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Is Kelly's Wave Destined To Fail?

The Surf Ranch represents a high water mark in surfing. Its creators have exceeded expectations in creating a never-before-matched platform for surfing as a spectacle – a near-perfect wave, on demand. Eighteen-second tubes!

But I’m not here to piss in Kelly’s pool, there are droves of hacks clambering over each other to do that. Nor am I grudgingly tapping out a critique of the scorned. 

I’m writing as a precautionary measure.

It appears to me that the Surf Ranch is a technological advancement too far, one that potentially supersedes our needs. Rarely are we gifted a product we’re not ready for, but I fear the Surf Ranch might be just that. 

Take the Anglo-French love child of Aérospatiale and British Aircraft Corporation, The Concorde, for example. From 1976 until 2003 the British Airways and Air France planes were capable of flying from Paris to New York in around three hours, or less than half the time it now takes a regular jet to lug across the pond.

Speaking of ponds, I wonder if Kelly ever snagged a ride on the Concorde. If he did, did he consider the parallels between the doomed technology and his robot pool? Fortunately for all of us, I have.

Watch this video. If you can surmount the nasal condescension that is endemic in liberal explainer videos, you’ll discover a tale that has parallels to surfing’s insisted future. The Concorde was the glorious result of an arms race that gifted the world, for a brilliant, brief moment, aviating perfection. Supersonic flight! Five-star service at an altitude that gifted the lucky passengers a glimpse of the Earth’s curve.

Take that, flat-earthers.

But the Concorde was doomed to fail. It wasn’t the vicious plunge into a Paris-adjacent hotel that signed the Concord’s death warrant, although the year-2000 tragedy did prod the jet down the green mile.

What sentenced the Concorde was that the technology was too good. Too expensive and thus too exclusive. Prohibitive running costs meant an exorbitant ticket price and tight margins. Without room to wriggle the technology was too susceptible to market fluctuations.

The Concorde was worked into the super high-end corner. With a money crowd, the expectations are too high. At $1200+ a trip flying on the Concorde had to be more than just fast and luxurious, it had to be predictable. Dependable. You pay you’re going to want to play, every time, and when the technology is so high end, so exclusive, so fragile and susceptible, the risk of disenfranchising your limited market is profound.

One late flight and you risk losing a noticeable fraction of your market.

See the similarities? At more than $9000 for an hour’s surf, or, according to Stab’s sources, $50k a day, it seems the Surf Ranch is intent on boxing itself into catering to elites. Even if this pricing was purposely exclusive as a first-rights kind of deal, watching the timing of the tub hints to this being the only economically viable model.

One wave every four minutes.

One prohibitively high-performance wave every four minutes.

It’s fair to say, surf scribes dedicate more time than most to wave riding, and see how they almost to a number struggled on the wave. The number of paying punters who won’t leave disappointed with their performance at the Ranch is small. At that price, not only does the tub have to perform, but it has to deliver performance. How many frothers are willing to drop $9000 for an hour of blowing it once every four minutes?

As a spectacle, the Surf Ranch is unrivalled. Schedulable. Stadiumable.

Train malfunctions notwithstanding the curveballs that make live broadcast surfing so unpredictable have been avoided – that those undesirables actually make the spectacle riveting is fodder for another thinkpiece. But the business model doesn’t work if the pool is only available for spectacles, wheeled out twice a year on the WSL schedule and once every four for the Olympics. The pool has to be surfed ‘round the clock for it to boast any kind of economic viability and can we count on there being such a roster of salt-enthusiast multi-millionaires willing to make the trek to Leemore on such a regularity that keeps the Ranch afloat?

It’s been mentioned here on Stab and elsewhere that the Surf Ranch’s future includes a high-performance training centre. For that, it works! Supergroms and soccer moms elbowing each other out of the way to achieve their (parents?) dreams at surf superstardom. In that iteration, it works, but still, it is exclusive.

The cost of play is so high that any fraction of error will be intolerable. 

To that end, the other approaches to robotic wave making seem the most viable. Pump out the waves in Waco, or wherever the Wavegardens lie, and set the standard to one appreciable by the everyman. Approach the market with a less restrictive barrier to entry. It’s no coincidence that WaveGardens are being currently being built around the world and that the surfing public is fizz popping over American Wave Machines’ Texan miracle. While there’s no doubt in my mind that the Ranch is the standard for elite competition, Olympics included, the WaveGarden and Waco are where we’ll be getting our plebeian chlorine kicks. Have the WSL confirmed their future in supersonic jet graveyards by going all in on this highest end of technology, instead of spreading their attention across all tubs? The decision to restrict their focus to this one type of technology must be one that requires scrutiny now.

I hope that the architects of the pool’s profitability have greater hopes for the pool than those leaked out by their drip feed media and the undeniably arousing spectacle of the Founders’ Cup. Let’s not forget the success of CEO Sophie, and the continued interest of the Ziffs is measured in profitability. If competitive surfing doesn’t profit, then it ceases to be in this iteration; if the Surf Ranch doesn’t run into the black, the train stops pulling.

The self-fellating amongst us will insist that surfing is an art and as such is impervious to market forces. While wild waves will smash and crash on savage shores irrespective of the Surf Ranch’s fortunes, a world where surfing enjoys mainstream patronage makes the experience as spectators and participators more pleasurable. 

Like so many, I desperately want the Surf Ranch technology to flourish, but entreat its manipulators to momentarily step down from their control tower and pay heed to the example of the Concorde.

Appealing to the highest common denominator is one way to turn a profit, but it is fraught with opportunities to fail. The sky isn’t ploughed by dowagers and heirs, but by snot-nosed families going home for the holidays.

Make the Surf Ranch accessible to the great unwashed could be a way to not fall victim to your own excellence (fuck, make it accessible to me – I’m Wade Gravy, Kelly, not Ben Gravy). The future of surfing as a spectacle, and indeed our own ease of access, is dependant on it. 

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