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?