New Pool Or­der

How will ar­tif icial waves change pr o surf­ing?

Tracks - - Ripe - By Kirk Ow­ers.

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.

Photo: Glaser/ KSwaveco

Can the WSL fit in here? Kelly Slater’s com­pelling ver­sion of a man-made bar­rel.

Photo: Wave Gar­den.

Top Left: Mitch Crews bring­ing the rain at the Wave Gar­den.

Photo: Web­ber Wave Pools. Photo: Web­ber Wave Pools.

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.

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