Image: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Surf World in Turmoil Over Judging Controversy at Kelly Slater's Artificial Wave Pool

The sport's biggest stars are in open revolt against the World Surf League over judging at a pool that makes only "perfect" waves.

The professional surfing world is in turmoil over the judging at a competition at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch, a technologically impressive but nonetheless controversial artificial wave pool in California. The controversy has resurfaced general beefs with the World Surf League, judging criteria, and the concept of artificial waves in general.

The events of the last few days have been called an “insurrection” against the World Surf League, which administers the professional surfing tour. Two of the sport’s most famous stars are openly fighting with the WSL, the WSL’s president has issued a defiant open letter in two languages, and fans have been sending death threats to judges, surfers, and WSL officials. The situation is so bad that one of the biggest surf media outlets has openly wondered whether the competition was “rigged,” and the judging controversy is essentially the only thing anyone interested in professional surfing is currently talking about.


At the center of all of this is the Surf Ranch, an artificial wave pool located in a mostly dry valley 100 miles from the ocean. The chaos over the weekend has resurfaced a years-long argument about the role that scientifically generated waves should play in a sport whose beauty comes from embracing the unpredictability of nature.


Italo Ferreira at the Surf Ranch Pro. Image: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Kelly Slater Surf Ranch

The Surf Ranch is the most famous surfing wave pool in the world. It was opened in 2015 after nearly a decade of research by a company founded by Slater, who is essentially the Tony Hawk of surfing. The pool is everything the ocean is not: It is predictable and programmable, creating a huge, barreling wave that can be the same every single time. For this reason, it was supposed to revolutionize how surfers train (allowing for a controlled, repeatable experience that never happens in the ocean) and was also supposed to create competitions that are more similar to snowboarding or skateboarding, where every competitor is surfing the same exact wave.

That first bit has more or less come true: Wave pool waves have indeed made it easier for people to practice and have also made surfing more accessible for people who don't live near the ocean. 

Kelly Slater's wave pool was a big deal when it opened, and has remained a major topic of conversation over the last few years. Crucially, the World Surf League—which is basically the NASCAR or PGA or NBA of surfing—bought the Kelly Slater Wave Company, including the Surf Ranch, in 2016. The plan at the time was to open wave pools using the Surf Ranch technology all over the country and, eventually, the world: “The WSL and the KSWC envision the build-out of a global network of WSL-branded high-performance training centers utilizing this wave technology,” the WSL said when it bought the technology.


This has not come to pass. A wave pool in Texas that was supposed to be retrofitted with the technology has remained closed for years. Plans for new pools in Austin and in Florida have been scrapped for a variety of economic, environmental, and logistical reasons. A second pool in California was roundly rejected by local leaders and summarily mocked as being a gigantic waste of water and energy in a state that is perennially drought-stricken.

Though most surfers seem to agree that the technology that powers the Surf Ranch creates the best wave, it’s also extremely expensive to run and uses a lot of energy. Many people cite a $10,000 cost to rent the wave pool for an hour (though the Surf Ranch no longer advertises this), and regular people can’t just roll up to use it for a few waves.

In the meantime, a variety of competitors have opened wave pools all over the world that use less energy, are more environmentally friendly, and make waves that are perfectly fine for the average surfer. Thus, the Surf Ranch and the technology that powers it has remained more or less a novelty, while smaller, more efficient wave pools have actually become popular among nonprofessional surfers.


One of the great joys/frustrations of learning to surf (or of surfing, in general), is the unpredictability of the ocean and its conditions. The size and surfability of a wave at any given break at any given time is governed by an impossible number of variables including the size and direction of a swell, the wind direction and strength, the shape and surface of the sand (or rock, or reef) at the bottom of the ocean, the tide, and any number of other factors. Each of these factors, of course, is different at every bit of shore all over the world. A wave is impermanent. No natural wave can ever be surfed twice, and becoming a good surfer is a function of learning to surf different breaks in different conditions, knowing where to sit, when to drop in, and knowing how to carve on a specific wave that is ever changing. This is an inherently frustrating process, because the vast majority of surf breaks have terrible or unsurfable waves much of time. This means a surfer could drive an hour to the beach, expect to get some practice, and learn that there are simply no waves, or a sudden shift in wind conditions has ruined the conditions. 

A wave pool essentially fixes all of these problems, allowing people to surf predictable, "perfect" waves over and over again. This removes the frustration associated with showing up to the beach to find terrible conditions. It also removes some of the variables that make surfing challenging, artistic, and unpredictable. Because every wave is more or less the same, the way high-level surfers surf it is basically the same. The common refrain among surfers is that surfing a wave pool is "amazing to do, boring to watch." 


But perhaps because the WSL owns the Surf Ranch, it has insisted on having professional competitions there. At first these were a novelty, but, over the years, public opinion among some high-level surfers and parts of the general public has turned against these competitions. While the consistency of the wave does level the playing field, it also removes the core essence of surfing: being able to perform on whatever wave nature happens to give you. The removal of this variable has created competitions that are incredibly same-y: Many of the top-level surfers do essentially the same maneuvers on the same Surf Ranch waves, over and over, creating a relatively boring competition that can be hard to judge.

The 2023 Surf Ranch Pro

This background more or less brings us to the current controversy. In recent years, the WSL has taken a few marquee events off of the competition calendar, but has kept the Surf Ranch Pro. One of the events that isn’t happening this year is one at Cloudbreak, a wave in Fiji that is one of the most iconic in the world, and one which happened to have an incredible swell rolling through in recent weeks. 

Essentially, the WSL ended up skipping a competition at a world-class natural wave in favor of having one at an inland wave pool that it owns and is incentivized to promote. 


With that undercurrent, the WSL held the Surf Ranch Pro last weekend, and American Griffin Colapinto edged out Brazilian Italo Ferreira. The long and short of it is that the vast majority of people believe Ferreira easily outsurfed Colapinto in the final, but that the judges decided to award Colapinto a better score for reasons no one can really figure out. 

Controversy over judging and scores are common in surfing, but the reason all of this is magnified at the Surf Ranch Pro is because every wave is the exact same. As I mentioned, this removes many of the variables that judges can normally consider. In the actual ocean, a judge can consider not just the level of difficulty and cleanliness of execution in the maneuvers performed, but also the size of the wave, the point in a wave that a surfer took off from, the steepness of the wave, how a surfer handled different unpredictable sections of the wave, etc. Fear, level of difficulty, jockeying for position on a given wave, ocean knowledge, wave selection, and any number of other variables play into how well a given wave is surfed in the actual ocean, which means that there is usually a clear-cut winner in a given competition heat. 

In the wave pool, both Colapinto and Ferreira essentially did the same maneuvers on the same scientifically created wave, the same way basically every other competitor did during every other heat. This means there are fewer things to judge them; when two people surf the same wave in basically the same way and neither of them fall, there's no obvious way to determine who should get a higher score, unless one of them screws up. Nonetheless, most people—except the judges—believe Ferreira was a little smoother in the final and deserved to win.


Ferreira and fellow Brazilians Gabriel Medina and Filipe Toledo, all three of whom have won WSL world titles and are among surfing’s biggest stars, called out the judges in the aftermath: “the surfing community, especially in Brazil, is mesmerized with the poor clarity and inconsistency of judging for many years now, but lately it has been even more shocking,” Medina wrote in a lengthy Instagram post. “It is quite clear that judging is now rewarding very simple surfing, seamless transitions and have taken critical turns in critical sections off the criteria. This is very frustrating and is stagnating the sport.”

“What we seek will always be the evolution of the sport, with justice and transparency,” Toledo wrote. “We want nothing but fair. Nothing beyond what is our right. We need our voice to be heard and respected, because, after all, we are the protagonists of it all! … it only gets worse for us Brazilians!”

Ferreira, meanwhile, posted a cryptic message in which he said “My intention is not to attack, harm, delve into the merits and judgment, but silence consumes me … On my part, surfing, I give you my all. My devotion. My day-to-day that only I, my team, and my family know. And so, we will continue. In times of sadness, indignation, reverse and look ahead, transform, inspire people. Joy must prevail.”


Brazilian fans, meanwhile, have generally been losing their shit; surfer Ethan Ewing, who beat Medina in a heat at the competition, posted a screenshot of a DM he got from someone claiming to be a Brazilian: “One day, you will compete here in Brazil and us [sic] will remember you. Get ready,” the DM said. “I’m saying again, here in Brazil, we will kill you. Saquarema will be your funeral.”

Essentially, some of the league’s biggest stars are openly beefing with the WSL and its judges.

Tuesday, WSL CEO Erik Logan posted an open letter in both English and Portuguese in which he admonished both fans and surfers like Medina: “In recent days, a number of surfers, WSL judges, and employees have been subject to harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence, including death threats.”

“We completely reject the suggestion that the judging of our competitions is in any way unfair or biased. These claims are not supported by any evidence,” he wrote. “It is unacceptable for any athlete to question the integrity of our judges who, like our surfers, are elite professionals. No one person or group of people are above the integrity of the sport.”

The surfing subreddit and comment sections on surfing-focused news sites have been entirely consumed by this controversy, which is sort of about the judging at this specific event but is also about a lot of other things that have been bubbling under the surface for years, including the commercialization and sterilization of a sport that is inherently supposed to be about humans communing with nature. Critics have called the Surf Ranch Pro “dull,” have called the event over the weekend an “insurrection,” and have said Logan is “at the forefront of the most shameful era of professional surfing.”

The controversy is ongoing, and the tide is seemingly turning against the idea that wave pools will usher in a new era of competition. It turns out that leveling the playing field with a scientifically created wave ruins much of the magic of surfing. A perfect wave every time isn't perfect. It's just boring.