The High Stakes of Surfing’s Wave-Pool Arms Race

With the Olympics ahead, artificial-wave makers appear to be one-upping one another in their attempt to bring surfing to the world.

A surfer in a wave pool in Waco, Texas
A surfer in a wave pool in Waco, Texas (Grant Ellis)

In 2015, a rancher named David Howe lifted off from a California airfield on a covert mission. For weeks, a neglected water-ski park in his Central Valley farming community had been mysteriously ensconced in privacy fencing and manned by a security detail. The clandestine development raised eyebrows in town, but according to Howe, locals contracted to do work at the facility weren’t talking.

To quench his curiosity, Howe decided to sneak in an aerial view. In a helicopter normally employed in crop dusting, he and a friend rose over the lake, and saw something like a train car moving back and forth, causing a disturbance on the water’s surface. On a second pass, workers emerged from trailers below. “They looked mad,” Howe says. “We laughed at how hard they were trying to keep their secret.”

Trained as an engineer, Howe had no doubt what the train-car contraption was being used for: Whoever was behind the development was trying to generate oceanlike waves in a lake. This was an odd thing to build in a lightly populated community 100 miles inland. “We don’t have any surfers around here,” Howe says.

Later that year, the surfing legend Kelly Slater caught the surfing world unaware by posting the first video of the waves created at the facility. The pool, he said, was his “little secret spot,” a mechanism designed by his Kelly Slater Wave Company to create “perfect waves”—the kind surfers scour the globe to find. And now, if Slater’s plan worked, West Coast surfers could soon enjoy a dependable supply in landlocked Lemoore, California.

Until that point, the physical act of surfing had just about defied monetization. Great surf spots can net up to tens of millions in visitor dollars for their host communities annually, but the main ingredient—waves—was delivered for free. Enthusiasts rarely paid admission or membership fees. Competitions generated no ticket sales; no price-gouging hotdogs or sodas. Now Slater opened the possibility of growing fans and participants in geographically disparate markets, of controlling access and production, of generating leagues and erecting stadiums. He could turn a fickle, nature-dependent activity into a commodifiable sport.

The pro surfer Gabriel Medina at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch (Grant Ellis)

But as Slater grabbed headlines, something else was happening. Consortiums of engineers, scientists, and financiers were building other wave-generating technologies around the world. Slater’s company wasn’t only generating fake waves; it was spreading an infectious enthusiasm for the very idea. And there was potential gold for whoever could do it best: In 2016, the International Olympic Committee voted to include surfing in the 2020 Japan Games. First to market in Japan meant an introduction to the world.

A race was on.

Like the push toward nuclear-fusion technology or the search for dark matter, the quest for a machine that could accurately replicate oceanic waves has been long and illusive. As far back as the 1920s, European pools used pistons, paddles, and waterfalls to generate waves at public baths. For surfers, a breakthrough occurred in 1969, when Big Surf Waterpark in Tempe, Arizona, developed something like a giant toilet tank that unleashed tons of water into a shallow pool. Notable surfers crossed the Mojave to test these early man-made rollers, and locals made the park a regular hangout. “The culture was genuine; the waves were artificial,” said the surfer Dave Manning in a documentary featuring the water park.

Nevertheless, surf culture was changing. By the 1970s, surfers weren’t looking for long peelers but breaks that harnessed power only great swaths of ocean deliver. The 1987 cult-classic film North Shore honed in on this distinction in its plotline. After winning an Arizona wave-pool contest, its main character, Rick Kane, journeys to Hawaii, where he finds success in big waves. In the real world, the very name Rick Kane became a catchphrase for the buffoonery of attempting to replace nature with technology.

Indoor surfers at a wave pool near Tokyo in 1967 (BW / AP)

When Kelly Slater Wave Company delivered on the long-held dream, it came as something of a moon landing for the surf community: The future was suddenly here. A controlling interest in Slater’s company was purchased by the World Surf League, the organizer of the elite world tour. This year, the Founder’s Cup, held May 5 and 6, was to be the facility’s proof that reliable machines could liberate competitive surfing from the confines of the coasts. To a certain extent, the event delivered: The dun-brown waves contested by international, mixed-gender teams that weekend mesmerized the general public. But about four minutes were required for the pool to settle between waves, creating a significant spread between scores. And Slater’s machine was in fact so consistent that it offered scant variety, and no upsets. Surfer magazine declared the competition “a yawn.”

The ocean’s variability, it turned out, was both its glory and curse. Distant storms send waves in batches called “sets,” but unexpected “lulls” occur as well. Part of the thrill of surfing is in reading and anticipating those changes and being in the right place at the right time. In competition, the number and variety of waves cause scores to volley back and forth, heightening the drama and leading to unpredictable outcomes. The challenge for wave technology isn’t simply making one type of perfect wave; it’s replicating the ocean’s many moods.

On the same weekend as Slater’s Founder’s Cup, a water park called BSR Cable Park in Waco, Texas, released a video of its own wave pool. Shapely, point-break-style waves rose out of artificially blue water three at a time, less than a minute between sets—150 waves an hour. More videos soon followed. The waves could change shape and even evolve, allowing surfers to execute increasingly technical maneuvers.

On May 18, Hawaii’s Seth Moniz landed an unprecedented trick in the pool: a frontside 540, which looks something like a backflip. It was proof that wave pools could push performance. Suddenly, Rick Kane’s story line had been reversed: Hawaiian surfers were migrating inland.

In June, Cheyne Magnusson, the manager of BSR’s new “surf resort,” stood in a rustic operations tower. He seemed dazed by the flurry of calls he’d fielded since the debut of PerfectSwell, the brand name of the technology that generates his pool’s swells. Developed by the California-based company American Wave Machines, the design is essentially driven by fans that push water through a series of chambers hidden behind the pool’s concrete wall. Each chamber represents a “section” of a wave, and the order in which they’re fired can be manipulated to “build” different waves—more power here, less water there, and so forth.

On a tablet running the technology’s software, this series of chambers looked like notes on sheet music. “I call this my iPod,” Magnusson said. “And this is my soundtrack.” The soundtrack was a collection of waves, files really, that Magnusson had developed with feedback from visiting pros. Once they’d “recorded” an acceptable wave or pattern of waves, he only had to push the button and the software looped it endlessly. Magnusson, a former professional surfer, could turn it on and go out for a surf himself.

On my visit, the grounds of the pool were still under construction. A backhoe dug a trench for electrical lines that would power night lighting, which would help attract more attendees: Unlike Slater’s pool, BSR Surf Resort was open to the public. (Currently, the pool is closed as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigates a possible dangerous contamination.)

How many surfers could be accommodated was still being worked out at the time. In the first public session, they’d loaded the pool with 40 surfers. “It was like a mosh pit,” Magnusson said. “A fight broke out instantly.” With a more manageable number, the pool setting compelled surfers to actually communicate for priority—an act that’s usually sorted out by skill level and bullying in the wild. Not only were the waves in development, but the culture of surfing was as well.

Jackson Butler surfs in the BSR Surf Resort pool in Waco, Texas. (Shawn Butler)

Magnusson insisted that the BSR Surf Resort team was not contesting a race with Kelly Slater Wave Company or any other pool developers. “That would imply there is only going to be one winner, and one technology, and that would suck,” Magnusson said. “If there’s going to be a race, hopefully it’s toward variety.”

Nevertheless, actions and announcements from a number of entities have suggested that a race is indeed at hand. As early as September 2017, a Spanish-based pool developer, Wavegarden, announced plans to build a pool near Tokyo in time for the 2020 Games. Following BSR’s video release, Slater invited aerial specialists to the Surf Ranch to help its team develop an “air section,” or ramp, something Waco boasted but Slater’s facility lacked. In July, a group fronted by the former world champion Mark Occhilupo revealed photos of a massive pool under construction in North Queensland, Australia, with a purported capability of generating 2,400 waves an hour among eight distinct breaks.

It could all be a pipe dream. So far, the International Surfing Association has insisted that surfing’s Olympic debut will occur in the ocean, and along with the Tokyo 2020 committee, it’s proposed a beach site 40 miles from the city. But during the window of the 2020 Games, wave conditions at Tokyo beaches are generally unimpressive. This puts surfing at risk of suffering the same fate as other failed trial sports before it, like cricket, lacrosse, and polo. Should surfing appear underwhelming, or even clownish, which it can in anemic surf, the International Surfing Association’s bid to extend surfing to 2024 in Paris, or 2028 in Los Angeles, could sink.

Many commentators have mused that a crystalline wave pool will be the obvious solution. Beyond predictable and impressive swells, these nascent pools lend themselves to arenalike management, ticket sales, and studio conditions for broadcast. “It’s got to happen in a pool,” says Surfer magazine’s photo editor, Grant Ellis. “The Olympic audience can’t watch a couple of surfers bobbing in a flat ocean.”

A rendering of a possible Olympic wave-pool design (Paul Roget Design / Courtesy of Webber Wave Pools)

Over the summer, interesting developments occurred at a clip. The parent company of Kelly Slater Wave Company won community approval to replicate its pool just outside of Tokyo. According to a Japanese news site, construction will be finished this December. Soon after, USA Surfing, the national governing body for surfing, chose BSR’s Waco pool as the “official training center” for the U.S. surf team.* The Australian surf team countered by traveling en masse to Slater’s Lemoore pool.

A lot of work and energy was pouring into technologies that Olympic bodies had denied considering. A final decision on the site of Olympic competition won’t be formally made until July of next year, which may be keeping the crowded field optimistic. But there’s no proven financial model for inland wave pools, despite the amount of capital going into their development. Should these Olympic dreams come to naught, what will happen to a possible glut of artificial waves? Will communities embrace their new coasts? Who is going to buy all of these waves?

The Waco resident Brian Filmore might have the answer. “My story is the opposite of the North Shore story,” he said. “I experienced surfing with my dad in California, but I really learned how to surf here [in the pool]. I’m a central-Texas surfer.”

BSR initially sold annual permits to surfers for the low cost of $1,000, a decision it openly regretted. Locals who’d learned to surf in the Gulf, California, and Hawaii realized the value and snapped up the passes. Over the course of the year, they could end up paying as low as a buck a wave. One surfer, a father, doubled his money. He’d rekindled skills he’d honed during a long stint in the islands, and then he pushed his son into the foamy leftovers ridden by other pass-holders.

Communities across the country already have their surfers. They’re just waiting for the waves.

* This article previously misstated the organization that chose the U.S. surf team’s training center.