Artificial wave pools will revolutionise surfing – but not everyone’s on board

If you’ve flown into Melbourne recently, you may have noticed, more or less directly below you, a large blue expanse of water, roughly the size of the oval at the MCG. On that expanse of water, you may also have noticed waves, line upon line of them, sweeping down the pool. And if you looked really closely, squinting out of the plane window while shading your eyes with your hand, you might have spotted someone in that pool, surfing one of those waves, yelling and hooting and carrying on like a kid after too many Fantas. That was me. I was researching this story. It was possibly the most fun day’s work I’ve ever done.

The wave pool, called Urbnsurf, is situated in Tullamarine, about five minutes’ drive from the airport, amid freight-forwarding companies, auto salvage yards and long-term parking lots. Shaped like a giant baseball diamond, it is 220 metres long and contains 25 million litres of fresh water, enough to fill about 16 Olympic pools. It is enormous – and enormously incongruent, a patch of ersatz ocean in a light-industrial wasteland. When I first saw it, one morning last November – all that sparkling, sequined water, with three-foot waves peeling down the middle – it seemed suffused with the illogic of a dream. Which, for surfers at least, it is.

“I’ve caught more than 1000 waves here since the lagoon got up and running,” said founder Andrew Ross as we paddled out. “Sometimes, you surf so much and get so many waves that you feel punch-drunk.”

Urbnsurf, which opened to the public in January, is the first of its kind in Australia – a fully functioning surf park that produces beautifully shaped rideable waves, all day long. (And until 10pm in summer, thanks to lighting towers.) The waves vary in size from knee-high to well overhead, and come in 18 different settings, every aspect of which – size, shape, power and frequency – can be adjusted at the push of a button, to suit surfers of all abilities. Right-handers break on one side of the pool and left-handers on the other, with the two sides separated by a long pier.

Wave pools have long had a reputation for producing weak, dribbly waves, but those at Urbnsurf are surprisingly powerful. The most challenging wave, which Ross calls The Beast, is a steep, super-hollow barrel that breaks hard and fast over a smooth concrete bottom. For the first 40 minutes, The Beast gave me one hiding after another, including bouncing me off the bottom, before I even began to understand how best to approach it.

Ross, who is 48, describes himself as the “frothiest grommet ever”. He was born in Geelong but grew up in Perth, where he first tried surfing, without much success. When he was 11, he had a summer holiday in Lorne, on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, where his grandmother lived. “One day, my nan pulled a red 1970s-era single-fin from under a neighbour’s house,” he says. ”I walked down to Lorne Point so embarrassed carrying that board. I paddled out, swung into the first wave and popped straight up, stunned, but stoked out of my mind! I rocketed towards the shoreline, where there is a whole bunch of rocks, but I didn’t know how to stop the board. The skeg hit the rocks and I went over the front and cut myself a bit. I can still remember that ride 37 years later as though it was yesterday.”

In the early 2000s, Ross worked as an investment banker in London, before managing several oil and gas exploration companies, including Cape Energy, which he set up when he was 33. By 2012, he was 40 years old with two young children, living in Perth, and was travelling 16 weeks of the year. “I decided to take a year off, and recalibrate.” One day he read an article about how Kelly Slater was in a patent dispute with Australian surfboard maker Greg Webber, over competing designs for a circular wave pool. (Both systems involved a doughnut-shaped lagoon encircling an island, with a wave breaking around it in an endless loop.)

With his interest piqued, Ross called Slater’s people in the US, and spoke to Webber in Australia. He also contacted Wavegarden, a wave pool outfit based in Spain, which produces waves by firing modular sequences of pistons which displace tonnes of water. In late 2012, he travelled to Wavegarden’s R&D facility in San Sebastian, in the Basque country, and surfed its prototype. “I remember taking off on this wave and being blown away by the shape and speed and power of it.” By the time 2014 came around, Ross had bought the exclusive rights to bring Wavegarden’s technology to Australia.

"I’ve caught more than 1000 waves here since the lagoon got up and running. Sometimes, you surf so much and get so many waves that you feel punch-drunk.”

Ross’s background in oil exploration had entailed a certain element of risk. But even for him, purchasing the rights to Wavegarden was a gamble. “Suddenly, here we were, owning the rights to a prototype technology for an industry that didn’t exist and that had no established market,” he says. Nevertheless, after five years, $40 million and god knows how many hours of computational fluid dynamic modelling, Urbnsurf is a reality. The Australian surf website, Swellnet, has already described Ross as surfing’s version of Willy Wonka – an affable wizard whose fantasy fun park tempts fatal overindulgence. On the day I visit, I surf for more than four hours in 38-degree heat. When I exit the pool, my legs are quivering and my shoulders ache. I’m dehydrated and sunburnt, and my eyes are bleary. All in all, I couldn’t be happier.

Urbnsurf founder Andrew Ross rides an artificial wave at his facility.Credit:Courtesy of Urbnsurf

Surfing has changed enormously since the 1960s, when it was popularised. Surfboards have shrunk in size, become wider, pointier, thicker, thinner. They can now have five fins or no fins, be made of wood, plastic, polyurethane or epoxy. A couple of years ago, I surfed a board that had been put together almost entirely of cork. It was so buoyant that when I caught a wave, I felt like I’d been shot out of a champagne bottle.

The only thing surfers have never been able to manufacture is a great wave, which relies on a felicitous combination of tide, wind, swell and geography. High-quality waves are rare, and “perfect” ones rarer still. In the 1966 movie, The Endless Summer, two American surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, travel the world, boards in hand, seeking out surfing nirvana, which they purport to find at a right-hand point break in South Africa called Cape St Francis. The waves were exquisite, flawless walls of water funnelling down the point, seemingly forever, with not another surfer in sight. Wave pools have, for generations of surfers, offered the promise of a Cape St Francis in your own backyard.

Artificial waves are nothing new. Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria had a wave machine built in the 1870s on a lake at his palace in Linderhof, Germany. The first wave pool made specifically for surfing opened in 1969, in Arizona, but the waves were weak and crumbly. For a long time, wave pools remained a novelty: in 1985, a pro surfing event was held at the Allentown wave pool, in Pennsylvania, in waves that Surfer magazine would later describe as “fabulously bad”. The problem involved both economics and physics: it’s easy to make fake snow or to mould an indoor climbing centre, but getting water to behave the way you want is by an order of magnitude more difficult.

Increasingly powerful computational fluid dynamics in the past 10 to 15 years have made a significant difference, by allowing designers to more accurately model what water will do at scale. At the same time, the surf market has grown enormously – Global Industry Analysts estimate that it will be worth US$9.5 billion ($14 billion) by 2022 – boosting investment in all aspects of the sport, including wave pools.

Today you can find high-quality man-made waves in the UAE, Snowdonia, in Wales, Malaysia and Spain. There are others in development, including Surf Lakes, a prototype facility in Yeppoon, Queensland, that uses a 1400-tonne steel plunger, dropped into the centre of a lake, to generate concentric circles of swell. The project, which was launched in 2013 by Queensland mining engineer, Aaron Trevis, has so far cost more than $15 million, with the first commercial facility to open in Australia in 2021. (Trevis will not say exactly where.)

Kelly Slater surfs a man-made break at the 2018 Surf Ranch Pro in Lemoore. Credit:World Surf League

But by far the best known wave pool is Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch, in Lemoore, California. Slater is, at 47,  perhaps the most famous surfer of all time, an 11-time world champion with his own fashion label and surfboard range. He has a restless intellect and a savvy business sense, and relishes pushing boundaries, both in and out of the water. The Lemoore pool took 12 years and a rumoured US$30 million to make. In 2015, when he uploaded footage of himself surfing there, on a sheet-glass, shoulder-height right-hander, the surfing world went into meltdown.

“That was totally unprecedented,” says Australian surf journalist Mike Jennings. “It was the first time that a man-made wave was as good or better than anything you might find in the ocean. It reminded me of the beginning of the internet, when you didn’t know what’s coming next or how big it was going to be.”

Slater has said that wave pools like his will take surfing mainstream, democratising a sport that has only ever been available, by and large, to those lucky enough to live on the coast. But this seems disingenuous. Surfing is already fairly democratic: it doesn’t require large-scale infrastructure – no football grounds or cricket pitches. Surfers don’t have to join a club, and there is no entry fee. As Jennings points out, “All you need is a board and pair of boardshorts. In a way wave pools make surfing less democratic, in that you have to pay to play.” But he is a fan of wave pools nonetheless, if only for their potential to supercharge elite performance. “There’s never been controlled training facilities for surfers before,” he says. “Wave pools offer the ability to practise the same manoeuvre, over and over again, which will lead to an even higher standard of surfing.”

“All you need is a board and pair of boardshorts. In a way wave pools make surfing less democratic, in that you have to pay to play.”

The Surf Ranch is especially well suited to this. Set among cotton fields in central California, the pool is 700 metres long and 84 metres wide, and divided down the middle by a large set of tracks. Mounted on the tracks is a train-like locomotive that whips down the pool, dragging a 100-tonne hydrofoil. The blade-shaped hydrofoil pushes the water to form a swell, which then interacts with the pool’s contoured bottom to generate a wave. The waves at Surf Ranch can be more than two metres high, but its standout feature is its length – 55 seconds, as opposed to Urbnsurf, where the rides last between 12 and 16 seconds. The wave also changes shape as it breaks down the pool, offering surfers the opportunity to get tubed or practise aerials, or simply stand there on their board, marvelling at the fact that they are riding a wave in the middle of farmland, some 160 kilometres from the nearest ocean.

In June 2018, the Australian Surfing Olympic Team spent three days training at the Surf Ranch, in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which will feature surfing for the first time. The coaches, including former pro surfer, Luke Egan, rode on jet skis two metres in front of the wave, filming a surfer’s performance. At the end of the ride, the coach would show the surfer the vision and discuss areas to work on with their next wave.

“It was amazing,” says Andrew Stark, general manager in Australia, Asia and Oceania for the World Surf League (WSL), the governing body for professional surfers. “Many of the coaches were saying that they were able to achieve as much in three days’ training in the wave pool as they would have done in six months in the ocean.”

“Many of the coaches were saying that they were able to achieve as much in three days’ training in the wave pool as they would have done in six months in the ocean.”

Wave pools are a dream come true for surfing administrators, who have long struggled to commercialise the sport. Most mainstream sports, like Aussie rules or cricket, have what Stark calls “scheduleability”. “You know exactly when those events will start and finish,” he says, “so the broadcasters know when they can slot in the ads.” But to hold a surfing world tour event, you need world-class waves, which can’t be scheduled. For this reason, the WSL events are held with an “event window” – an allotted 11-day period during which organisers can wait for the best conditions. Wave pools make event windows redundant; push a button, and bingo, you have world-class waves. “This means we can go to broadcasters and have better conversations about TV rights, and also ticketing revenue,” says Stark. “Essentially, wave pools will allow surfing to become more like a stadium sport.”

In 2016, the WSL acquired a majority stake in the Kelly Slater Wave Company, which built the Surf Ranch. The pool has already hosted the Freshwater Pro, in 2018 and 2019, a sanctioned WSL event that will become a regular stop on the pro tour.

The Surf Ranch in California, owned by 11-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater. With its 700-metre-long pool, one wave ride can last 55 seconds.Credit:Getty Images

In the broader surfing community, money is often a dirty word. Indeed, one of the most unctuous elements of the wave pool phenomenon is that they put a dollar value on riding a wave. The Surf Ranch charges $US50,000 a day for group hires: it sells itself as a premium product for high-net-worth individuals. “You might have 10 wealthy guys from San Clemente chip in $5000 each and hire it for the day,” says Stark. Companies, including Ripcurl, Quiksilver and Billabong, have already booked it out for staff days and to bring clients. It also doubles as a TV set: in 2020, the Surf Ranch will be used to film Ultimate Surfer, an eight-part reality TV series which will air on the American Broadcasting Company, the network behind The Bachelor.

Urbnsurf also offers day hires: founder, Andrew Ross, won’t discuss prices, but when I was there, the figure of $30,000 a day was being bandied about. Recreational surfers can make shorter visits: prices for an hour session, with up to 23 other surfers, start at $15 per person. It’s all very family-friendly. There’s lawn space, a surf school with board rentals, even gas-heated hot tubs. A private function space, called the Lookout, features a bar offering point-blank views of the waves. And in autumn, the on-trend Sydney cafe Three Blue Ducks will open a restaurant there, so patrons can snack on some braised beef cheek with Jerusalem artichoke between waves.

To surfers raised on sausage rolls and strawberry milkshakes, this can all seem rather bizarre. But it’s only the beginning. Urbnsurf plans to open another wave pool, at Sydney Olympic Park, in Homebush, by next year. And Kelly Slater has announced his intention to build a $1.1-billion surf resort in Coolum, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, his first such facility outside the US. The project, which is currently in public consultation, includes restaurants, bars, a six-star hotel, an environmental education centre, a residential component and a huge, open-air entertainment precinct. “I can’t wait,” Slater told journalists last year. “There is a very healthy and deep surf community [on the Sunshine Coast], and I’m sure there will be no shortage of people ready to surf it.”

“This is the kind of thing surfers used to dream about in the 1970s. Now that it’s close, it makes me dream of the 1970s.”

Slater’s enthusiasm is not universally shared, especially by older surfers, who are apt to view wave pools as crass corporatism, the commodification of a pursuit that has its roots firmly in the counterculture. In researching this piece I came across a story about a hugely speculative proposal, by surfboard shaper Greg Webber, for artificial floating reefs, a series of which could be built up and down the east coast of Australia. As one reader commented: “This is the kind of thing surfers used to dream about in the 1970s. Now that it’s close, it makes me dream of the 1970s.”

Adventure Parc Snowdonia, in North Wales, is filled with water drawn from mountain reservoirs. Credit:Richard Johnson/Red Bull

The waves at Urbnsurf and the Surf Ranch are not especially big. But their size is not the point. The most important thing in designing a so-called perfect wave is the shape. Good waves break evenly, with predictable power and speed, and with as smooth a surface as possible. No bump, no wind chop, no cross-currents or backwash. But getting water to perform on cue like this is forbiddingly complex. “It’s a multivariate problem,” says Urbnsurf’s Andrew Ross. “You need to replicate the bathymetry [the shape of the bottom of the pool], the acceleration and speed of the wave, the peel angle as it hits the bottom, and what the wind will do to the water at different parts of the wave.”

Engineers at Wavegarden, the technology behind Urbnsurf, use supercomputers to simulate the movement of water molecules and how they interact with one another in a dynamic environment. “When they put all the inputs in, it can take three days before you have an output,” says Ross. “If they want to vary it by putting in another input, it takes another three days.”

Wavegarden has worked with NASA and for the automotive industry, to model how air moves over the surface of cars. Visualising the results requires complex graphics, which are provided by Nvidia, the California-based specialist graphics-processing company. “But the Wavegarden guys are also passionate surfers,” says Ross. “The last 20 per cent of the development process is touch and feel, about tuning the waves based on years and years of being in the ocean. You could be the smartest engineer in the world, but if you haven’t been a surfer, you won’t be able to replicate a wave.”

Urbnsurf’s task is complicated by the fact that it offers 18 different wave types, from knee-high rollers to steep-faced barrels. (Slater’s Surf Ranch produces just three different waves.) It’s essentially a surfing smorgasbord. When I surf it with Ross, we enjoy a veritable tasting plate of waves. At one point, I feel like getting barrelled, so Ross requests a tubing wave. Thirty seconds later, there it is, surging out the water.

“We work off a modular system,” says Ross later, while showing me Urbnsurf’s engine room, a long, narrow space that runs the length of the pool’s central pier, and is enclosed in structural steel. (Photos are not allowed inside.) “It works by firing a sequence of 46 pistons that each displace eight tonnes of water. The system uses one kilowatt per wave, and we make 500 waves an hour.” Wave pools have been criticised for the colossal energy they require, but Ross says Urbnsurf uses half the power that a regional aquatic centre would use. “And we’re powered entirely by renewables, a certified mix of hydro and solar, which is more expensive but that’s the way we wanted to go.” (Slater’s Surf Ranch, meanwhile, claims to be 100 per cent solar-powered.)

Urbnsurf Melbourne can generate perfect waves every eight seconds for hour after hour.Credit: Stu Gibson/Urbnsurf

Clean energy or not, wave pools continue to be viewed with a degree of scepticism, and not just by the old guard. Some surfers fear that wave pools – along with the inclusion of surfing in the Tokyo Olympics – will see more people take up the sport. But no surfer in their right mind wants more people to take up surfing. There are already 2.5-million surfers in Australia, most of whom seem to be surfing at your local break on any given weekend.

Slater has said that wave pools are only a complimentary option, and that “nothing quite compares” with surfing in the ocean. But it seems clear that the wave-pool phenomenon marks a fundamental shift in the relationship of surfers to the ocean. “The waves at Kelly’s pool are perfect, and so now you can buy perfection, whereas in the past you had to go seek it out,” says surf journalist Mike Jennings. “Surfing has always been about the search, discovering waves, finding the moment.”

It’s also been about a whole raft of things – notions of freedom and escape, of an unmediated and fully immersive connection to nature – that you will never experience by surfing synthetic waves in a chlorinated pool in the middle of a city. And while talk of surfing as a metaphysical experience can sound cheesy, surfing is, at its best, actually a little bit like a … metaphysical experience. As surf historian Matt Warshaw recently wrote in an online rant against wave pools, “At some level [surfers] know, we feel, that we are riding ocean-transported sunbeams, and it is magical. It is what makes surfing the very best of all sports. It is what separates us from parkour.” Of course, wave pools don’t have to threaten all that: you can have your sunbeams and your surf ranches, too.

After my time at Urbnsurf, I returned to Sydney, exhausted. The next day, I went surfing with a friend at our local beach. The waves were average but the water was nice. There’s a sheer sandstone cliff at the south end of the beach that I always like to look at. It was as beautiful as ever. I stared at the horizon and the sky, which gave me a sense of space that I didn’t get at Urbnsurf, which is, of course, hemmed in by concrete walls. But then at Urbnsurf, I got a million waves; that morning at my local, I caught five. Better or worse? Hard to tell. I was just happy to be surfing.

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