Logo: University of Southern California

Surf's Up — Forever

Professor Adam Fincham and Surf Champion Kelly Slater Develop the Perfect Wave
By: Angus McColl
January 30, 2013 —
Kelly Slater gestures the perfect wave.
Kelly Slater watching waves in the prototype tank designed by Prof. Adam Fincham and built by KSWC employees in an off-campus research facility.
From left to right: Brian Hurt (now a USC AME Ph.D. student), Alex Poirot (at the time a USC Summer intern, now full time engineer at KSWAVECO), surf legend Kelly Slater, Ken Lucas (KSWAVECO master technician), USC master's degree student Tyler Schlenker. Image taken at KSWC's off-campus research facility.
Prof. Adam Fincham and the prototype wave tank at KSWC's off-campus research facility.

The perfect wave: an endless, open barrel, with optimal conditions for maneuvering. You’ve seen them along Southern Californian coastlines — surfers dotted along azure blue.

They’re waiting for the perfect wave, an unpredictable offering from the sea. Surfers of the past and present don’t just dream of the perfect wave; they crave the consistency of it, the power to cheat Poseidon and produce such waves on command.

But Kelly Slater, eleven-time world surf champion, has a passion to make this a reality. “This is the wave I’ve been dreaming about my whole life,” revels Slater, whose pioneering efforts may very well bring about a new renaissance to surf culture.

Since 2007, Slater’s Kelly Slater Wave Company has collaborated with Viterbi School research professor Adam Fincham on wave generation technology. With the help of other Viterbi School professors and students, the Kelly Slater Wave Company and Fincham have developed Slater’s groundbreaking concepts into pioneering technology that will soon satiate every surfer’s thirst for the perfect wave.

Kelly Slater Wave Company's technology allows the wave to run continuously around an island in a donut shaped basin, wherein waves can be adjusted to suit individual skills or preferences. The Company will soon be developing the first of many sites which it calls “the Kelly Slater Surf Experience.”

“What we have is something totally unique,” Slater stated in a recent YouTube video. “I know we’re going to make the best wave anyone’s ever made. We can potentially ride indefinitely on an endless wave, and do any maneuver you want to do.” Slater stressed, “The technology is there, the basic blueprint of what we’re going to do is there, the desire for people to build it and run it is there. It’s going to happen.”

Fincham grew up in Jamaica and came to the Viterbi School as a transfer student from the University of the West Indies when his father was hired as a USC faculty member. This would quickly manifest as a pivotal point not only in Fincham's academic career, but also in his passion for surfing and in his pursuit of the perfect wave.

Professor Geoffrey Spedding, now chairman of the Viterbi School’s Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, took an early interest in Fincham and taught him to surf during his progression throughout his undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees between 1985 to 1994.

After earning his aerospace engineering doctorate — under the tutelage of Distinguished Professor Tony Maxworthy, a world-renowned expert in experimental fluid dynamics and aerodynamics — Fincham relocated to Grenoble, France to conduct research on geophysical fluid dynamics, including the dynamics of ocean waves at Laboratoire Des Ecoulements Geophysiques et Industriels (LEGI).

While at LEGI, Fincham developed a keen understanding of how ocean waves develop and gained a unique opportunity to study their effects upon piers, breakwaters, offshore platforms and other structures. He also met many European researchers with similar interests and was exposed to a wide array of other large wave tanks. “LEGI is home of the Coriolis Platform, a round tank which is the world’s largest rotating fluid mechanics facility,” Fincham explained. “It’s massive and can be used to model various geophysical flow phenomenon influenced by the Earth’s rotation.”

After nine years in Europe, Fincham returned to USC to continue his research as an aerospace and mechanical engineering associate professor. Via the USC Wrigley Institute, Fincham collaborated with Professor Tony Michaels. When Michaels became aware of Slater’s dream to build a machine that could produce the perfect continuous wave, he turned to Fincham and his Viterbi School colleague Professor Larry Redekopp, whose expertise in fluid dynamics theory was a readily apparent asset to the project. After an initial meeting with Slater in early 2007, the Viterbi team — Redekopp, Fincham, Maxworthy and Professor Fred Browand — were contracted to conduct a feasibility study.

The team concluded a donut-shaped tank with vertically orientated hydrofoils rotating around the perimeter would likely work. Based upon the team’s promising report, the Kelly Slater Wave Company built an off-campus research facility, where they have developed a scale model of a round wave tank with rotating vertical hydrofoils. The design is patented and will soon be scaled up to its full dimensions.

The company also has generously funded Fincham’s continuing on-campus research with his Viterbi students, providing almost $600,000 to date.

“We are ready to do it,” Fincham confirmed. “The full-size tank will be more than half a kilometer in circumference. Our partners envision a resort hotel and a community of surfing enthusiasts who will come in search of — and find — Kelly’s perfect wave.”

Maddison Estate Concept Illustration