For the last two years Kelly Slater’s wave pool was as much a mystery to his new neighbors in this small California town as it was to the rest of the world. That’s about to change.
By ALEX ROTH
LEMOORE, Calif. — More than a hundred miles from the ocean, and down the street from a yard sign advertising the local rodeo, sits the location of a surfing wave so enticing – so perfect — that even the world’s best pros are eager to ride it.
The setting is unusual if not ironic. California’s Central Valley is a place famous not for surfing but for its sprawling farmland, a place of almond and walnut groves, cow pastures and perennial water shortages.
The wave sits out of sight, hidden by a brown fence and towering cottonwood trees. Last weekend that complex, known as the Surf Ranch, opened its doors for two days as part of an exhibition called the Founders’ Cup. Tommy Rhoads, among the smattering of surfers who live in this dust-blown part of the state 200 miles north of Los Angeles, would love to get a peek behind the fence.
“Everybody says they want to ride it, but honestly, I just want to see it,” says Rhoads, 37, who restores classic cars for a living. “I want to see that thing barrel.”
It’s been nearly 29 months since the public got its first glimpse of the wave, courtesy of a video that immediately went viral among surfers around the globe. Released by 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, the video revealed that he and a team of experts had built a wave pool at a secret location eventually identified in media reports as Lemoore, on a 20-acre plot of land that used to be the site of a man-made water-skiing pond.
“They told us they were working on a fish pond.”
And not just any wave pool. By surfing standards, the wave is flawless, a masterpiece – a peeling, head-high right that can keep a surfer barreled for twenty, thirty seconds, maybe more. Slater has called it “the best man-made wave ever made, for sure, no doubt about it,” an assertion that would seem impossible to dispute.
In the past two years, some of the world’s best surfers – Gabriel Medina, Malia Manuel, Nat Young, Kanoa Igarashi — have made pilgrimages to Lemoore to surf the wave. The technology developed at the site, if expanded to other areas, has the potential to revolutionize surfing, exposing the sport to countless people who don’t live near the ocean.
“We do not have a lot of aquatic opportunities.”
Meanwhile, the 25,000 residents of Lemoore – where, in addition to farming, the largest employers are two nearby state prisons and a naval air station — have greeted the project with a mixture of excitement, curiosity and befuddlement.
“We have as many cows as we have people,” said Joe Neves, a retired farmer who serves on the Kings County Boards of Supervisors. “We do not have a lot of aquatic opportunities. So this is somewhat unique.”
For the people who live here, the precise scope and purpose of the wave project is anyone’s guess. All they know is a lot of stuff seems to be happening behind the fence. The sound of construction is a constant. Helicopters occasionally fly people in and out. Slater is permitted to conduct research and development on the site and continues to tinker with the wave. Next weekend a lucky few that paid $9,500 will get to surf the wave for an hour. Whether the larger public will ever be allowed to surf there is unclear.
Most people here assume the Surf Ranch will be good for Lemoore, bringing the area publicity, business and even the occasional celebrity sighting, as happened in 2016 when Slater walked into a local Mexican restaurant with the pop singer Jack Johnson. The pair chatted with diners and staff and posed for photos.
“We love that it’s here but we don’t really hear much about it,” says Jenny MacMurdo, chief executive officer of the Lemoore Chamber of Commerce. “Interesting place to have it – the middle of the Central Valley. Bizarre.”
She added, “Bizarre but good.”
California’s Central Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Farmers in this section of the Valley grow a wide variety of products – cotton, corn, tomatoes, alfalfa, walnuts, almonds, pistachios.
Water – where to get it and how to make the most of it – is always the most pressing topic in a region that, despite a very wet winter, is still coping with the impacts of one of the worst droughts in its history.
This being California, there are surfers even here. But you’d better be very committed. One of the better spots is Pismo Beach, some 120 miles southwest along a series of two-lane highways.
“It’s five or seven miles down the road but it might as well be on the other side of the world.”
Eddie “Munster” Maciel, who works in the tattoo business, used to live and surf in Pismo. From his spot in the lineup, he’d look with contempt at the Central Valley surfers invading his space.
Now he’s one of those Valley surfers himself, having moved to the Lemoore area ten years ago – “Met a girl, had a kid, one of those things.” Twice a month he’ll make the trip to Pismo and paddle out. He describes himself as “one of those weekend-warrior guys who go out there and flail.”
For Maciel, the idea of being able to surf at Slater’s wave pool is nothing short of a fantasy.
“It takes me an hour and forty-five minutes to drive to Pismo,” he says. “Kelly Slater’s wave is only 15 minutes from my house.”
Rhoads, the owner of the hot-rod shop, learned to surf decades ago while living in San Luis Obispo. He eventually moved back to his hometown of Lemoore to be closer to family and for the more affordable cost of living.
Watching Slater’s wave-pool video, he says, “makes my head go numb.” In a way, the proximity is a bit agonizing, given that he can’t surf there.
“It’s five or seven miles down the road but it might as well be on the other side of the world,” he said. “It’s unattainable.”
There has always been an air of mystery about the project. Until the video dropped, no one in town had a clue what was happening behind the fence, or even that Slater had purchased the land. People working on the project would often eat at Reyna’s, a popular Mexican restaurant and nightspot in the middle of town, but wouldn’t say much about what they were doing.
“They told us they were working on a fish pond,” said Vero Zambrano, one of the bar managers.
“Well I’ll be darned.”
It was at Reyna’s where Slater and Jack Johnson came in one night for dinner. By then, the wave-pool video had gone viral. Paul Contreras, a coffee barista, said both men couldn’t have been more gracious when he asked them to pose with him for photos. He’d been stunned when he first heard that his hometown was suddenly the epicenter of a potential surfing revolution.
“I thought, wait, why Lemoore?”
Mike Andrada, a local farmer and handyman, wonders the same thing.
He lives directly across the street from Slater’s lot. His clothing of choice is not board shorts but overalls; if the sport isn’t pro wrestling, he’s not particularly interested.
In 2017 Andrada told me he’d never heard of Kelly Slater and didn’t have the foggiest idea what was happening across the street, other than that whoever owned the place clearly had some money to spend.
“They got those little – what do you call ‘em – jet-ski things. That’s all I know,” he said. “They’re putting money into the thing.”
When I told him that Slater had created a man-made surfing wave on the property, Andrada seemed incredulous until I pulled out a phone and showed him Slater’s video.
“Well I’ll be darned,” he replied.