Kelly Slater almost sunk in wave pool wrangle
Inspiration can arrive at any moment, while sitting under an apple tree or standing on a shoreline. It can also take many forms. Everyone knows the story of Isaac Newton and the falling apple, but for surfer and inventor, Greg Webber, inspiration arrived in the shape of a small wave breaking along a riverbank. His eureka moment led him to make an award-winning film and also design a wave pool that he says will presage a surfing revolution. First, however, he must stave off a challenge by the most famous person in surfing.
In 2001 Webber stood on the deck of a fishing trawler on the Clarence River in northern NSW. He noticed the boat's wake creating miniature waves along the shoreline and was captivated by their perfect shape. Enthused by the potential he began to experiment with the wake off his own runabout, changing angles and distance and noticing the effect it had on the quality of waves. He called on his brother Monty who began filming the waves, shooting them from various angles but always careful to leave the source of the waves – the boat – out of picture.
In 2004 Monty Webber released a movie comprised entirely of boat wake footage. Liquid Time won awards at surf film festivals despite not featuring a single surfer nor any waves over two feet high. The power of Liquid Time lay in evocation; with no way to reference their size, and with the boat out of frame, viewers imagined these tiny waves to be wind-borne waves on the ocean. The physical properties were identical, but best of all the waves in Liquid Time were perfect – utterly perfect.
For Greg Webber the inspiration didn't end there. In 2004 he lodged a patent with the US Patent Office for a wave pool that incorporated the same elements as the boat wakes they'd been filming. Webber's design featured a large circular pool with an island in the middle. An object similar to a boat hull moved around the outer edge of the pool displacing water and sending a wake toward the inner island. The wake broke around the island providing a theoretically endless wave.
The patent was approved in 2005 and Webber established a company to commercially develop the wave pool. The name of the company: Liquid Time.
Webber assembled engineers and for the next five years years they researched the physics behind wave pools, building a scale model at Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, and also at the Australian Maritime College, Launceston. He had success making small-scale versions of the waves and discovered the elements required for creating a perfect wave in a pool. Amongst them was running a counter-current around the pool to stand the wave up vertically so it barrels.
All the while Webber sought investment in his wave pools and teamed up with an American water park construction company, Michael Lee Designs, in preparation for roll out in the US market. "If there's a 1000 water parks in America then how on Earth can't there be 100 wave pools?" said Webber when asked about the future of wave pools.
Yet despite holding the only US patent for pools of this kind Greg Webber is not the name that comes to mind when most people think of wave pools. In 2008 Kelly Slater formed the Kelly Slater Wave Company, and since its inception he's been creating and testing wave pools with a design very similar to Webber's.
Recently Slater leveraged his celebrity with a six minute video on America's CBS News that included discussion about his wave pools as a post-career business venture. The Kelly Slater Wave Company also released a promotional video just prior to his latest world title win.
In the CBS piece journalist Tracy Smith visited Slater at the Los Angeles warehouse where his company has built a scale model. As the camera enters the building Smith says, "For proprietary reasons they ask that we don't show all the equipment." The vision then pans across the wave pool but much of the image is blurred, the pool and the wave are visible but not the apparatus that creates the wave.
In the latest promotional video for the Kelly Slater Wave Company, ocean waves are interspersed with close-ups of miniature waves breaking in the wave pool. Again, no vision of their wave-making apparatus is shown. Halfway through the video Slater provides a voiceover, saying of his wave pool: "What we have is something totally unique."
Except that they don't have something unique. Since applying for a patent in 2008 Kelly Slater and his business partner, Adam Fincham, have twice been rejected because their wave pool infringes upon Greg Webber's design. In both of their attempts - first in 2008 then again this year - the response from examiners at the US Patent Office has been identical: the design submitted by the Kelly Slater Wave Company is "unpatentable over Webber." It is too similar to Greg Webber's design for a patent to be granted.
Both wave pools are identical in concept: a circular pool with an island in the middle that waves break around. That idea cannot be patented, no-one can lay claim to it. The critical aspect of their wave pools, and the crux of the patent decisions, is how the waves are made.
A hull (or foil as it is called in the patent applications) is used in both Webber and Slater's design to displace water and send a wake toward the island. Where the designs differ is that Webber's hull sends two waves toward the island - as a boat on a river does - while Slater's sends just one.
Slater and his company zeroed in on this point of difference hoping that it would be enough to classify their design as something new and of itself – unique enough to have its own patent. In documents accompanying their application they stated that "Webber does not generate a wave, but rather cause multiple wakes." Regarding their own design, they placed emphasis on "solitary waves."
The patents office didn't agree and rejected their application in May. It was deemed that Webber's patent also incorporates solitary waves. "It would have been obvious to one having ordinary skill in the art of invention" said the examiners in their rejection statement, "to modify the configuration of the foil shown by Webber." Put simply, the number of waves produced from a hull aren't a critical aspect of its overall design properties.
For his part, Greg Webber promotes two waves per hull as it allows more people to ride waves concurrently in the wave pool and hence would be more financially efficient in a pay-to-use scenario.
If the Kelly Slater Wave Company are to get their own patent they'll either have to create a fundamentally different wave-making apparatus - which may explain the blurring in the CBS video - or they'll have to take legal recourse. In the CBS piece Slater told Tracy Smith his wave pools would be ready for market by 2014, yet considering his design still isn't patented that date seems fanciful. A new and heretofore unknown design will require rigorous testing, while a lawsuit will require a new avenue of argument. Both require time and money before they even get to the examiners desk at the US Patents Office.
Slater is known to be an astute businessman and his will to win has garnered him an unbelievable 11 world titles, yet getting the first wave pool in the ground appears a race he cannot win. "It could be less than two years before the first one is built," says Webber of his pools. Webber also holds the patents for China, Japan and Australia meaning Kelly Slater might be beaten for speed and he may also be outflanked. If that happens he'd be effectively comboed – shut out of the game.
In the quest for market dominance the first person to create a working wave pool will have a clear advantage. Surfers and businesspeople ("global players" according to Webber) are keenly watching the development of wave pools and they "just need to see one pool cranking out perfect barrels and there'll be a chain reaction." The roll out will be swift.
It appears unlikely the Kelly Slater Wave Pool Company would invest so much for no financial return yet their next move is anyone's guess. Attempts to contact Kelly Slater for this article went unanswered. While both the CEO and Sales Director of Sutton Holdings - the holding company for the Kelly Slater Wave Company - couldn't help me with enquiries.
When I asked Greg Webber about his business competitor he recognised that Kelly had actually helped his own cause. "He's done me a massive favour by giving credibility to the design in a way I could never have done," said Webber. Yet I also got the feeling that Webber was very wary of Slater and what he may have in mind. The options are limited for the 11 time world champion but as anyone who's watched his surfing career knows you simply can't count him out.