A brief histor y of wave pools
With Kelly Slater and the World Surf League’s Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California, about to host the first serious, title-onthe-line wave pool event since 1985, it’s incredible to think that America’s first – and still operating – wave park, Big Surf in Tempe, Arizona, will turn 50 in a few months. Yes, readers, as impossible as it may seem, there is a functioning wave pool that is older than Kelly, or Tracks, for that matter. But wait, here’s something even more incredible. While Hitler’s goose-stepping zombies were just beginning their march across Europe, spreading havoc and hatred wherever they trod, the famous British architect and engineer Sir Owen Williams was finalising the design of the world’s first wave pool, better known as the Wembley Empire Pool when it became the swimming venue for London’s 1934 Empire Games. Actually, it’s a bit of a liberty to claim it as the first wave pool, since Sir Owie nicked and then modified (sort of a prequel to Slater/Webber) the specs of several machines designed to create water movement in a pool which had become popular at European spas in the 1920s. But credit where it’s due, no one had heard of a man-made wave before Wembley. Of course, if you look up its design features in journals of architecture and engineering, the wave-creating aspect is given short shrift. It was little more than a gimmick at the world’s largest swimming pool, its gentle lapping meant to enhance the moods of recreational swimmers, and not much more. But it nonetheless used piston paddles to create man-made waves, and despite the Great Depression and the drum beats of war, someone, somewhere was taking notice. In the post-war world, Japan’s industrial machine moved from weapons of mass destruction to devices of mass annoyance, such as transistor radios. But as prosperity grew, so did surf stoke, and the first purpose-built surfing wave pool opened near Tokyo in 1966. Summerland, nicknamed the “surf-a-torium”, cleared the pool every hour to allow boardriders 15 minutes of fame as they attempted to manoeuvre heavy mals on next to nothing. Like Wembley long before it, Summerland’s waves were driven by a lame piston system, but the hype for it was straight out of the Gidget era, and “artificial surfing” was here to stay. Although I was a voracious reader of the surf press by the mid-1960s, the Summerland surf-a-torium seems to have skipped my attention. The launch of Big Surf, on the other hand, hit my radar immediately, even though in those pre-cable years it failed to make the nightly news, and didn’t even get that much of a run in the surf mags. But coming right on the heels of the 1969 moonwalk (“one giant step for mankind”) it seemed to signal that American technology was capable of anything, even the artificial creation of the perfect wave. The problem was that, at the time, anything that came out of the USA was fake news, even though that term hadn’t been coined yet. They’d given us Vietnam, Richard Nixon and JJ Moon in quick succession, and we were tops now, because John Witzig had told us so. Big Surf, funded by the hair products giant Clairol to the tune of $2 million, had fake written all over it. Set in a 20-acre Polynesian-themed complex located in the middle of the desert, the giant outdoor pool featured chest-high waves which were created by dropping millions of gallons of water down a vertical 40-foot-high concrete chute and refracting the flow into the pool through underwater metal gates. As a surfing wave, it was pretty much rubbish, but the heroes came and paid homage, and guess what? Despite a near-collapse a decade ago, it’s still going. Arizona can get damned hot in summer, and the Waikiki Beach Wave Pool offers blessed relief to tourists just off the neighbouring thrill rides like the Hurricane Slide, the Black Hole and the Tornado Twister. Not a lot of surfing gets done in the course of a day, but this is no longer the point. A couple of decades later, when twiceworld champion Tom Carroll won the 1985 inaugural World Professional Inland Surfing Championships at the Dorney Park Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pennsylvania, it seemed like wave pools were about to make a credibility leap, but it was slow progress. At Disney World in Orlando, Florida, when thensix-time world champion Kelly Slater won the 1997 Typhoon Lagoon wave pool contest, it again seemed like wave pools were about to make a credibility leap. This can’t have been lost on Kelly, but artificial surfing still had a few hoops to jump through. Having survived the spectacle of our own Matthew Pitts performing nightly at the Ocean Dome Wave Pool in Japan as “Sabu, the sword-wielding surf prince”, wave pool surfing was thrown a brief curly one by the emergence of the FlowRider stationary wave. I saw this spectacle in San Diego just after I had tried and failed to ride the stationary river wave in Munich, so it never caught my interest. It was more like skating than surfing, but it proved to be a relatively cheap carnival version of the artificial surfing experience, and it made a few people rich. The wave pool story in the new century is well known and still evolving, its legends and its heroes still being determined. However it falls, Kelly Slater, Greg Webber and the Wavegarden crew will be right in there, and if Surf Ranch can produce a winner at prime time 3pm on a Sunday in September, they may even have saved the surf industry from extinction.
It’s certainly not Tom Carroll’s most famous snap, but it did help him win the inaugural ‘Inland Pro’ at the Dorney Park Wildwater Kingdom, in Allentown Pennsylvania, back in 1985.