mystique in surfing and part of the reward is going on a search for that super awesome ride. That's something a wave pool will never replace."

Olympics bound

Still, there's value in repeatability, especially when preparing for competitions at the highest level -- like the Olympics.

That's where BSR Surf Resort comes in. It's the official training site for the 2020 US Olympic Team and the 2018 World Junior Championship Surf Team. It's also 200 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, in Waco, Texas.

The park sits at the end of a narrow, winding road that looks like it's leading me to a dead end. Once I enter BSR's gates, it's a whole different story.

Lounge chairs and umbrellas dot the white sandy shore surrounding the 800-foot pool. Troves of surfers (all with various shades of blond hair) rush in and out of the water. Teenagers take Snapchat videos of people on the waves, and "Problem" by Ariana Grande blasts on the speakers. It's 102 degrees.

Here, they can crank out 15 different waves, ranging from beginner to advanced, from a touchscreen console in the control tower. The system can produce about three waves a minute.

"Waves are a precious commodity in the ocean, and no two are the same," says general manager Cheyne Magnusson. "We can generate different waves, and we can re-create them to a T."

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Girls from the USA Surfing junior team find the perfect place to watch the boys practice. 

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

The machine powering BSR's waves is hidden behind a white wall on the east side of the pool. The console up in the control tower tells that machine how much power to produce, what the wave sequence is and when to start. BSR and American Wave Machines, the company that created the technology, won't divulge exactly how it works. They say only that the system uses a combination of air pressure and gravity.

Since opening in May, the BSR Surf Resort has lured about 100 visitors a day from all over the world, even from surf-centric places like Hawaii, Australia and Japan.

Today, 16 members of the USA Surfing junior team are visiting from San Clemente, California, on the Pacific Ocean -- where waves occur naturally -- to begin their training in landlocked Waco. The on-demand waves allow them to practice things like air maneuvers and getting barrelled as they prepare for competitions in Japan and Huntington Beach, California.

"The ocean is so different," says Samantha Sibley, 16, a member of the USA Surfing junior team. "You kind of just have to depend on mother nature. Here, it's the same wave over and over again."

But while both the Surf Ranch and BSR offer consistency, they're different, says USA Surfing junior team member Jett Schilling, 15. "This one is way better for training," he says. "Kelly's is more fake but perfect."

The surfers practice maneuvers on wave after repeatable wave. After the girls wrap up their session, they sit atop a nearly 15-foot wall to cheer on the boys and take videos with their phones. At one point, a girl asks the coach if she can jump into the water from up there. He says yes. Five teenage girls gleefully leap into the pool between waves.

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BSR can mimic just about any kind of wave surfers would encounter in the ocean. 

USA Surfing/Rob Henson

Working with wave forecaster Surfline, USA Surfing can look at wave conditions over the last 50 years in Tokyo, where the Olympics will be held, and use that information to re-create the exact waves they expect to encounter in the ocean, right here at BSR.

"Whatever happens in two weeks in Tokyo during the Olympics, we'll have seen that situation and we'll have trained for it," says USA Surfing head coach Joey Buran. "This wave is like an ocean wave. The moment you're on it, you might as well be surfing Huntington Beach."

Slater gets ready for the next perfect wave at Surf Ranch. 

Todd Glaser

BSR won't say how much it costs to operate the Surf Resort, but Magnusson says they're benefiting from public sessions, which range from $60 to $90 an hour, and private bookings, which start at $2,500 an hour.

USA Surfing CEO Greg Cruse says wave pools like this have the potential to diversify the sport.

"Up until now, [surfing's] just been for people that can afford to live by the ocean, which isn't cheap," he says. "You're going to see a generation of kids that are inland getting into surfing in the wave pools."

No excuses

I think about this when I remember telling Slater the reason I'd never surfed before is that I grew up in landlocked Illinois. "You're still landlocked now," he reminds me.

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I'm officially out of excuses.

Besides, Slater won't let me get away with anything.

"I told you we'd get you up," he says after I ride my first wave, giving me a high five and a hug. "We can do another one if you want."

I say yes, because Kelly Slater.

The second time around, he lets go of the board without telling me, and I still manage to stay on it for a few seconds. I turn around afterward and see him cheering me on, saying, "That was all you!" with a grin.

Combine a perfect wave with the world's greatest surf coach, and anything's possible.

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First published Sept. 7, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, Sept. 16 at 9 a.m.: Adds results of the Surf Ranch Pro competition.