A New Era for Surfing, No Ocean Required
Words by Nick Davidson, Vice Sports
January 29, 2016
The evening surf at Grandview Beach, near Encinitas, California, was warm for September, and pleasantly salty for a landlocked New Mexican such as myself. Like roughly 60 percent of Americans, I live far from a coastline and the sport of surfing, but I had caught a handful of waves while bumming around New Zealand a few years back, and I was hoping to regain the feel for it.
My buddy Scott Yorko lent me his big longboard for an idyllic sunset session. “Just have fun with it, and don’t get in anyone’s way,” he told me. Easy enough. I plowed into the first string of four-foot waves, working on timing and placement for the bigger ones until I won that elusive thrill of propulsion, a oneness with the energy and movement of water.
An ocean wave breaks in a circular motion, which is most evident when you wipe out and tumble like you’ve taken a dip in a washing machine. Recreating those hydrodynamics outside the ocean has been an elusive quest for surf industry engineers trying to build artificial wave pools.
I was in Southern California, though, because a new generation of surf pools is set to challenge the notion that quality surfing requires the ocean. In August, a company called Wavegarden opened its first commercial surf pool at Surf Snowdonia in Wales, and Red Bull hosted its Unleashed tournament on the manmade waves there in September. Last month, a video of Kelly Slater riding a beautiful, barreling wave in his company’s new pool sent paroxysms of excitement through the surf community. Another company, American Wave Machines, claims that its PerfectSwell technology can produce the real thing: paddle-in waves with ocean dynamics, a wave that will surf better than anything else out there.
Those waves could be exactly what the surf-pool sect needs to usher in a new era of non-coastal surfing, helping the sport grow its audience and even solidify a slot in the Olympics. Or maybe that’s naive. Maybe surfing is more than a wave. Then again, maybe it could be more than the ocean, too.
At American Wave Machines‘ headquarters in Solana Beach, just north of San Diego, lead engineer Clément Ginestet was making miniature waves on a scale model of the company’s PerfectSwell surf pool. On an iPad-sized screen, he drew an A-frame wave and hit a button labeled “Test Your Pattern.” Pneumatic chambers along the back wall of the four-by-eight-foot pool blasted air into the water, generating a perfect-looking wave. Ginestet repeated this a few times, adding a second peak, changing the waves’ shapes, and letting a series of patterns flow like a small-scale beach break.
“Every [pneumatic] chamber creates a piece of the swell, and by sequencing it, we add them together and create a wave,” Ginestet, 28, said. Subtle variations in the firing of the chambers are correlated with different wave patterns, from beach to reef to point breaks, left and right. “You can basically create any type of wave you want every ten seconds.”
This air-pressure mechanism is at the heart of what AWM says makes PerfectSwell different from the other surf pools out there. According to its president and founder Bruce McFarland, it is the only surf pool technology that makes what he calls a “true” wave: one with the circular particle motion, in which the face of the wave moves backward toward the surfer, while the lip of the wave propels the rider forward. In ocean waves, the constant interplay between these two opposing forces allows riders to maneuver across the wave face or get big air, and that is what AWM says it can recreate.
The artificial waves rolling out in places like Surf Snowdonia or Wadi Adventure in Dubai don’t do that. The waves in those pools are created by a hydrofoil, a kind of underwater mechanical arm that sweeps the mass of water over a shallowing bottom that pushes its energy upward, where it breaks in one forward motion. (The wave in Kelly Slater’s video was also created with a hydrofoil.) These are referred to as a moving hydraulic jump, or a spilling wave. They’re surfable but lack that circular propulsion—they are essentially oversized wakes.
“It’s not a real wave,” McFarland said. “The term ‘wave’ is overused to the point of losing meaning, because everybody wants to use it for marketing.”
I played around with the scale model and produced a sloppy wave with a high peak that wouldn’t make for great surfing. Ginestet schooled me on wave shape and threw in a right break that peeled nicely across the pool’s width. He smiled. “We’re gonna make some freaky waves in the big pool.”
By that he means the company’s largest project to date, a three-acre, 360-foot-wide pool capable of producing 10-foot waves. It’s still currently in the planning and design phase, with no location or opening date so far announced, but AWM hopes that the pool, which will be the fifth generation of PerfectSwell technology, will set a new precedent for the industry.
“The sheer size and power of this system is going to be a standard,” said McFarland. “To get much bigger, there are diminishing returns.”
In the meantime, AWM plans on opening two other water parks: one in Sochi that’s built and scheduled to open later this year, and an indoor pool in New Jersey that’s under construction and slated to open in 2017. An earlier version of the PerfectSwell technology has been creating three-foot waves at the Zoom Flume water park in New York since 2010. Zoom Flume, though, is not open to surfing, so for now most of PerfectSwell’s barreling waves have been created in a pool the size of your kitchen table.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. According to David Clark, an ocean physics and engineering scientist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, if it works in AWM’s model pool, the same technology should scale up to a three-acre tank. Still, he’s skeptical that their wave is somehow “truer,” as McFarland puts it, in its simulation of the ocean.
“Generating a wave [in a tank] that is exactly identical to the sea state that you would find approaching a beach is tricky,” Clark told me. The Dutch, he said, have some of the best research wave tanks in the world, incredibly complicated machines that replicate sea states with waves coming from different directions and with different frequencies.
“In a wave pool for surfing, you’re not trying to replicate nature,” he said. “You’re trying to generate a good surfing wave, and to be honest, most of the coast here [in California] doesn’t produce very good waves. The natural state of waves on a beach is low-quality surf. High-quality surf is really the exception.”
“Let’s talk about how many different kinds of ocean waves there are,” Clark continued. “Pipeline is completely different from San Onofre. Rincon is different than Black’s Beach. I don’t think the Wavegarden wave is any less powerful than a soft, gently breaking wave at San Onofre. Whether or not people want to surf that wave is another question. It’s just another kind of wave. Maybe they’re disappointing, but there are lots of disappointing waves in the world.”
The main difference, then, between waves generated at Wadi and Wavegarden and what Kelly Slater Wave Co. and AWM are trying to do is perhaps not so much in their likeness to the ocean as their likeness to the best of what the ocean has to offer.
Wavegarden’s soft, gently-breaking surf is a spilling wave, where the top of the wave slides down the front to create a more rounded face—like those at San Onofre, which has a gradual transition from deep to shallow water. Slater and AWM both have a plunging wave like Pipeline, which hits shallow water suddenly and creates a wave with a crest that extends out over the face and makes it hollow. That plunging wave is what excites good surfers—the wave that, until now, has been elusive in a pool.
“[Spilling waves] are tough,” said pro surfer Cheyne Magnusson, who was at the company headquarters when I visited. He surfed in an AWM pool in an episode of Jamie O’Brien’sWho is JOB? series. “You have to generate your own speed. You can’t ever slow down.”
If PerfectSwell works like AWM says it will, surfing as a sport may be on the cusp of a paradigm shift. Proponents of surf pools are enthusiastic about the possibilities, from training pools that could help people learn to surf or serve as practice grounds for pros to a possible stage for Olympic competition.
“I think this is an evolution,” said pro surfer Alex Gray. “All sports and eras have evolution, and I think we’re coming into a new one with wave pools.“
Late June, the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee shortlisted surfing along with seven other sports for inclusion in the Olympic Games. Surfing survived the next round of cuts in September, when the committee officially recommended it alongside skateboarding, baseball, sport climbing, and karate. The IOC will make the final call next August.
“This is good, because it means they understand the desirability of having surfing in the Olympics,” said International Surfing Association president Fernando Aguerre. “They want us in the party.”
While Tokyo originally considered both surf pools and the ocean for competition, the committee recently stated that it’s now interested only in the latter, showing confidence in the Tokyo surf during August, when typhoon swells have been known to deliver world-class waves. One of the arguments in favor of surf pools is the reliability of manmade waves, which can break on the Olympic schedule rather than Mother Nature’s. Surfing competitions currently occur during a window of time, like the Eddie Aikau Invitational that runs from December 1 through February 29, while surfers wait for the right conditions. Once that happens (or if—some years, the Eddie Aikau has been called off for lack of surf), competitors each have a 30-minute window to hope for waves that will earn them high scores. Surf pools, of course, take the waiting out of the equation.
Red Bull Unleashed at Surf Snowdonia was the first international surf competition held on artificial waves. It drew mixed reactions, but it gave us a glimpse of what future competitions in surf pools might look like.
“Guys were just ripping the crap out of the waves,” said Gray, who works with AMW and the brand Body Glove alongside Magnusson. “It was fun to see how different people interpret the same wave. You really got to understand people’s style, and you get to know the surfers more. You don’t really get that in the ocean.”
While that consistency may be wave-making technology’s biggest boon for tournament organizers, it can render surfing almost unwatchable for others. “It just becomes really repetitive really quickly,” says Matt Warshaw, author of Encyclopedia of Surfing. “I just tune out. The wave pool just lops off the extremes. You’re never going to get an interesting contest, but you’re never going to get skunked. That ridiculousness and that weird waiting on nature, I would argue, is a really essential part of not just surfing but of surfing competition.”
The predictability of the waves, though, could be beneficial to learning and training. Landlocked surfers like myself would likely welcome consistent three-foot waves. Magnusson and Gray, on the other hand, could refine their maneuvers in less time, with less waiting, in a structured environment that may not be surfing as most people know it but would allow for fine tweaks that could ultimately push surfing’s boundaries.
“The creativity of the surfers is gonna explode,” Aguerre said. “That’s what I believe. Because now they’re gonna know what the wave is. A 360 is standard repertoire for most young surfers in the top competition. Once they can practice a hundred of the same waves in a day, very soon there will be 720s out there.
Back at AWM’s headquarters, I was sitting around a table with McFarland, Ginestet, and Magnusson, watching a big-screen projection of McFarland’s computer. He was playing with wave simulations in the latest PerfectSwell simulator. He ran an eight-foot peeling wave that lasted 14 seconds over 240 feet. Off the San Diego coast, the average ride is maybe three to five seconds.
“That’s a leg-burner,” Magnusson said, clearly impressed. “When the ocean here gives you a chance to do those high-performance maneuvers, it’s real quick. You get one maneuver. On a 14-second wave, you could get eight, ten maneuvers.”
McFarland ran another simulation, and this time the wave had a more critical takeoff but peeled longer. An advanced rider could pop up on the vertical face and get barreled. Magnusson and Ginestet lit up. “That’s it! That, right there,” Magnusson yelled. It didn’t escape me that they were getting raucous over an imaginary wave on a computer screen.
“We’re mind-surfing,” Magnusson said.
I asked where he thinks a pool like this might fit into the surfing world.
“I always kind of thought of these as a training tool,” he said. “But if the technology gets good enough and the wave feels enough like the real thing, the sky’s the limit. The amount of customization and control here is insane.”
And with the right waves, even naysayers can get stoked. Kelly Slater’s video had a profound effect on a lot of people.
“Slater just mind-fucked all us wave-pool skeptics,” Warshaw said. “A few seconds into the first wave on Kelly’s clip, and I just plain and simple wanted to ride the thing. Just a really visceral feeling, like get me poolside with a credit card.”
On my last morning in San Diego, I headed back to Grandview beach for another go at the ocean. A rare, overcast sky veiled the sun. The surf was passable, and about a football field’s worth of surfers bobbed in the swell as the sets rolled by. I walked up the beach to catch the edge of the surf. Before long, I stood up on a powerful four-footer and promptly pitched forward, board flying. The wave cartwheeled me underwater. Days would pass before I get all the sand out of my beard.
I wrestled with the swells, paddling for wave after wave, but didn’t catch many. It was humbling to be subject to the heaving sea. Out there, the vast and limitless horizon faded westward, and the breeze furled my hair. The water’s dynamics, in the end, are inimitable, and there’s a purity in such mystery. Given the choice, I’d take this communion with nature over a sterile pool any day—because no surf pool could touch this. But, I realize, it doesn’t have to try.
“That part of surfing is always going to be there—the spiritual part of surfing, sitting in the water out in nature,” McFarland said. “We never even want to compete with that.”