Surfers And Scientists Team Up To Create The 'Perfect Wave' Surfers once deemed man-made waves weak and mushy compared to the best that break along the coast. Then engineers and an 11-time world champion surfer showed just how good an artificial wave can be.

Surfers And Scientists Team Up To Create The 'Perfect Wave'

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Surfers have long searched for the perfect wave. A few months ago, they found it, and it's nowhere near the ocean. For our summer series on waves of all kinds, NPR's Jon Hamilton looks at the science of creating perfect artificial surfing waves.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Forget Hawaii or Fiji. The spot surfers are talking about these days is a secluded pond in California's Central Valley.

ROBERT WEAVER: It's just an amazing wave.

HAMILTON: Robert Wingnut Weaver is a longborder from Santa Cruz. He is one of just a handful of people who have surfed this experimental manmade wave, which breaks 110 miles from the coast.

WEAVER: And it was mind-blowing at how long the wave is, how big the wave is, and you can sense the power in it as it's rumbling at you.

HAMILTON: Artificial surfing waves have been around since the 1960s at surf parks and resort pools. But most of them are weak and mushy compared to the natural kind. Weaver says the wave at this hidden surf lab is different.

WEAVER: It's just like a normal wave. It really feels - I mean, you get that lift, that drop, and then you're starting to deal with performing with the wave as the wave is setting up in front of you.

HAMILTON: Unlike an ocean wave, though, this one has an owner - the Kelly Slater Wave Company. Slater is an 11-time world champion surfer. He and his company aren't saying much about the technology used to create their wave, which they plan to market to surf parks around the world. But other wave-makers were happy to talk. Justin Enjo is an engineer at Surf Loch, an artificial wave company in San Diego. He shows me the pool where Surf Loch is fine-tuning its waves.

JUSTIN ENJO: We're trying to carve water here. We're trying to make water exist in the shape of a ramp.

HAMILTON: Kelly Slater's company does this by dragging a wing-shaped sled through the water. But that approach means surfers have to wait several minutes between waves. So Surf Loch is making waves with air pressure controlled by a computer. Enjo activates the device, which starts pumping out a wave every ten seconds.

ENJO: As they hit the reef, they transform and they get that really hollow section. In the science realm, they call them plunging breakers. In surfing vernacular, it's referred to the tube or the barrel.

HAMILTON: Surf Loch has yet to build a full-scale surfing wave with this technology, but it's founder, Tom Lochtefeld, has created hundreds of less sophisticated artificial waves for clients around the world.

TOM LOCHTEFELD: One in particular was one of the sheik's palaces in Abu Dhabi. That one was definitely - and the wave itself was mammoth. I mean, it was a double, breaking left and right.

HAMILTON: Even so, it didn't look or feel like a natural wave. Lochtefeld says that's because it's really hard to replicate an ocean swell in a small space.

LOCHTEFELD: You don't have 75 miles or 100,000-200,000 miles to be able to generate the wave, so you got to compress that to the smallest possible footprint. That takes a lot of science.

HAMILTON: Science that was out of reach just a few years ago. Lochtefeld says it takes a supercomputer to show precisely how a wave will interact with the underwater contours of a surf pool.

LOCHTEFELD: When we do our really high resolution stuff, we're probably at 10,000 processors at 5 trillion calculations a second, you know, for a month (laughter). And it costs buku bucks just to run the thing.

HAMILTON: Lochtefeld has big dreams for his artificial wave.

LOCHTEFELD: We're going for the Olympics.

HAMILTON: It's a dream shared by the Kelly Slater Wave Company. Both firms envision contests in which each surfer gets to ride an identical, flawless wave. Longboarder Wingnut Weaver has mixed feelings about that.

WEAVER: You'll get to see the absolute best, who can do the best turn, the highest air because you'll have such a level playing field. But it'll never truly replace an open ocean competition.

HAMILTON: The International Olympic Committee seems to agree. It's added surfing to the 2020 Olympics in Japan, but the competition will take place in the ocean, not a wave pool. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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