The Evolution of Surfing and How Kelly Slater’s Wave Changed Surfing Forever

by George Orbelian

Throughout human history, many cultures had a fear of the Ocean

– with horizons considered “the unknown” – waves were part of the reason to fear the Ocean because there was no understanding of what got the water to “move” – and anything non-human that moved was a feared predator – even the Ocean.

Ocean cultures had harmony with the Ocean with the people and cultural programing exhibiting an understanding and comfort with the Ocean embodied by the Hawaiians and shared with us by Duke Kahanamoku and Eddie Aikau.

While traditional Hawaiians had sophisticated quivers for riding different sized waves in various manners, the early wooden “plank” boards that were shared as modern surfing resurfaced were heavy and hard for kids to carry and maneuver.

Paddling surfboards out where there were channels / predictable waves became the way to access waves favorable for a “slide” and these waves were popularized as “surf spots”.

From heavier wooden boards (redwood) to lighter wood and fiberglass boards (balsa) to foam boards, board weight came down – facilitating maneuverability.

Shorter / thinner boards became possible as surfing skills and abilities developed offering the following advantages: a) smaller boards accelerate faster and can reach a higher terminal velocity, b) thinner boards lower the center of gravity to improve the feel of the board and allow easier overpowering of a rail by the surfer’s weight while allowing for increased speed from the reduced drag associated with thinner rails slicing cleanly through the wave face.

Measurement controlled shaping, computer designs and records, steady supplies of close tolerance Clark Foam blanks with thousands of specified rocker contours, and years of standardization around the tri-fin design all contributed to a long period of refinement.

A certain amount of area and speed is required for a surfboard to transition from a displacement hull to planing hull while supporting the weight of a surfer: planing area is arranged in different designs to accommodate the skill level and performance characteristics desired by the surfer and matched to the size / power / speed / surface conditions of the wave.

Skill development advanced from a combination of changing ideas on how to ride a wave, starting to surf at a younger age and spending more time in the water: fueling the progression.

Beach breaks opened up due to smaller boards and thinner, more flexible and comfortable surfing wetsuits that improved paddling ability over the thicker, more cumbersome diving wetsuits initially used.

Wetsuits / drysuits enabled cold water / cold weather surfing that allowed more waves to be surfed through all seasons in areas that were not previously known for surfing, opening up wave availability in different areas and in cooler temperatures. Cold water spots that were previously out of contention due to hypothermia and the associated shut-down of coordination and bodily functions were now a possibility.

Leashes influenced the sport by: a) increasing the perception of safety, b) reducing the risk of getting hit by a loose board in crowded lineups, c) minimizing down-time from board damage in rocky lineups, and d) virtually eliminating swimming for lost boards. The widespread adoption of leashes increased crowd pressures because surfers that had wiped out were saved the swim and were able to immediately get back into the lineup and in position to catch the next wave. How many waves you got was no longer tied to your experience and ability as a surfer and water person: the leash helped less proficient and inconsiderate surfers get more waves and empowered wave hogs to be rescued from natural selection and stay in the lineup.

Duck diving became the favored technique in helping surfers efficiently get through waves with their smaller, thinner boards which were more easily submerged through waves – especially at beach breaks – which opened up new places to surf.

Jet skis increased safety by empowering the rescuers to reach surfers after debilitating wipeouts in the increasingly risky waves and crowded conditions that were for the modern surfer, becoming the new normal.

Tow-boards allowed surfers to ride huge open ocean and outside reef waves in conditions previously considered the “unridden realm” and now that the size / wind / surface condtion barrier has been broken, big wave paddle-in surfing has been re-evaluated and reborn.

Familiarity with the conditions, the way multiple tow teams impacted line-ups, environmental concerns and confrontations between tow-in surfers and paddle-in surfers reinforced the return to big wave paddle-in surfing.

Laird’s foil board – will be the next step in open Ocean surfing because the foil allows open ocean swells to be surfed and the foil can move through the water when surface conditions are too rough for a surfer to stay on a board even with straps.

Inflatable vests add additional safety to surfers in big / rough waters where aerated water after huge waves break and thick surface foam make it difficult for surfers to get to the surface for air.

Training / cross training / advances in the science of sport medicine / body mechanics / technique / post workout recover and injury restoration / rehabilitation add to the knowledge base allowing us to progress.

Water safety has also improved due to surf forecasting alerting lifeguards and surfers of approaching swells of consequence.

With more crowds saturating the surfing experience and with more surfers at various skill levels competing for the same waves, line-ups of our limited natural wave sources have become stressed and altered the surfing experience.

At the more popular line-ups, the older surfers feel pushed out or have to wait outside, trying to pick off waves on larger boards, the younger children surfers must make due inside or on the fringes.

There are unenforced rules in the line-up making it difficult for surfers to get a wave to themselves and practice in the fleeting moments a surfer is actually standing on a board and riding a wave.

We have more people that want to surf and more ways for people to ride waves than ever – the one thing we don’t have enough of is great surfing waves.

Kelly’s wave has changed surfing forever by allowing the creation of engineered waves.

It is a new way to experience riding waves.

The only thing it has in common with traditional surfing is the equipment and neurologic / proprioceptor / vestibular (eyes / muscle coordination / balance) experience of riding a wave.

To catch perfect waves like the wave Kelly has made, in the past, took luck if your local surf spot had the potential.

Now, getting perfect waves like Kelly’s in a natural environment requires money, expeditions to destinations which have to be planned with surf reports / surf forecasting / tides / and weather: surf resorts on land / surf boat charters at sea.

We have learned that there are opportunity costs to surfing.

Lifestyle costs – it is difficult to find a job that will let you bolt for waves.

Relationship costs – break-ups / divorce – due to relationships being challenged when the surf beckons.

Travel costs – cost of travel / lodging / food / time off from work / specialized equipment & transport.

Environmental costs – carbon footprint – jet / car / bus / boat / motorcycle, etc.

Research & Development costs – stagnation of skills and designs because you can only spend so much time actually surfing – waves / swells / tides / winds / bottoms change – Kelly’s wave can be repeated / adjusted on demand and even salinity levels can be adjusted to influence buoyancy.

Competition costs – surfing competitions have been frustrated by unpredictability to schedule, required travel, waiting for waves, inconsistent conditions between heats / contestants or over the contest period – with Kelly’s wave – surfing competitions can move anywhere, even the Olympics and be reliably scheduled.

Crowd / Level of experience costs – surfers have been competing for limited wave resources and are limited by the challenge of surf trip destinations providing a range of wave sizes / shapes for different age / experience / risk levels that would make surfing more accessible to all.

Vibe costs – Kelly’s wave takes surfing from a closed / localized / competitive scene to a more open, sharing, collaborative experience available in sports like swimming, skiing, tennis, golf, soccer, basketball, football, baseball, etc.

Eco-tourism economic benefits – establishing surf based eco tourism resorts / economies in areas that have ideal natural settings and conditions by supplying the missing waves to attract the growing number of global surfers can be the new basis of eco-tourism economies.

Shoreline erosion control benefits – with swells amped by climate change and sea level rise compounded by tidal surges, controlling and directing wave energy to minimize coastal erosion offers a tremendous value to protecting coastal real estate communities.

New ways for coaches to improve surfing capabilities for every age level, from children to retirees, beginners to experts: paddling, surfing, swimming, and various cross training / balance / coordination techniques are possible with waves on demand.

From the business / economic perspective, surfing stands out as an action sport with virtually universal appeal and great potential for attracting participants and fans. Children can start surfing at a very young age and the high stoke levels provided with relative safety / low impact means that surfers, unlike other adrenalin sport enthusiasts, don’t age out of surfing. Surfing inspires a stoked water wise culture that seamlessly integrates lifestyle and sport.

I got into surfing because it was just another way to love the ocean. I see wave parks as a way to attract others to experience the joy of surfing: engaging with the complex relationships between energy, water, each other and the environment that sustains us all.



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