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Surf Park vs. Ocean Surfing Experience

There’s always going to be a difference between nature and manmade, but with the right approach and some creativity those lines can be blurred.

By Dave Likins

I think the thrill of catching a wave is the same in a surf park. As you’re paddling in and you realize you’ve caught the wave there’s an instinctive reaction of “now I’ve got to get up and go”. That piece is the same regardless of where you catch that wave. The thrill of catching a wave and the joy that it brings is going to translate to a manmade environment. I think the notion of what do you do next is super intriguing because, when you surf in the ocean, you’ve got to process so many things. Most of a surfers’ focus is on trying to figure out how to deal with the wave they are looking at and not on the mechanics of their surfing. Rarely is there an opportunity to sit back and analyze, “is my foot in the right spot? Is my balance right? I want to get this much angle on my turn. Is my acceleration correct?” The dynamics of the wave itself usually demands almost all of a surfer’s attention. 

In golf they say there are 90 things you can think about related to your swing but if you can just focus in on the three things that really matter, your golf swing will get a lot better. In skiing, if every time I got to the top of the mountain for a run there were just fresh tracks in front of me and nobody else was on it, I could just focus on my turns and I’d be a way better skier. But it’s not like that in reality. I have to deal with crowds, bumps, and ice conditions. My accomplishment becomes getting from the top to the bottom as opposed to drawing perfect lines and turns from the top to the bottom. I feel like the manmade surfing environment provides an opportunity to remove at least half of the distractions, allowing you to focus on the mechanics of surfing the way you want to surf. I believe that you can accelerate your learning curve exponentially not only because you spend way more timing actually riding waves, but more importantly, because you just don’t have to worry about a lot of stuff that you have to worry about in the ocean. That accelerated learning is a lot of fun. The flip side is that there may be some loss of accomplishment in surfing a manmade wave extremely well vis-a-vis surfing an ocean wave extremely well. All those distractions in the ocean that might improve your sense of self in terms of how well you perform in overcoming those obstacles. 

An important point to consider is that you don’t have to give up the notion of a lineup in a manmade surfing environment. Part of the true value in surfing is the people you surf with. Whether you go with your friends and family or you go alone, you almost always encounter other people. You are either friends with those people or you are jockeying with those people to put yourself in the right position. You might be looking for their appreciation for your surfing. You might be looking to appreciate their surfing. There are all kinds of interesting human elements associated with being part of a tribe that’s out in the water together.

What’s intriguing about surf parks is that we have the opportunity to add all this value. We can give you instruction. We can take videos. We can do all this cool stuff. Ultimately though, waiting for a wave is a fundamental and cherished part of the ocean experience. As much as I like to surf alone, I much prefer to surf with friends. To me, you spend so much time just in the water chatting about stuff that you don’t chat about on land. You don’t have to lose that level of camaraderie in a surf park, however you do lose the beauty of the ocean, and for some of us that’s the whole reason to be in the sport in the first place. That part you simply can’t replicate. Surf parks do represent an opportunity for us to focus on different parts of the experience curve, but you’re never going to be able to bridge the spiritual divide between surfing in the ocean wilderness and a concrete basin.

I think if you have people giving up the ocean to focus on the manmade environment, or beginners who only want to surf in surf parks that’s a mistake. If you lose that balance between the two you’re only seeing part of the real value of being a surfer. I think the way you combat that is you make those surf parks feel like destination surf experiences. You don’t make them feel like theme parks. You don’t make them feel like amusement parks. It’s not a water ride. It’s not a giant wave pool with a bunch of people wading through, splashing water around. It’s about can you create a surf experience that is equivalent to going to the ocean? How much of that can you replicate in these manmade environments? In the long run, the winners in this space are going to figure out how to make surf parks just some place you go for a destination surf trip. For example, say the surf forecast shows that the surf is going to be terrible for the next week. Let’s get our friends and go to a surf park destination for a few days to work on specific elements of our surfing, so we can take that skill and go right back out to the ocean. Maybe I want to learn how to surf, so I’m going to take my family. We’re all going to go and spend five days learning how to surf in a totally controlled environment. When my kids do paddle out in the ocean, I don’t have to worry about whether they’re going to be able to manage the board. Now I can introduce them to duck diving and tides and swell and the things you have to learn to be an ocean surfer. 

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