Surfing's man-made future
The chlorinated race is on.
In July, when the Roxy Pro France, held in Biarritz, got pushed to September because of lack of surf, a number of the women -- including Sally Fitzgibbons, Stephanie Gilmore and contest director Lisa Andersen -- made the drive into the Spanish Basque country to check out the man-made Wavegarden.
Consider that the shot across the bow, demonstrating that when the ASP World Tour fails to pick a spot with competition-level waves, the highlight of the waiting period comes from a free surf session in the hinterlands of the Basque country.
With a host of different projects and technologies beginning to emerge around the world, wave pools -- or "surf parks" as they're now being dubbed -- could be the future of the sport of surfing. Good waves are often hard to come by. They're dependent upon numerous variables, including tide, wind, and swell direction and period. Which means even if you show up at Pipeline in Hawaii, arguably the world's most famous proving ground, you're not guaranteed to score. Not only that, but considering how much of the planet's population is landlocked, an A-plus wave pool may finally be able to bring surfing to the masses. A large contingent of people would like to see surfing in the Olympic Games, but until more countries can actively participate in the sport, the International Olympic Committee has never considered adding wave riding to the Olympic program.
That's not to say previous incarnations of wave pools weren't somewhat successful. Man-made waves first appeared in the early 1970s with "Waikiki Beach" at the Big Surf Waterpark in Tempe, Ariz. (which consequently spawned the legend of Rick Kane). But by the mid-1980s it was forced to close -- perhaps because the park made people wear life vests in the pool.
Then came Tom Lochtefeld's standing wave, the FlowRider, which appeared to be the coup de grâce when he invented it in 1991. But the chief complaint with that technology has always been that you can't ride a real surfboard on it; instead, you ride on something resembling a skateboard deck over a shallow sheet of jet-propelled water. The sensation is more akin to snowboarding than surfing. In 2009, Miyazaki's Ocean Dome in Japan opened, which got people thinking that the future was close at hand, but that was closed shortly thereafter. The Sunway Pool in Malaysia and Typhoon Lagoon at Disney World in Florida have also produced waves with mixed results.
But in 2013 there's reason to believe that we're closer to manufacturing a world-class wave than we've ever been.
"I see artificial waves as the next big thing in the sport of surfing," said Shane Beschen, an XGames.com contributor who is also involved with a company called Surf Lagoons, which has plans to build a wave pool in Florida in the not-too-distant future. "Imagine a 10-foot, barreling wave, in warm, crystal clear water, breaking every 20 seconds, 18 hours a day. The possibilities are limitless. It could easily bring surfing to the Olympics and X Games, but also create a live platform for the sport that lets the spectator watch an entire event in hours."
Besides Beschen's project, there are several other legitimate wave pool concepts in some form of development, among them Bruce McFarland's American Wave Machines and Greg Webber's Wave Pools. But as of late, the Wavegarden in the Spanish Basque country has been the most noteworthy. Capable of producing a perfect chest-high wave, the facility is both effective and efficient. Relatively cheap to produce and relatively environmentally friendly, it's a sustainable model.
"The civil engineering work required to set up a Wavegarden lagoon is minimal, and its characteristics will be similar to those of a shallow natural lake," reads a description on Wavegarden.com. "The cost of the civil engineering work is mainly allocated to the earth moving and leveling of the land required to shape a lake. Large amounts of concrete are not necessary with Wavegarden, thus reducing the overall cost and environmental impact associated with setting up a conventional wave pool."
Another, more high-powered Wavegarden is planned for Dolgarrog, Wales (on the site of a shuttered aluminum factory). According to a BBC report, Steve Davies -- the managing director of Conwy Adventure Leisure, the company behind the project -- expects the facility to attract 67,000 to 70,000 visitors a year. The facility is expected to open in late 2014 or early 2015.
"The wave in Wales, they're saying that they could produce perfect 6-foot lefts and rights at a rate of 120 waves an hour," says International Surfing Association president Fernando Aguerre. "The technology is affordable, it's proven, and it could very well bring surfing to all of the parts of the world that don't have a coastline or rideable waves. It could be a game-changer. If we want to get surfing into the Olympics, this may be the solution, if we can prove it's viable."
Back stateside, Beschen and his partners' project is still in developmental phases.
"One of the main projects we are working on now is the Aloha Fix project in San Clemente, Calif., which will be installing a stationary wave. We call it our Infinity Wave series," says Beschen. "This will be the first surfable -- on a real surfboard -- stationary wave in America and is expected to be completed by summer 2014. We are also in final talks with some other groups to produce the first barreling paddle-in wave in America. Surf Lagoons paddle-in wave projects will be the beginning of the revolution; when people see what we are going to do, it's going to be unbelievable."
And while that remains to be seen, the project does have solid financial backing and a proper business model around it. Plus, being based in a surf town like San Clemente provides a client base that's particularly in tune with what constitutes a quality wave.
In 2011, 11-time ASP world champion Kelly Slater, along with a handful of partners, founded the Kelly Slater Wave Company. Their designs were based on a circular pool in which a wave peels perfectly around the perimeter, in essence creating a never-ending ride. The first pool was intended to be built in a housing development on Australia's Gold Coast, but in March of this year the project hit financial troubles with its developer and pulled the plug, according to a report in Australian Surfing Life.
"'Today's news of liquidation [actually, voluntary administration] is obviously not good for our potential wave pool business,'" Slater told Australian Surfing Life, "'but we aren't actually in business with [housing development] Maddison [Estate] as of now, and have been waiting to really understand what the truth of the whole matter is with the company anyway. Their other business dealings have nothing to do with us and they are people I don't personally know.'"
Multiple attempts to contact the Slater camp for comment were unsuccessful.
And then there's the Wadi Adventure Park in the United Arab Emirates, which at the moment is the most realized of all the projects. Up and operating for over a year now, the Wadi pool has attracted a lot of media attention, partly because the wave is of good quality, but also because of its unique location. Riding waves in the Arabian desert isn't a mirage, it's a reality. This June CNN.com named it one of the world's top 50 surf spots.
On Sept. 13, the Surf Park Summit is coming to Laguna Beach, Calif., which will host the major players in the artificial wave business. The summit will be an opportunity to educate and evaluate exactly what's happening in the industry. Speakers at the event include Lochtefeld, Aguerre, Surf Industry Manufacturers Association president Doug Palladini and Surfrider Foundation environmental director Chad Nelson, as well as a host of other inventors, technicians and financial backers.
"It's an opportunity to get a lot of the main players in one room and discuss where everything is going," says SurfParkCentral director of marketing and operations Matt Reilly, who's helping organize the summit. "There are a lot of options out there right now, and even more coming down the pipeline, and hopefully we can all sit down, talk through what's happening, and move the evolution of surf parks forward."
As with any emerging technology, there are skeptics. Some say that wave pools could further clog already impacted natural surf breaks. It's a similar reaction to the proliferation of surf schools earlier this decade. However, wave pools, or surf parks, could also be a potential tool for unlocking undiscovered talent and expanding surfing's global reach. Whether you like it or not, the future of surfing may be chlorinated.
"The technology we have secured has already produced barreling, man-made waves," says Beschen, "and with the advancements in technology in the past 20 years we have the capability to make waves no one has seen before. The surf industry will also benefit immensely from wave parks and inland surf communities. At this stage, it might be the only thing that can lift the surf industry out of the damaged state it finds itself in currently."