The surfing world went into pandemonium this month on account of Kelly Slater dropping the most definitive evidence yet that man has mastered the ocean and created a wave all of our own. And then it went into meltdown all over again this week when news broke of the WSL buying into the Kelly Slater Wave Company creation as a means to train the world’s up-and-coming professional surfers and grow the sport.
As such, it looks certain that wave pools will play a big part in the future of commercial surfing. But what remains unanswered is how? We take a look at the top three players in the burgeoning industry and compare what exactly the difference is between their technology, if we’ll ever be able to afford to ride more than a handful of waves and what it all means for surfing’s Olympic dream. Because let’s not forget, wave pools are big business.
Creating the original surfable wave pool, “Snowdonia” in Wales, Wavegarden was the first to cash in on its technology, with NLand Surf Park having purchased a blueprint to open in Austin, Texas sometime this year. In basic terms, Wavegarden Snowdonia uses totally submerged hulls that push the water forwards and sideways respectively to create a soliton (solitary) wave from beneath - like the rolling tidal bores in Hangzhou, China.
It was claimed the Snowdonia prototype would be able to barrel, but footage and word from professional surfers such as Red Bull Unleashed contest director Jarrad Howse suggest that it doesn’t.
But more problematic from a commercial sense is the backwash and whitewash created between each wave which limits the amount of waves per hour and therefore increasing how much it will cost a customer to catch a single wave. We reached out to Wavegarden in the wake of Kelly Slater’s release and after several conversations, the powers that be opted against an interview or even an official statement. Instead, they offered a quietly confident ‘wait-and-see’ in a finely tuned email suggesting the soon to open Austin park would not only supersede the original, but blow minds.
Kelly Slater Wave Company
It’s been the only name on everyone’s lips since Slater released clips of the world’s best surfers dominating the Fresno farm break, an artificial wave in a pond that’s similar, but not identical, to Wavegarden. In the most simple of terms, Kelly’s wave uses the same basic technology as Wavegarden with one vital difference. Kelly’s mechanical plow, also dragged under water, is designed at an angle. And with the right velocity is able to create the piece de resistance - a rideable, head-high tube. It’s a step forward in wavepool technology of epic proportions, seemingly leaving first-to-market rival Wavegarden treading water in the race for the perfect, and therefore most profitable, manufactured wave.
Like Wavegarden, Kelly’s existing technology runs on a linear up-and-back system. And it utilizes a soliton-style wave which creates a wave that collapses in on itself, creating excessive backwash issues that limit the amount of perfect waves per hour. This however, can be improved by having a much wider pool to allow the wave to refract more naturally. His barrel is also cone-shaped, meaning a surfer can’t disappear behind the curtain without some creative filming angles. Not yet anyway.
The drawbacks of Kelly’s wave? According to Greg Webber, the outspoken Australian surfboard designer and innovator responsible for an airtight wave pool patent, the shape and structure of soliton waves limit a surfer’s ability to get deep inside a wave. “And that’s a fundamental part of what makes a wave a fun wave in the ocean is whether it’s got a flat face or a nice hollow face. And no one searches the globe for a flat-faced wave,” he says.
But like the location of Kelly’s pool up until recently, KSWC’s plans for improvement and commercial use - outside of the WSL announcement - are shrouded in secrecy. KSWC didn’t respond to myriad interview requests.
Webber Wave Pools
Greg Webber’s wave is considered superior to both Kelly and Wavegarden’s technology. So superior in fact, that the KSWC’s original designs were twice denied by the US Patent Office - in 2008 and then again in 2011 - for being too similar to Webber’s 2004 design. In simpleton terms, Webber’s design uses a partially submerged hull to create multiple wakes - in essence, like a speedboat does. And it’s a non-linear oval-shaped system, meaning on paper it can create endless, uninterrupted waves without any backwash issues.
“My wave, a Kelvin wave, occurs on top of and below the water,” Webber says. Alternatively, a soliton wave like Slater’s and Wavegarden’s is created only below the water. “And you can’t manipulate a soliton wave very much at all,” Webber adds.
“The only thing that limits my competitors is the degree to which they can patent their technology. There are still half a dozen types of technology that can make reasonably high quality waves, but there’s only one that can do everything. And I’ve got it.”
Webber’s never been accused of being shy on confidence. But unlike Wavegarden and KSWC, Webber’s creation is yet to come to fruition outside of lab tests and trawler experiments in NSW’s Clarence River. So when will we see the much hyped linear loop pool for real? “I can’t really say. But we’re not that far off,” Webber says. “As much as I’d like to say we’ve got a pool in a certain state of America that looks like it’s about to happen, the more closely I describe the nature of that pool or the size or the location, the worse it is for the developer and myself. The Internet went crazy finding Kelly’s pool after that first clip was released. I’d rather just show everyone - and that will be the end of it.”
SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF SURFING?
The average surfable beach break in the ocean is around 10 seconds
Kelly’s wave is currently around 40 seconds
The ideal wavelength in a pool for riders and businesses alike is 18-20 seconds
In a wave pool, 20 seconds allows enough time for four or five turns and to get barreled
Estimated Costs For Webber’s Wave Pool:
1m wave - $4 for 20 seconds
2m wave - $7-8 for 17 seconds
2.5m wave - $20 for 15 seconds
What exactly the WSL’s endorsement of the KSWC is worth remains to be seen given that since taking over the ASP world tour the company has lost money hand over fist in an attempt to make the sport more mainstream. More importantly, will the non-surfing public, an audience that every wave pool company is desperate to attract, even care?
“Events and the media rights are part of the income that can be derived from wave pools,” Webber says. “But for wave pools to be truly profitable, you need a high wave rate where you can teach people in large numbers which will in turn grow the sport. It’s about encouraging and enticing more participants. “That’s the base, and so it won’t depend on hype. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing all the branding if there aren’t any more surfers being created? The growth will come from the super high participation rates that come with an addictive sport like surfing. It won’t depend on the spectator levels.
“For surfing to become an Olympic sport, wave pools need to prove that they can generate new surfers and income. And low wave rate pools will never grow the sport at anything like the rate of looped linear pools that offer thousands of rides an hour instead of 100 or so,” says Webber.