New Pool Order
How will artif icial waves change pr o surfing?
Up on the surface pro surfing has rarely looked so awesome. The Australian leg raged throughout Autumn showcasing competitive surfing at its heightened best. Performances were through the roof and there was more intrigue, drama and clouted lips on display than in a HBO clincher. Millions of core fans will follow the world title races as they unfold throughout the season. But despite years of great form – and the miraculous gift that is John John Florence – the WSL continues to lose money while it attempts to find a sustainable business model. Sooner or later something’s got to give.
The resignation of Paul Speaker, the WSL’s ambitious CEO, and the loss of major sponsor, Samsung, have sent the rumour mill into overdrive, encouraged by an information vacuum (the WSL didn’t respond to our enquiries either). What it seems to boil down to is that the Championship Tour is due for a major shakeup. We may see long-running events scrapped, prize money scaled back and the possible introduction of a wave pool event. And it’s this last possibility that has the biggest potential – to bring in the bucks but also to change competitive surfing forever.
Wayne Dart is well placed to comment. An ex- Tracks editor, his CV includes working for the ASP , the corporate sector and more recently for wave pool company, Surf Lakes. “Pro surfing has rarely been profitable. Even the ASP rarely ran an entire tour with a profit. Wave pools are a way to interest new sponsors as they will appeal to a much larger and different audience. I expect there to be inland surfers and coastal surfers... with inland surfers perhaps more appealing to mainstream backers. I think we’ll see an event on tour soon,” he says.
That much has been inevitable since the WSL purchased a majority stake in the Kelly Slater Wave Company (KSWC) last May. But despite all the hype there has been a lengthy delay in the great leap forward. Greg Webber’s much discussed circular pool is yet to have materialised and several other proposals (including Kelly’s Gold Coast venture) have collapsed before the ditch was even dug.
Engineering a perfect wave is just the first of many challenges, as Darty notes. “It comes down to profitability as much as wave quality. How many waves per hour you can make is crucial. One wave every 10 minutes is going to be hard to make work financially. The other aspect to consider is the environmental impact and energy efficiency. If someone comes up with a technology that is light on power and environmentally friendly that will be a big advantage.”
Webber says that a commercially successful wave pool should be multifunctional. “You need it all: cylindrically shaped open barrels as well as purpose-
designed beginner waves with multiples of surfers per wave with all wave types in between. Customising the wave during the ride will be the final element that determines whether there will be a small number of wave pools competing for the global market or one technology with a monopoly.”
The WSL, it should be noted, say the ocean will always be the home of pro surfing and that its existing events will remain the backbone of the tour. Webber is not so sure the sport’s billionaire owner will see it that way for much longer.
“Dirk Ziff didn’t buy a majority stake in Kelly Slater Wave Company in the hope of putting on just one event. Anyone who’s invested heavily in any wave pool tech knows that they can grow surfing by orders of magnitude. How the oceanbased events figure is uncertain since they will always cost more to run, have vastly less reliable wave standards and have nowhere near the capacity to time peak action with peak viewer times.
“My guess is that the ocean events will change hugely,” Webber continues. “They will be continent-based with long four to six week windows so they can go anywhere on that continent as soon as the waves are great. The infrastructure will be greatly reduced and the judging will be done remotely by video. It’ll guarantee good waves and excitement and be way cheaper to run. Or else you could save competing for the pool and just film the ‘day of the swell’ freesurfing sessions to highlight the beauty of the ocean as a counterpoint to competing in the pools.” What can be said with more certainty is that Kelly’s pool is not going to remain the world’s best for long. Bigger and better versions are on the way. Surf Lakes are currently testing an entirely new technology with an announcement expected shortly. Webber is confident he has found a backer and that his pool will be built soon (possibly on the Gold Coast). He also believes that thick heavy slabs of the Teahupoo variety will be able to be engineered in the future. Another unknowable factor is what might happen when previously surf-free countries like China, Russia, Korea and India discover artificial surfing. If they do and wave pool events prove both popular and profitable then we could be on the cusp of a new, and, no doubt, divisive era.
Can the WSL fit in here? Kelly Slater’s compelling version of a man-made barrel.
Top Left: Mitch Crews bringing the rain at the Wave Garden.
Bottom Right: A digitally drawn representation of a Greg Webber wave park, featuring multiple set-ups in a single, oval shaped pool.
Top Right: Mini, man-made Teahupoo. Greg Webber is confident it can be recreated on a much more realistic scale.