Kelly Slater And The Future Of Surfing | Is It Becoming A Rich Man’s Sport?
Manmade waves and members' clubs… is surfing ditching its egalitarian roots?
Words by Ben Mondy
Have you seen Kelly Slater’s man-made wave? Does a bear shit with one eye closed? Does Darth Vader have asthma? Of course you have. Kelly’s perfect wave was cyber-injected, not by coincidence I’d theorise, into the surfing world’s eyeballs the day after Adriano’s de Souza World Title win at Pipeline. The Brazilian’s already weak World Title narrative (overcomes lack of style through sheer hard work…) was blown apart at the seams by an oily, green-brown piece of engineered wave perfection.
It was a great reveal, and the following vacuum of information further heightened the hype and the queries. Where is it? When will it be open to the public? How does it work? How much will it cost? How do I get one? These were just some of the questions which may, or may not, be answered sometime in the future. Despite the queries there was however universal agreement that, as Kelly said, “This is the best manmade wave ever made, without doubt."
As a surfer, I too marvelled at the wave. I had drawn such waves on my pencil case for the better part of my secondary schooling and would cut my left testicle off (the right already sacrificed for a Mentawai boat trip) to surf it. However there was one aspect of the whole deal that was barely commented on. Kelly had created both a wave and a commodity, and their lack of mutually exclusivity had me worried.
"I had drawn such waves on my pencil case for the better part of my secondary schooling…"
Some people would say the fact that waves come free is one of the very pillars of surfing’s appeal. This wave, as good as it is, won’t come free. It will cost money and need to be sold, and marketed. With my limited economics and knowledge of supply and demand, I predict it won’t be cheap. As a comparison, the cheapest rate for the new this summer artificial wave at Surf Snowdonia is around £30 per hour. If Kelly’s wave has a fair say in surfing’s future, will surfing’s future be only for the rich?
Now I know Kelly’s wave isn’t the only perfect wave that you have to pay for. For a good 30 years Tavarua in Fiji was the same. The owners of Tavarua Resort had the legal right to enforce exclusivity over the waves of Cloudbreak and Restaurants, and the only way to surf them was to fork out the 500 bucks a day to stay there. Elsewhere in the Maldives and in Nihiwatu in Indonesia, ownership of certain waves meant to surf there also came with a hefty price.
"If Kelly’s wave has a fair say in surfing’s future, will surfing’s future be only for the rich?"
The owners always maintained that this exclusivity came with a more sustainable stewardship. The local people, and the local environment, were looked after far better than if rampant unchecked surf tourism was to take its place. They have a point, as a trip to Bali’s Bukit Peninsula and its rampant over development, will show you.
But it’s perhaps easier to maintain environmental and social standards, when you're charging small numbers of rich people a shitload of money to go there. I’m pretty sure the private ski resorts of Yellowstone Club, or the Hermitage Club in the States, are also well maintained, as you’d want them to be, given memberships there costs 15 grand a year.
Of course Kelly’s wave is a little different. We're not exactly sure how easy it will be to replicate, or where they can be made. Perhaps their existence will take the pressure of existing quality waves whose crowds are mostly at breaking point. I mean Mundaka is perfect, and costs nothing to surf, but trying to get a wave out there, on your own, can be virtually impossible.
"Mundaka is perfect, and costs nothing, but trying to get a wave out there…can be virtually impossible."
A uniform, perfect wave could also provide the ultimate competition venue. Competition surfing can be a cruel affair, the vagaries of the ocean often playing a larger part than an individual’s talent. Last year’s World Title finale, held in substandard and inconsistent Pipe, was the perfect example of that.
Kelly’s pool could provide the ultimate performance and excuse-free zone where simply the best surfer wins. With surfing’s possible inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games to be announced in June this year, I for one would love to see the world’s best surfers going for gold in machine-made perfection.
And yet I can’t help believing that as commercial variables are the real drivers behind manmade pools, they won't be an antidote to surfing’s wider problems. The lack of capacity and huge demand won’t address crowding issues. It’s anticipated that new wave pools will also tend to be based where the most surfers are, that is near the coast, which won't exactly spread the stoke or help with crowding when the ocean's firing. Kelly’s wave looks to be a thing of beauty and an incredible engineering feat, a testament to a group of surfers who spent years making their own drawings on pencil cases become a reality.
That reality however will come with a cost, both financially and maybe to the culture of surfing itself. Like an ageing Hollywood star whose plastic surgery turns into a grotesque mask of a former fake beauty, we are not quite sure where this manmade perfection will takes us. Maybe, just maybe, we should leave our surfing fantasies in the ocean, where they belong.