Be­fore Le­moore

A brief his­tor y of wave pools

Tracks - - That Was Then This Is Now - By Phil Jar­ratt.

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.