Surf’s up! New information reveals the science behind Kelly Slater’s wave pool

Good surfing waves can be hard to come by. Perfect waves are even rarer. Even at beaches with the right conditions, ever-changing winds and tides mean that great sessions won’t last long. Two years ago, the Kelly Slater Wave Company set out to create the perfect artificial wave. While the execution appears simple, new information reveals a surprising amount of science behind it.

Kelly Slater’s wave pool is located over 100 miles from the nearest beach, surrounded by central California farm country. By teaming up with a fluid mechanics specialist, the company created a system that drags a massive metal hydrofoil blade through the water. As the swelling water sweeps over the precisely contoured lakebed, it transforms into a perfect surfing wave, every time.

According to Science Mag, Kelly Slater approached Adam Fincham, a researcher at the University of Sothern California, back in 2006. They started in a laboratory wave tank, making waves only a few centimeters tall. Rather than using paddles or plungers to “throw” the water, Fincham’s team designed a hydrofoil that moves the water to the side, but not upward. It then pulls back on the forming wave to “recover” some of the water. The result is an artificial swell that mimics the ones in the open ocean.

In order to turn the swell into a surfable wave, the water needs to swell over a shallow “reef” of just the right shape. By using Slater’s input as a legendary surfer, the team created multiple simulations to fine-tune the shape of the wave pool’s bottom. This required massively parallel supercomputers that often ran for weeks to complete one simulation.

The bottom of the finished wave pool has the springy feel of a yoga mat, with different slopes and contours to determine when and how the wave breaks. Actuators within the hydrofoil make it possible to adjust the size and shape of the wave depending on a surfer’s skill level.

Before you dust off your boards, know that this wave pool is not open to the public. For those dying to try it out, Kelly Slater does intend to open the first public facility in Palm Beach, Florida, however. Construction of “Surf Ranch Florida” is slated to begin in 2018, with 2019 marked as the target completion date.