The great wave-pool race

Modern technology has been steadily striving to improve nearly every facet of human existence for some time now, yet after many attempts, surfing has remained largely un-duplicable, and thus difficult to improve.

Nevertheless, the race to create a realistic wave pool is on, and we’ve put together a summary of where it’s been, where it is, and where it could be headed.

The Seagaia Ocean Dome, which opened in the early 1990s in Miyazaki, Japan, was arguably mankind’s best attempt at a man-made wave pool so far, as it offered sometimes head-high, barreling chlorine wedges. But the waves were short, and backwash from the first wave made consistency an issue. Then there was the whole business aspect of it–the gigantic complex’s astronomical utility and maintenance costs ultimately caused it to close down in 2007 despite solid attendance.

In terms of surf pools still in existence, Scottish company Murphy’s Waves constructed pools in Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon in Orlando, Florida; The Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas; the Siam Park in the Canary Islands; and most recently in the Wadi Adventure park in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, which was featured in the short film “Electric Blue Heaven” (below). Note that the harem of half-naked Russian models surrounding the pool was not included in the initial design. While this newest pool near Dubai is possibly the best of its kind, the quality of wave is still not high enough to attract an international surf audience. Thus Murphy’s wave pools are intended more as one of many attractions in a family theme park, rather than a serious surfing facility.

“Sheet waves” are another type of surf mimicry, and they are so called because they are created by pumping a sheet of water over a wave-like ramp. Tom Lochtefeld and his company, Waveloch, have been very successful with this type of wave, which is created with his Flowrider invention. There’s even one on a cruise ship. But surfing on sheet waves doesn’t compare to real-life surfing, and thus they have been largely ignored by the core surf population.

Here are a few other amusing attempts at man-made surf:

Despite the failure of the man-made surf industry so far, the demand for good waves is there–just look at the lengths people go to find them in nature. And this is why the race is still on to find technology that works and is economically feasible. Kelly Slater’s Wave Co. and renowned Australian shaper Greg Webber’s Webber Wave Pools seem destined to be a part of this race, along with Spain’s Wavegarden team.

Inspired by a boat wake breaking on a riverbank, in 2003 Weber decided to shift his focus from making surfboards to designing a ring-shaped pool where waves are generated on the outer edge and peel around a central island. But in the patent process he ran into a bit of a standoff, as Kelly Slater had founded a wave company of his own with a very similar ring-shaped design. After the dust settled, Webber continued on with a unique design that creates two waves simultaneously, instead of Kelly’s one, thus avoiding infringement. Webber was even able to secure funding from the Australian Research Council. Check out a video from Webber Wave Pools below that details his endless-wave concept.

As part of the ongoing race, it was announced last week that Slater’s Wave Co. has reached a tentative agreement with a housing conglomerate on the Gold Coast of Australia, with plans being made to install a circular wave pool in the center of the billion-dollar development (see video below). While this is great news for surfers on the overcrowded Goldie, it will be at least two to three years at best before we could see a wave break.

Perhaps furthest along in the race for manufactured stoke is Spain’s Wavegarden team. The seven Basque engineers/surfers stunned the wave-riding world two years ago by unveiling a mysterious video clip of a perfect little left peeling through the fog on what appeared to be a farm of some kind. As more information was released (see video below), we learned that the prototype wave pool was the culmination of over seven years of work, built in a valley just inland of San Sebastian. The wave was far too small to be considered world class, but the next trick up the Spaniards’ sleeves was the revelation that this pool was just a half-scale prototype, with the full-size model designed to offer head-high 30-second barrels going both directions. The wave’s unique underwater generating device, coupled with its inexpensive tarping on dirt rather than laid concrete construction process, makes their design far more economical than anything previously conceived. Wavegarden has done everything right thus far, but what remains to be seen is if they can scale up their technology to a size that gets pulses racing.

To this end, the Wavegarden team has already begun construction on their first full-size pool on their property in Spain, with plans and funding already in motion to build the first commercial location in Bristol, U.K., in 2013. The projected completion date for the Spanish project is some time in the fall, which is just around the corner. If these guys succeed, we may see what the world’s first technically perfect wave looks like–and very very soon.

Greg Webber also has plans in motion, though his are far less grand and far more realistic. He recently announced that he has redesigned his pool to look a lot more like Wavegarden’s, abandoning, at least for now, the endless-wave concept. As he explains in a press release: “The crescent shaped version of the Webber Wave Pool increases the wave height ratio to the pool’s maintenance and building costs.” Webber is reportedly preparing to construct his first full-scale pool somewhere in New South Wales, after negotiating a land deal with one of his investors. He expects to have his first prototype completed some time in 2013.

Stay tuned to find out who’ll win the man-made wave wars in the end.