The Holy Grail of surfing is discovering a perfect wave. Bruce Brown captured the most renowned moment of surf discovery when the stars of the Endless Summer trudged across kilometres of South African sand dunes, before finally stumbling upon the long, peeling walls of Cape St. Francis. The next best thing, and some would say even better is having a perfect wave to surf on demand. Fast forward to sometime in late 2015 when the first emerald green wave rolled down an artificial lake in landlocked Lemoore, California. The look of undeniable stoke on Kelly Slater’s face was undoubtedly the same as the one on the faces of Mike Hynson & Robert August standing on the shores of the Indian Ocean back in 1964. A look at the current state of wave pools, by Dave Mailman.
“I mean you dream of this stuff as a kid… to sit here and see it, within my lifetime is like the coolest thing ever.” – Stephanie Gilmore, 6x WSL World Champion.
How did we get here?
The technology has come a long way since 1927, when the first wave pool was built at the Gellért Baths in Budapest, Hungary. Phil Dexter designed the first model ‘suitable for surfing’, which opened at the Big Surf Waterpark in Tempe, Arizona in 1969. In 1985, the Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pennsylvania hosted the first-ever pro surf contest in a wave pool. Tom Carroll won in gutless waist high slop. Douglas Murphy, the founder of Murphy’s Waves from Glasgow, Scotland designed Typhoon Lagoon, the first truly adapted for surfing on a modern shortboard, a major attraction at Disney World in Florida since 1989. Soon after, someone pulled into the first viable wave pool tube at the Seagaia Ocean Dome in Miyazaki, Japan. But Murphy remained the king of the artificial wave for the next two decades.
The next revolution came in 2010, when Wavegarden started literally making waves in the Basque Country with the prototype of its first Lagoon design. By 2013, Surf Snowdownia, the first ever commercial ‘Surf Park’ opened in Wales, and soon after hosted the most legitimate surf contest ever held in a wave pool at that point in time. Meanwhile, the Kelly Slater Wave Co. was hard at work developing the world’s most perfectly shaped artificial wave. Like surfing’s Santa Claus he delivered the first images on YouTube just before Christmas in 2015. The surfing world was in disbelief, but substantiated rumours of a ten minute wait between waves dampened the enthusiasm of many who thought the 11-time world champion’s team had delivered artificial surfing nirvana. Not to be outdone, the designers and engineers at Wavegarden dove into work on their Cove design. The first footage was released in May 2017 with rave reviews from WSL pros like 2014 World Champion Gabriel Medina, Josh Kerr, Jeremy Flores, and former world ranking leader Matt Wilkinson who said, “You can get barrelled, come out and do some turns, and look out the back and there’s just another one, and another one and another one.” Just a few days ago, the World Surf League ran the Future Classic, a test event at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California. With a selection of the world’s elite pros on hand, including contest winners Gabriel Medina and Carissa Moore, it was without a doubt the highest-performance display of surfing ever seen in a wave pool. Today, we can say definitively that wave pool technology is capable of producing a very high quality surfing experience.
Can wave pools be a financially viable business?
This statement from Surf Park Central, “the ultimate surf park and wave pool industry resource” about their second ever Surf Park Summit indicates the wave pool industry knows what it needs to do to succeed: “As we see it, the vision is clear: build authentic, sustainable and profitable surf experiences to grow the surf industry and provide the mental, physical and emotional stoke of surfing to those that do not have access to the ocean.”
While every manufacturer gives that vision their personal twist, they agree wave pools are the perfect addition to any resort, hotel complex, commercial centre, or theme park, and that they’ll be an essential part of the training programs of wave-starved countries with Olympic surfing aspirations. The more forward-thinkers also are of the opinion that wave pools are great centrepieces for real estate developments, and the perfect playground for ultra-rich individuals or private companies to have for the enjoyment of their families, friends or co-workers.
Some aspects of the wave pool business model definitely work. As in any business, once you have a viable product, its success is mainly a question of vision, location, funding, communication and management. Typhoon Lagoon at Disney World in Florida, the Siam Park in Tenerife, Wadi Adventure in the United Arab Emirates or even the original Big Surf Waterpark in Arizona are examples of surfing wave pools within amusement or waterparks that are economically viable attractions. However, in those cases surfing isn’t the main draw, and surf sessions are limited to a certain number per day.
Can the ‘Surf Park’ business model be profitable and help the wave pool industry grow?
Although they haven’t been in operation for very long, Surf Snowdonia in Wales and NLand in Texas are proving with the Wavegarden Lagoon that surfing wave pools don’t have to be part of an amusement park to survive. The team at Wavegarden told Source why that is: “The foundation to creating a financially viable man-made wave involves: high wave frequency and high user capacity; a diversity of good quality waves in a variety of sizes to meet the needs of all user groups; low energy consumption; and a range of professional services (surf school, high performance coaching) and amenities (surf shop, restaurant, etc) to ensure surfers and spectators enjoy their experience, tell their friends and come back again.”
What is the target market?
The wave pool industry insists that bringing the sport to people who don’t have access to the ocean, and teaching them to surf is a key element of the business model. An equally large part of its success may be as a potential alternative to long haul surf travel. Many surfers are willing to venture far from home to surf perfect head high waves in the Maldives or other similarly exotic destinations, and are already willing to travel to surf them where there are no oceans at all.
Larry Christensen, a typical 45-year old Californian, surfing family man recently took short trips to Mexico and Costa Rica when the swell and weather forecasts guaranteed great surf. His next destination was Austin, Texas to the NLand Surf Park. Why? Because, as legendary Hawaiian surfer Fred Hemmings Jr. the head instructor at Big Surf in Tempe, Arizona said in a 1969 article in Time magazine, “The surf is always up.”
What did Larry have to say about his time in Texas? “The Nland park was super fun. We did three hours, two days in a row and it was epic! I would go back for sure, but I want the Cove park! That thing looks next level!”
Cultural metropolises like London, Barcelona, Sydney or New York will soon have their very own Wavegarden Lagoons or Coves, which makes them arguably bigger draws for surf tourism than the Maldives, the Mentawai islands or Mainland Mexico.
While purists argue that wave pool surfing will never be the same as surfing in the ocean, industry manufacturers respond that the actual act of surfing on a wave is exactly the same. As Willy McFarland from American Wave Machines claims: “The feel of the wave is the exact same experience you would have in the ocean with paddling, duck diving, and wave selection.” However, they’ll never be able to replicate the years of experience it takes to read ever-changing ocean line-ups, or the feeling of standing on a deserted beach at dawn watching lines of new swell fill in.
Will the growth of the wave pool industry help the surf industry?
Although it’s a very reasonable argument, it’s still too early to say if more ‘Surf Parks’ will translate into major sales increases for the surf industry. Nonetheless, with 1999 World Champ Mark “Occy” Occhilupo acting as their Surf Industry Advisor people like Aaron Trevis, the CEO of Australia’s Surf Lakes are very optimistic, and see it as a source of “long term exponential growth for industry and retailers”, which “could be the biggest deal since surfing began.”
It will undoubtedly help sell products essential to the actual act of surfing: boardshorts, wetsuits, leashes and surfboards, but not necessarily surf apparel. Giving everyone access to a wave pool and therefore democratizing the sport will by definition make it less exclusive, and therefore make “surf fashion” less appealing. However, it might make newcomers feel like they’re now part of the “surfing tribe”, encouraging them to buy a t-shirt or cap from their favourite surf brand. If surfing ever becomes as popular as basketball or European football, we may find the WSL selling t-shirts with the names of the Top 34 Men’s Championship Tour and Top 17 Women’s Championship Tour surfers on back is as viable a business model as it is for the NBA or FIFA. Perhaps, it will be a boon for the brands, with fans buying the Quiksilver Flores t-shirt or the Rip Curl Fanning jersey, or maybe the inclusion of surfing in the Summer Games will have everyone buying copies of their national team’s rash vest with the name of their favourite Olympic surfer emblazoned on the back. The jury is still out on the effect wave pools may have on the surf fashion market.
This is the first in a series of surf park articles by Dave Mailman, former Quiksilver Europe Marketing Director, Epic TV Surf Report presenter & ASP Europe President.