Are wave pools the future of surfing?
Recently, the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) and the International Surfing Association (ISA) have been vocal in their push for artificial waves, seeing it as a tool to either grow the surf market or get the sport into the Olympics. Thanks to a recent surge in wave pool construction around the world, including one in Nashua, N.H., some believe the pool is the future of surfing.
Now, Nashua isn't necessarily Surf City, U.S.A., but that's part of the point. According to SIMA, wave pools have the potential to grow the industry in areas not anywhere close to a beach break.
Soon after the first-ever Surf Park Summit last fall in Laguna Beach, Calif., where wave pools were discussed at length, I headed to New Hampshire to check out American Wave Machines' newest pool. On the brink of winter, it was cold, dark and not exactly bubbling over with aloha.
I ended up at Surf's Up, located next to a CVS Pharmacy, and the wave pool shares a building with an indoor skydiving facility. All I could think was heaven help the sport I've pursed my whole life. This wasn't surfing.
Then a group of local kids from the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA) showed up. The pool's engineer pulled out an iPad, opened an app, and proceeded to create a perfect three-foot standing wave. The kids' faces lit up. They sprung to life, pulling on wetsuits and waxing boards. As far as they were concerned it was eight-foot and offshore. With the swipe of a finger their surf lives had changed.
"There's five months of the year that it's pretty much too cold for these kids to surf," said one of the parents. "This is huge, it opens up their entire world."
When you look at a facility like Surf's Up through the eyes of a 13-year-old, the perspective changes completely.
"If you see it as something to augment the surfing experience there's a lot you can do with it," described Todd Holland, a former top tier ASP competitor who now runs a surf school in Florida.
The Surf's Up pool is capable of producing a number of different kinds of waves. There's a foamy whitewater wave that is fun for playing around on a boogie board. There's a one-foot beginner wave that's ideal for teaching people to surf. There's also a standing river wave, like you'd see on the Eisbach River in Munich, Germany. And finally, there's the premier wave that can serve up a three-foot tube. Depending on how the pool operators have it configured, that wave can either be a left or a right.
"It's not a huge pool, but there's so much you can do with it," continued Holland. "It's a huge training tool for these ESA kids that don't get to surf for long periods of time. Now they can get wet, work on technique and still feel like they're surfing. But you can also change it up and teach a whole group of beginners. It's very dynamic."
No matter what SIMA or the ISA say, the fact is that wave pools are only going to be viable if they are profitable. That means appealing to a broad audience. The "core" surfer makes up such a small part of the actual surf industry that money has to flow in through other channels to keep a pool open, which is wear a beginner wave and foamie for boogie boarding come in.
"We're trying to design our systems so that they can be used in a variety of ways, creating a whole lot of different wave-riding experiences," says John Luff of American Wave Machines. "When we crank it up you can ride a normal surfboard with fins and get barreled and do airs, but it also caters to surfers of every level and ability. You don't need to be a pro to enjoy it, that was never the idea."
Up next, American Wave Machines will be tackling a more ambitious project in Sochi, Russia. Construction is currently on hold until after the Winter Olympics, but they're looking a building a pool that mimics ocean swells and waves. They also have a project in the works in New Jersey, which is being funded by the same people that built the "Mall of America."
After a weekend in Nashua I can't tell you I'm totally sold on wave pools as a substitute for surfing, but it's obvious that the future is here. Kids don't care if there's sand or sea gulls as long as they're having fun, and the Surf's Up waves are fun.