Faking It? A Closer Look At Artificial Waves

Keeping it real in the age of the wave pool

I sat in in the dark, damp, attic room of my crappy student flat in Aberdeen, poring over swell charts and surf forecast sites as rain lashed the windows; the howling wind threatening to tear them from their frames entirely. When you live in the north of Scotland, you get used to storms. If there’s one constant about the Scottish weather, it’s how fickle it is.  This time though, it was working in my favour: after weeks of flats, the wave buoys were finally indicating life in the North Atlantic, and a swell marching towards shore with all the earnestness of soldiers to battle. A west swell, with more than a touch of north. And winds forecast to drop… Turning off my battered and flickering desk lamp, I grabbed the keys to my equally battered Nissan Micra and started the drive north to Thurso.

Floating through the river mouth into the lineup at silly o’clock the next morning, waves throbbing across the reef like some oceanic pulse, rhythmic as a giant heart, I’d never felt more connected to nature.  I stroked into my first wave of the day, ducked under the pitching lip, and stopped thinking.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s why we surf: to escape the mundane realities of modern life. Harnessing and riding these oceanic freight trains takes us back to a more elemental state: we’re animals, floating in an incomprehensibly vast liquid mass that simply doesn’t give a shit about us. It can give you the ride of your life, or take your life away with total equanimity; it doesn’t care. Nothing else is as humbling, or as thrilling.

Which begs the question: why are we trying to build artificial waves? Do we really think we can emulate or better nature? Sure, we can probably engineer a geometrically perfect wall of water, but that’s only part of the equation. What about the rest? What about the smell of salt on the air, the pound of water on rock, the birds, the seaweed… The life? Can the experience ever compare? If you’ve been following recent press releases about the impending reality of beautifully manufactured and manicured waves in the surf media, then you’ll have picked up on the controversy in forums and magazine comment boxes. Conversation swings from talk of “kook gardens” to “it’s a wave, just shred it!” As ever, surfers are an opinionated bunch.

However, the answer is actually pretty simple: why not? Artificial waves will never replace the real thing, but they do bring a lot of benefits. Imagine a totally predictable wave, breaking in exactly the same way every single time: where better to refine technique, and perfect that aerial? Critics claim that this predictability is a negative, and unnatural, but aren’t most of the waves found in ’10 most perfect’ lists the sort that grind out with mechanical consistency? If surfing is going to maintain its physics-busting aerial progression, wave parks are likely to be where it’ll happen. Blow out of a perfect liquid ramp at JBay just to try a backflip or something mad you know you won’t stick? Nah. In a wave pool, when you know the next wave will line up identically . . . Well, why not?

You can't really argue with this . . . or can you?

Moving further down the surfing ranks there are still nothing but upsides. Need a surf, but due to work you can’t get to the beach at the right tide? No worries. Swell and wind not cooperating with your days off? Screw it. Local break too crowded to get a decent wave count? Not a problem. Work and family keep you living inland? It may not be the real thing, but at least a local surf park will help keep your skills sharp for when you do make it to the coast!


So how do wave generators work?

Early versions of wave generators worked by pumping large quantities of water into special chambers, then forcing it back into the pool with compressed air. The system then needs to capture more water, and pump it back into the chambers for the next wave.  While this method can produce surprisingly shreddable 4 foot waves (just check out Wadi Adventure Park in the UAE), it has two main flaws: it requires a LOT of energy, and has a delay of 90 seconds between waves.

Newer designs, like the Wavegarden, work by dragging what’s essentially a wave-forming sledge along the bottom of a pool. Two waves bend off either side of a central pier, simultaneously producing a left and right hander. At the end of its track, the sledge rotates 180° and creates two waves breaking in the opposite direction.  This more elegant solution is far more enticing to both investors and surfers: the greater number of waves means more people can use it per session, while the more efficient design uses significantly less energy, reducing operational costs.

The Surf Snowdonia Wavegarden from above

The wave pool recently unveiled by the Kelly Slater Wave Company appears to use a somewhat similar system to the Wavegarden’s, although its precise workings are a matter of speculation to all but the team of designers involved and their overlord. (No doubt there’s an online discussion board or two out there where competing theories are currently being debated.) How a KSWC wave pool would work in practice as a facility open to paying customers, and how far away we are from seeing such a facility, is likewise unknown. So far Kelly and co have released no information at all beyond the short promotional video you’ve now watched a hundred times, and a single sentence explaining that “the Kelly Slater Wave Company combines cutting edge science, engineering and design to create the longest, rideable open-barrel man made wave in the world”. Undeniably true, but how many such waves is the technology able to produce per hour, and how much would they have to charge to ride one in order for the whole thing to be profitable?

These questions may be answered in the next few months . . . or maybe the next few years. Wavegarden began by building a fully operational demonstration pool in the Basque Country, home of its founder Josema Odriozola, but several years would pass between the release of the first promo videos showcasing the 4.25 foot prototypes offering 22-second rides, and the opening earlier this year of Surf Snowdonia in Wales, the first commercial wave pool utilising Wavegarden technology. The height and length of the waves at the Basque test site were limited by the size of the pool; at the larger Surf Snowdonia model, wave height increases to 2m — although this figure is very much a literal measurement of the wave face from top to bottom. The “6ft barrels” first promised by Surf Snowdonia are yet to materialise, but the technology is a work in progress, and the general consensus from pros and intermediates alike is that the waves there are great fun. In September the facility successfully hosted its first elite competition, Red Bull Unleashed, but it’s not all about high level surfers: waves continue to run into specially engineered bays where they crumble into whitewater, perfect for surf schools and beginners. It’s an ideal situation for kids, who can grab a few waves post-school without parents worrying about riptides and other marine dangers.

However, keeping the facility in good working order as it churns out wave after wave, minute after minute, has proved problematic. After opening its doors in July 2015, Surf Snowdonia was forced to close them again for 10 days in August due to a mechanical fault, and further mechanical issues caused it to close down early for the winter break. These are the sorts of challenges that Wavegarden’s competitors — such as the Kelly Slater Wave Company and Webber Wave Pools, which at present exist only in test models and theoretical calculations — will have to face in the coming years as they enter the market.

Are They Sustainable?

Clearly generating waves requires energy, which seems wasteful given the natural abundance in the world’s oceans. However, the biggest portion of most surfers’ carbon footprint comes from travelling – whether driving to their local break or flying halfway around the world in search of exotic perfection. Wavegarden calculate that, assuming you drive an SUV, travel alone, and spend at least 1.5 hours surfing, then as long as a surf park is at least 15 minutes closer to home than the beach your carbon emissions will be less than surfing in the ocean. While that calculation includes the power needed to generate the waves it doesn’t account for the impacts of building the park in the first place. However, most of the engineering work required to build a Wavegarden surf park is in the digging and shaping of the lagoon; little concrete is required. Assuming a long lifespan, it’s plausible that in time a surf park could work out relatively carbon-neutral.

Bringing Surf Culture Inland?

One criticism of surf parks frequently voiced by coast-based surfers is the dilution of surf culture by bringing it inland; the potential chaos of hordes of landlubber surfers let loose in the ocean with no knowledge of tides and rips. Many of us like to think of ourselves as belonging to some sort of ocean-worshipping tribe, dedicated to the pursuit of chasing swells and riding waves. Will taking surfing inland affect that status?

Seriously? Surfing sold out and went commercial a long time ago. Go to any of the warmer parts of this planet and you’ll find kids hanging out in board shorts and flip flops. Quiksilver have flagship stores everywhere from New York to London, and video clips of surfing are used to sell everything from aftershave to toilet cleaning products. What bringing waves inland will do, is enable those who identify with surf culture to actually engage with the lifestyle. Surfing can have such a positive impact on people’s lives; why not use it as a vehicle for social improvement? At the very least, it would open up a new form of healthy, outdoor exercise for many people. How can that be a bad thing?

Inland waves could also open up the competition scene to many more participants. You may scoff at the idea of artificial waves spawning truly competitive surfers, but there are precedents. Jenny Jones, who learnt to snowboard on a dry ski slope in the UK, has won gold medals in the X-Games and bronze in Olympic Slopestyle at Sochi. Joe Morley, two-time winner of the Adidas Sickline Extreme Kayak World Champs in Austria, learnt to kayak on artificial whitewater slalom courses. And then of course there’s North Shore!

Controllable waves can also improve the actual competitions themselves. Currently surf competitions rarely attract mainstream audiences – there’s too much waiting between sets, and the long swell windows for events hinder their appeal to TV broadcasters; the timings are too unpredictable to programme. Similar problems mean surfing in the ocean is unlikely to become an Olympic sport. Yet when artificial courses are built for the kayak slalom events – and London’s Lee Valley whitewater course is still thriving long after the games – why shouldn’t surfing benefit similarly?

The Wavegarden test pool in Zarautz -- undeniably fun, undeniably funner if only you're 3 feet tall. Photo: Wavegarden

Where and When Can I Try It?

As things stand your best bet is Surf Snowdonia in Wales’s Conwy Valley, due to reopen in Spring 2016 after its winter break. Otherwise the only artificial waves you’re currently able to surf are the old style hydraulic pump systems. Wadi Adventure in the UAE is able to pump out 4 foot waves, and you can choose between lefts, rights, A-frames and closeouts. The park has hosted several comps, including the SUP World Tour. Similarly, Disney’s ‘Typhoon Lagoon’ has seen its share of competitions, showcasing some surprisingly progressive surfing, while Siam Water Park in Tenerife lays claim to the largest man-made waves yet – up to 3 metres! However, these parks are expensive both to build and visit, with a long delay between waves.

But more options are on their way. NLand Surf Park in Austin, Texas, which employs Wavegarden technology, will open its doors in 2016, and Wavegarden says it has another six facilities currently under development, with a further twenty two projects financially committed across five continents. Meanwhile the Wave UK in Bristol is due to begin construction in 2016, using a technology called SurfLoch. How long we will have to wait to test drive a fully operational KSWC facility or Webber Wave Pool remains to be seen.

Words by Matt Clark — LUEX Surf Travel


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