When they do work, they sure thrill! Photo by Jimmy Wilson
Is Our Utopian Wave Pool Future A Sham?
Dissecting synthetic surfing’s outlandish plans and rare execution.
Wave pools are on the tip of the surf world's collective tongue.
New projects are being announced on, seemingly, a weekly basis. They're hailed as the future of surfing and derided as the source of its impending demise. Wave pools will soon be everywhere, delivering ersatz slides to the landlocked masses, imbuing them with stoke before they purchase tickets to the coast where they will immediately drown due to a total lack of ocean knowledge.
Or maybe not.
Wave pools are nothing new. Big Surf, in Tempeh, Arizona, built the first prototype way back in 1969. Allentown, Pennsylvania, hosted the first professional wave pool event in 1985. Tom Carroll won $4500 and the Tour never returned. The ASP returned to freshwater in 1988, where Damian Hardman danced for his dinner at the Marui Wavepool Pro and took the win in chest high closeout slop.
Wadi Adventure, in the United Arab Emirates, sells waves deep in the desert. The Seagaia Ocean Dome, in Miyazaki, Japan, was one part sideshow, one part kinda scary backwash-slab until its closure in 2007 (it was temporarily re-opened in 2016.)
Quality-wise each pool was/is lacking either power, decent shape, or both. They're interesting bits of engineering, enough to tempt a surfer visiting for other reasons to take a dip. But nowhere close to what the ocean can deliver. Not enough to book a ticket and fly in from the coast for a session.
Which is what current wave pool designers are promising. American Wave Machines, Surf Lakes, KSWC, Wavegarden, and others, aim to build something better. Good surf, the type of stuff that tempts the experienced, rather than mere crumble burgers meant for the uninitiated. The technology is here, it's only a matter of time until wave pools become ubiquitous, designers and operators begin raking in cash, and the surf world experiences an explosion wrought by an influx of landlubbers.
Only, it's not exactly that simple. In addition to being possible, a wave pool must be financially viable and have access to four important qualities. They must be built in an area with relatively inexpensive land due to their large footprint. They must have reliable access to large amounts of water (According to environmental impact reports, Lemoore loses up to 300,000 gallons of water per day- roughly half of an Olympic swimming pool.) Wave pools need to be accessible to the public, a quality present at BSR Surf Resort in Waco, Texas due to its proximity to DFW airport. Finally, they must be constructed in an area with relatively inexpensive power.
Finding a site with all four aforementioned qualities is not easy—something the WSL learned recently after paying $6 million for an 80-acre parcel of Florida land. A too-high water table makes construction impossible. What they plan to do with the former industrial site swampland is unknown.
Furthermore, just because something can be built does not mean it can be operated at the near constant level necessary for profitability. KSWC's Lemoore pool has been plagued by malfunctions in the past. Surf Lake's prototype Yeppoon experiment tore itself to shreds. Blown out welds, torn up concrete, and a destroyed plunger required a near-total rebuild.
Of course, missteps are to be expected in any new industry and a few mistakes or breakdowns don't necessarily indicate a lack of viability. However, the emerging market attracts bad actors, those bent on using a promise to attract investors with little to no plan of following through.
This was the case in San Clemente, California. Jourdan Groves, Michael Ruffner, Michael Melcher, and Christopher Schlegel used their project, Surf N Turf, to raise more than $1 million from investors. Surf N Turf was approved in 2011 and was purported to be a large miniature golf course and surf park. Instead, the four used the money for personal expenses. All except Schlegel have pleaded no contest to charges of fraud.
In 2014, Surf City Hui, founded by Chad Waters and Tyler Greene, proposed to build a large scale surf resort on, of all places, Oahu. The founders claimed the resort would be opened by 2017. Despite impressive concept art the project fizzled, after which Greene and Waters purchased the decrepit Coco Palms resort on Kauai in 2016. The project is currently in foreclosure, with Greene and Waters accused of “making 'false representations' to their financier.” Furthermore, “the entire balance of the loan remains unpaid, 'despite repeated attempts to work with you on a solution,' and a long period during which the loan servicing company delayed instigating foreclosure proceedings.”
Other notable wave pool failures include a Christian youth camp in Oregon, located on the former Rajneeshee cult site. Despite a $30 million 'gift' the wave pool failed to materialize.
A touted surf park in Sochi, Russia that was never built, despite releases in 2012 claiming it would be the largest wave pool in the world.
NLAND, in Austin, Texas, built using Wavegarden tech, operated for a short period, flooded the surrounding neighborhood, and closed after only two years. It's since been purchased by the WSL. Future plans are unknown.
The Ron Jon Surf Park, much touted by the surf world in the early Oughts, met its demise in 2008 when Ron Jon pulled its name from the project, which then ran out of money. “We had some flaws in the technology and invested quite a bit of money in fixing that,' said Jamie Meiselman, founder and chief executive officer of the company behind the project, which calls itself Surfparks LLC. 'The good news is we were able to solve the problems; the bad news is it came at a cost.'"
Current projects that are making news, but which seem unlikely to come to fruition, are being proposed in Oceanside and Palm Springs.
The Oceanside project, built near decent surf, in a state known for droughts and exorbitant property costs, has yet to receive permitting but will supposedly include a 35-acre wave park.
DSRT Surf, the most recent wave pool proposed by Josh Kerr, The Hobgoods and Shane Beschen, is to cost a total of $200 million dollars (should it receive permitting approval) and plans to include a golf course and ample timeshares.
DSRT Surf will be near a park already in development by Cheyne Magnusson and Kalani Robb, under the name Pono Acquisition Partners I, LLC, on the site of the former Oasis Water Park—the location Rick Kane used to catapult himself into surf stardom before falling victim to Lance Burkhardt's leash-pulling heat tactics. Considering the fact that Pono's site is being built on pre-existing infrastructure, in an area without stringent water use laws, it seems far more likely to materialize than the massive project put forth by DSRT.
Make no mistake, there will be more wave pools. Eventually. Somewhere or other. But the notion that they will dot the globe like moistened pox is an illusion being sold by developers. It's a dream that's too good to be true. One meant to snatch up investment dollars, entice localities into granting development approval, before the wave pool is scrapped and more realistic goals are achieved. Like shopping malls, timeshares, and golf courses.