#TheUnknownHustle: Kelly Slater

The de facto Surfer King is building his empire, one wave at a time

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LeBron is to basketball, what Kelly Slater is to surfing—the de facto king. He is an 11-time world champion, the youngest (20) and oldest (39) to win the WSL (World Surf League.) No one has even come close to rivaling his dominance, but he finally plans on retiring this year. And who can blame him? At 46 years old, he has set the new benchmark for long-standing in surfing.

If earning the GOAT title wasn't enough, he is also a successful entrepreneur. When Slater isn’t shredding waves and getting 10s from the judges, you can find him working on building his sustainable clothing brand Outerknown, which just added a new women’s line this spring. 

But Kelly isn't done turning heads just yet.

To stand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon, or below the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, can be a humbling encounter. In that moment, we might even reflect a little bit, searching for something outside of ourselves so that we can make sense of the mystery within us.

It takes a very special encounter to say that one has truly experienced something of the divine. For any surfer, that point of contact, the meeting of the mortal and godly, is deceptively simple. It is the perfect wave, an impossibly beautiful pipe dream— or at least thought to be until Kelly Slater came around.

Bruce Brown’s endearingly stoked ode to surfing, The Endless Summer, is the first film to mythologize the idea of the perfect wave. In the famous 1966 flick, four, retro-looking bronzed dudes travel the globe, hunting for the world’s gnarliest and most beautiful swells.

At one point, they find themselves venturing through the hot dunes of Cape St. Francis, South Africa on a perfect, balmy day. When they finally make it to the coastline, to dramatic effect, the holy grail unveils itself: Just a few hundred yards off in the temperate ocean, these flawless five-to-six foot barreling waves crash perfectly into one after the other, a beguiling sight enough to make any surfer ache for a single ride.

As Mike the surfer leans back on his longboard, in disbelief, working his way up and down deck gracefully, Brown narrates one of the most famous lines in surfing movie history: “In the first five seconds, he knew that he finally found that perfect wave. The unbelievably clean shape of the wave compels Brown to say “they [the waves] looked like they were made from some kind of machine.”

In reality, no wave in the ocean can be so flawless. Unpredictable and violent, even the smallest of mush-burgers can prove deadly. If you paddle out, you should expect to take some reef or your board on the chin, as they are inevitable battle scars. But in 2015, Kelly Slater made the supposedly fictitious into a jaw-dropping reality, and all it took was “the push of a button” on a machine.

The roots on the tree don't disappear. This is just a branch on a tree

- Kelly Slater

Welcome to The Surf Ranch, a ten-year dream-project in the making. It is a marvel of advanced physics that would fry my cognitive circuitry: A highly complex, sophisticated wave machine that can generate those Cape St. Francis waves for over 700 yards. Over a 100 miles away from the closest beach, Kelly Slater's blue utopia clashes against the 2D dull plains of farmland and silos: The most unlikely of venues for what has become the world's most consistent, longest, and gorgeous tubes.

Unsurprisingly, it caught the attention of the World Surf League. About three years ago, they acquired a majority stake in the Kelly Slater Wave Company, which suggests that it will become a standalone event in the competition. In a press release, the WSL said that "KSWC’s revolutionary technology creates a number of possibilities for the future of the sport. The WSL and the KSWC envision the build-out of a global network of WSL-branded high-performance training centers utilizing this wave technology.” Who knows? We might see a Surf Ranch pop up just outside of Manhattan in the near future.  

Many purists find Kelly's bid at creating surfing's Shangri-La ultimately a detractor from the sport. With surfing making its debut at the Summer Olympics in 2020, Slater's technology will probably become a mainstay of televised surfing contests. But in an interview with HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Slater responds to the critics with an easygoing optimism: "The roots on the tree don't disappear. This is just a branch on a tree." As a surfer myself, I can never see The Surf Ranch replacing the magic of the ocean either—but what surfer wouldn't want to go to The Ranch on rainy or flat days, ordering up waves like they are fast-food burgers?

There is a reason why people also call it the "Smile Ranch." Count me in.

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