This summer you no longer need to live on the coast if you want to experience the waves and get surfing: commercial wave pools have got bigger and better and are markedly safer than the unpredictable sea swell. But is there any comparison to the real thing?
Surfers are used to hanging around at the beach waiting for the magic words “Surf’s Up!”, but for many wave riders these days there is no real need to hang around for your wave at all, or even travel to the beach to surf it. Wave pools and wave parks allow landlocked surfers to ride the curl whenever they like, whilst even natural swells that hit the coastline can theoretically be improved with the development of artificial surfing reefs.
The first commercial wave pools date back to the 1920s with the construction of Gellért Baths in Budapest, although the waves were not big enough for surfing. It wasn’t until the 1980s that surfable waves were produced in pools, whereby a large volume of water is allowed to rush into one end of the pool, forcing the water level to even out, creating a wave large enough to surf as it does so. Excess water is channelled through a return canal where it can be used again to generate another wave.
The world’s largest wave pool is the Ocean Dome in Miyazaki, Japan, which has an artificial beach able to accommodate up to 6,000 people and waves with faces of between 90cm and 1.5m in height. However, 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater is looking to develop an ‘endless wave’ of as much as 2.5m in height which runs around a doughnut-shaped pool and would, according to Slater, allow you to “…ride as long as you want, do any manoeuvre you want and practise over and over again”.
An alternative to wave pools and one which requires far less space, is the Flowrider. It was developed by US company Wave Loch in the 1990s and simulates a ‘standing wave’ such as you might see on a river (as opposed to the ocean). According to the patent, it is ‘a wave-forming generator for generating inclined surfaces on a contained body of water’ - effectively a sheet wave. In this instance, the surfer remains in the same spot, effectively riding the ‘sheet’ of water as it rushes past them. There are somewhere in the region of 200 Flowriders and their offshoots around the world (they can even be found on cruise ships).
Despite the fact that wave pools and Flowriders have hosted surf competitions, they are a long way removed from a ‘real’ wave, but they do have the advantage of offering predictable, consistent waves, unlike the ocean.
In a real-world environment, the predictability and consistency of waves breaking on a natural shoreline can theoretically be improved upon by building artificial reefs. These are constructed either from rocks, like Mosman Beach near Perth in Western Australia, or sand-filled geotextile bags, such as that at Narrowneck on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Besides improving the size, quality and consistency of the waves, artificial reefs can also serve as protection for the coastline and marine life habitats, but their effectiveness for surfing is debatable to say the least.
For instance, the surfing reef built at Boscombe on England’s south coast in 2009 was plagued by controversy from the very start. At a cost of £3.2m, it was built from geotextile containers totalling 13,000 cubic metres and covered an area of one hectare. The wave, which broke some 225m offshore, was of debatable quality, breaking very steeply and rapidly, and was really only suitable for bodyboarders and the very best surfers.
It was expected to create waves up to 30 per cent larger than those produced by natural swells and double the number of ‘good’ surfing days to around 150 a year. However, this section of coastline has a very narrow swell window and is plagued by onshore winds that can ruin the ‘shape’ of a surfing wave; therefore this was an extremely optimistic forecast.
The reef was ‘closed’ in 2011 after being damaged by a boat propeller and re-opened in 2014, but as is the case with many other artificial surfing reefs it never really lived up to expectations. Ironically, the natural waves that break either side of Boscombe Pier on a big swell are invariably better than those breaking on the reef.
Ride the new wave
The latest attempt to match Nature has come in the form of ‘wave parks’, with the world’s first due to open in North Wales in August. Surf Snowdonia has been designed by Spanish company Wavegarden and will produce relatively hollow waves that will travel for 220 metres along a ‘lagoon’ without losing power or shape. One wave will be released every minute, breaking both left and right, providing rides of up to 18 seconds before ending in smooth whitewater. Surprising as it may sound to non-surfers, a ride as long as 18 seconds is very respectable on a natural wave. Indeed, reef breaks such as the famous ‘Pipeline’ in Hawaii rarely provide rides of much more than ten seconds long.
The project is marketed more at children and beginners than experienced surfers and is forecast to attract up to 70,000 visitors a year. Cynics have questioned the need for such facilities so close to an area of the country that already has a reasonable, if inconsistent, surf (the Lleyn Peninsula). Additionally, it may even be detrimental to surf-related businesses on those coastlines if their potential customers decide to hit the manmade waves instead of natural swells. On a purely aesthetic note, it’s hard to see how riding a predictable, always-the-same wave in a controlled inland environment can ever compare to paddling out into the surf on a sunny day in Cornwall with a couple of friends.
However, Nick Hounsfield of ‘The Wave’, a similar project to Surf Snowdonia which is currently planned for the Bristol area, considers that there are positive sides to such developments: “The benefits are that safe, controlled, predictable, regular, clean waves are on demand 24/7. It’s good for inclusivity and educating people about surfing, for talent spotting [think of the British winter sports stars who have emerged thanks to snow domes], technique improvement, competitions and accessibility for those who do not live by the sea”.
Hounsfield is also aware that there are negatives to the concept too, which he lists as “energy consumption, building costs, the environmental impact of construction, the lack of a ‘natural’ environment and the risk it could become a middle class ‘enclave’”.
That said, ‘The Wave’ has received support from well-established eco-aware organisations such as One Per Cent for the Planet, and its ‘ambassadors’ include the likes of former European longboard champion Sam Bleakley, as well as big-wave surfer and Patagonia outdoor equipment’s European manager Gabe Davies.
Karin Frisch, marketing manager at Wavegarden, said: “It has taken ten years of intense research and development to work out how to make the kind of perfect waves you’ll see at Surf Snowdonia; therefore the specific engineering details of the wave generating technology and system are highly confidential.
“However, what we can say is that the key elements include the lagoon design and bathymetry, wave foil and drive system, pier structure and control system.
“In theory, Wavegarden works in the exact same way as an ocean wave - a mass of water is systematically moved over a surface that causes the wave to form and then fold on itself - just like a wave breaking over a reef or sand bar. The difference is that with Wavegarden technology we can regulate the size and speed of the wave at will, making it engaging for different skill levels.
“We have the ability to make facilities bigger or smaller depending on client needs. The development in Snowdonia is what we consider the ‘standard’ size of 300 metres by 120 metres.”
According to the company that has installed the system, Conwy Adventure Leisure (CAL), a wavefoil that resembles a snowplough will shuttle back and forth along a central underwater track which runs the length of the lagoon. As the machinery moves back and forth, it will generate a barrelling wave on each side of the track. The wave will then interact with the contours on the bed of the lagoon to provide various wave profiles at different points. The waves will be variously two metres, 1.2 metres and 70 centimetres high.
The wavefoil is controlled by computer-?based technology housed in towers at either end of the central pier, with a gearless ropeway drive system inspired by ski lift technology moving the mechanism back and forth across the length of the lagoon at the touch of a button.
The lagoon’s ‘shore’ is fitted with a porous grid sheeting that will help to dissipate the energy of the breaking waves much more quickly than an impermeable perimeter, allowing for a highly efficient turnaround of the wave machinery. This means it can generate waves at the rate of one per minute. The central underwater machinery is covered with a protective stainless steel netted screen to keep surfers safe from the moving parts without impairing the energy of the waves, and the screen will be covered above water level by a wooden pier structure.
According to Steve Davies, managing director of CAL: “Nothing of this nature has been done before, so we have had to be willing to adapt our plans as we’ve progressed the build. Our approach has required close collaboration between mechanical, geotechnical, hydrological, civil and structural engineers. Our common determination to deliver ‘excellence’ has allowed us to stay on schedule and on budget. The sense of genuine excitement that comes with working on a world-first engineering project is palpable.”
A major concern of both operators and users is likely to be how much energy and water the system uses - Wavegarden’s Frisch claims that energy usage is relatively low at 710kWh per hour to create 120 waves of approximately 1.9m height, whilst a standard size lagoon requires 31,000 cubic metres of water. This can come from a variety of different sources, like the ocean, rivers, lakes, mains pipes, or underground bores, depending on what’s available locally.
“Our engineers have done everything possible to produce the most energy-efficient and cost-effective machinery. Thousands of different simulations and calculations have been made to achieve this goal.
“To better understand this point, it’s important to know a little about the philosophy of the company. 95 per cent of staff members are surfers, many of whom are parents with children. The overall company vision is for people all over the world to enjoy the immense fun surfing brings and the only way this objective can be achieved is by making it affordable for the end user”.
The company is also well aware of the importance of keeping environmental impact to a minimum in a sport whose practitioners are, on the whole, very environmentally aware. The technology ensures each facility requires minimal civil engineering work, has low energy consumption and a nearly imperceptible visual and auditory effect on its natural surroundings.
For example, the only noise users will hear is the sound of the breaking waves. Large amounts of concrete are not required in the construction of the lagoon reducing the environmental impact compared with setting up a conventional wave pool. Plus, the wave generator is mainly under the water surface, which means that there is practically no visual impact.
In the case of Surf Snowdonia, the development has taken place on what was a derelict site formerly used by an aluminium plant and involved cleaning the site and removing large amounts of heavy industrial waste. Recycling has been a large part of the process, with 25,000 cubic metres of onsite material crushed and reused and 400 tonnes of steel, cast iron and copper from the site recycled, whilst over 85 per cent of the stone used in construction is recycled.
The lagoon is filled with rainwater from a hydroelectric plant at Dolgarrog and is kept clean using UV disinfection rather than chemicals. When I asked whether the buoyancy difference in fresh and salt water results in any noticeable variance in how the wave surfs, Frisch told me: “We have had several hundred people test our waves on the prototype facility in Spain, from beginners to world champs, and no one has ever made any comment regarding the difference in buoyancy”.
While Surf Snowdonia will inevitably have a CO2 footprint, the company claims this can be offset by reducing the distance surfers need to travel. On the other hand, if it introduces more people to surfing, it could be argued that it will result in more people travelling to enjoy ‘real’ warm-water waves in destinations like Hawaii and Indonesia.
But perhaps inclusivity is Wavegarden’s biggest plus point; not only does it make ‘surf’ accessible to pretty much everyone, no matter how far they are from the ocean, it’s also designed to cater for different levels of ability.
The lagoon capacity is between 80-120 surfers per hour at same time, spread out through different areas dedicated to different abilities. The facility will be operated much like the lifts at a ski resort: as well as having the option of purchasing a set number of rides, customers will also be able to buy use of the Wavegarden for a certain amount of time such as a half-day, full-day or week, with season passes available for local people and regular visitors.
Frisch says: “An enormous amount of effort has gone into keeping costs down so that it’s affordable”. Prices for a one-hour surf lesson including all equipment start from £19 per hour.
There are different areas in the lagoon designed with different users in mind. For example, the main wave (known as ‘The Reef’) is ideal for advanced to expert surfers, a smaller wave known as ‘Insides’ is more suitable for intermediate surfers, and a third area called ‘The Bay’ is designed for beginners.
This is where Wavegarden’s real appeal is likely to lie - to create consistent waves with predictable size and power will make learning or developing your technique considerably easier than in the ocean, where inconsistency is very much part and parcel of the surfing experience.
That said, it won’t develop an awareness of safety issues such as rip currents and tides, or do much to improve a surfer’s ability to paddle out through the waves in a big swell, which is the most physically demanding aspect of surfing.
However, Wavegarden’s claim that it is “taking waves to the people, especially as we expect installations to be established in or close to major cities around the world,” is difficult to dispute. Just as the mountains have come to the city in the form of the above-mentioned snowdomes, with some 20 Wavegarden facilities planned everywhere from Australia and Europe to the USA and Brazil, it seems the ocean has followed. *