The hunt for the perfect wave, the early morning surf check, the tribal meeting point, talk of tides and sets, the long paddle out, the waiting — some of the thrills of surfing are in the anticipation.
So you would think it would be sacrilege for a surfer to enjoy something man-made, consistent and predictable like an artificial wave pool.
But you can forget Bells Beach, Snapper Rocks or Margaret River; the new surf frontier is nowhere near the coast.
Australia is set to become the latest destination to build commercial, artificial surf parks. Melbourne will be first, followed closely by Sydney and Perth, with a dozen others also on the drawing board.
Perth-based company Urbnsurf will begin construction on the Melbourne surf park this month, at a large site near Tullamarine Airport.
Its founder and chief executive Andrew Ross said the company was using the latest Wavegarden technology from Spain, called “The Cove”.
“The technology that’s come in the past drags a large profile through the water and displaces the water to create breaking waves,” he said.
“The way The Cove works is they have a series of modular systems connected together under a pier, and those systems work by pushing water out from a central axis. It interacts with the bottom profile of the lagoon and that creates a breaking wave.
“It operates in a very similar manner to how swells are produced in the ocean and swells then approach the shore, lift up and create breaking waves.”
The company already has land set aside and plans approved for a site in Homebush in Sydney, as well as a third park in Perth. But it is thinking big.
“We’re looking to roll this out in all capital cities around Australia and potentially some of the larger regional areas, once we’ve proven up the model, and we’re also looking to operate internationally,” Mr Ross said.
The Cove is expected to produce between 600 and 1,000 waves an hour, passing through three separate surfing zones, from paddling waves for beginners to tubing waves over two metres high.
The cost to ride will depend on age and experience but will be between $20 and $50 an hour.
“It’ll satisfy 99 per cent of all the surfers out there,” Mr Ross said.
“The experience is phenomenal. The quality and quantity of waves you can get in a short period of time is very convenient.”
Build it, but will they come?
There are obvious questions about whether surfers will pay for something they currently enjoy for free.
So the ABC quizzed a procession of surfers leaving Bondi Beach this week and they all championed wave pools as a brilliant idea they would be willing to try.
“I think they’re a good idea especially for a consistent wave to get good practice,” one Bondi local said.
“Having a wave pool where you’ve got that perfect wave to be able to constantly practise every day, sure I’d definitely pay the money.”
While it’s a small sample, the other surfers the ABC spoke to agreed wholeheartedly.
But that hasn’t always been the feeling. Early attempts at artificial wave pools around the globe met with derision and complaints the waves were too small and not powerful enough.
‘The driving range of surfing’
Retired surfing world champion Barton Lynch remembered trying early prototype wave pools in the 1980s and said the new technologies meant they now had something worthwhile to offer.
“To be able to create waves, man-made waves, and have them in a constant, safe environment is something that really does excite me,” My Lynch said.
“Getting a perfect wave is a really hard thing to do, but if you can pay a small amount of money and go in there and take your turn and get a perfect wave, that’s something that I think a lot of people will be interested in.
“We could be in for the ride of our life with some perfect waves that are there at the press of a button and, if so, that’s well worth my time.”
Mr Ross agreed and said he hoped many surfers would use his parks to hone their techniques before heading back out into the ocean.
“Just in the last five years that I’ve been involved, we’ve seen a really rapid increase in both the acceptance of surf parks but also emerging technologies,” he said.
“In the same way that people love to play golf on links courses, they still need to use golf driving ranges to practise their technique and ability, so surf parks can be seen as the driving range of surfing in some respects.”
There are currently only three commercial, artificial wave pools in the world — Surf Snowdonia in Wales, NLand in Austin, Texas, and the Wadi Adventure Surf Pool in Dubai.
Surf Snowdonia has been open less than three years and welcomes more than 70,000 water users a year, more than it had anticipated.
There is also the much-publicised demonstration wave pool in California, designed and built by 11-times surfing world champion Kelly Slater.
The World Surf League’s (WSL) new chief executive Sophie Goldschmidt said they were so excited about it that the WSL had bought a majority stake in it and would host two of its events there this year.
“For a variety of reasons, the sport is at a real tipping point and momentum is really growing,” she told the ABC.
“If we want to keep growing the sport and make sure it holds the place I think it deserves in the broader sporting global landscape, then we’re continuing to push the boundaries and try new things.
“We still feel that our ocean events and surfing in the natural environment is as important as ever, but we also have this amazing new technology that allows us to go to markets that we could never have dreamt of going to, and it answers some of the challenges the sport has had for a few years especially from a program, broadcast perspective.”
With fifteen other wave parks under construction internationally, there is also an international race to design improved wave technology.
Queensland-based firm Surf Lakes is at the forefront of that race with a unique wave machine that uses a central plunger which forces out waves in concentric circles, like dropping a stone into water.
Surf Lakes director Reuben Buchanan said the key to commercially viable surf parks was productivity.
“You can shape all the waves a bit differently. You can have a barrel on one side for competitions, a beginner wave over here, an intermediate wave here, and you can spread everyone around the park so that at any time, you can have 240 surfers in the park at one time, all catching 10 waves every hour,” he explained.
“If you can’t make lots of waves, you can’t get lots of people in there and you can’t make lots of money.”
Construction of its full-scale demonstration pool in Rockhampton is almost complete and already it has widespread interest.
“We’ve had enquiries from all over the world, from 15 different countries, about 60-odd inquiries, so there is a lot of interest, whether it’s theme parks or resort developers or property developers or just councils. They want to bring surfing to their areas,” Mr Buchanan said.
“You’re talking about an Australian-developed and created and owned intellectual property around surf parks and exporting that to the world.”
Surf Lakes has also attracted some big-name backers like world surf champions Mark Occhilupo and Barton Lynch.
“We’re at the beginning of this technology, really,” Mr Lynch enthused.
“There’s rumours of pools that are in existence being able to double the size of waves we’ve seen to date.
“So who knows where this thing can go. In the end, it’s going to be a very valid part of surfing, then a very valid business model, I think.”
The future of surfing
Currently there are more than 35 million surfers worldwide and the estimated global surf industry spend is more than $10 billion a year.
But the WSL is losing revenue and sponsorship, and iconic surf companies like Billabong have struggled to remain financially viable.
Reuben Buchanan said the advent of wave pools might be part of the answer.
“By introducing surfing to more people, by taking it inland, it means there’ll be more t-shirts, more surfboards, more surfboard fins, more surf lessons, the whole industry it will actually allow to grow,” he argued.
Sophie Goldschmidt agreed surfing could use the boost.
“Quite frankly, anyone that has an interest in surfing we want to engage with,” she said. “That’s good for the sport, that’s good for business and, collectively, that will help take things to the next level.”
The soil has been turned in Melbourne, and the Rockhampton pool will be operation in 10 weeks’ time, leaving Australia at the crest of a new wave.
With surfing set to be part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and surf technology advancing rapidly, the risk and rewards are both high.