Wavegarden and other wave pool technologies have been on our radar for a few years now, but it’s fair to say it was the GOAT (Kelly Slater) who gave us a real glimpse of mechanized perfection and turned up the man-made wave hysteria. The growth and popularity of wave pool technology brings many issues to light, ranging from environmental impact to surfing ethos. Regarding the latter, do we sell out and jump on board, or do we resist as surfing purists?
Oddly, I’ve lived through this debate twice already. The first came in snowboarding and the second in climbing. As it turns out, the purist in me lost out both times.
Full disclosure, I don’t surf spectacularly. But I do surf diligently. And it is my floundering diligence that drives my fascination with Kelly Slater’s mechanized wave. The purist in me is repulsed by the concept, yet I’ve gleaned through my sad, stubborn experience in other sports that a consistently generated wave would greatly improve my surfing.
I’m sure I’ve raised a few hackles by now. “Never sell out. Surfing shouldn’t lose its purity. If it isn’t pure experience, it isn’t surfing.” Fair enough. I wrestle with it too. But let’s examine some of the roots of these puritanical protests. I think they arise from our sense of numbers, a fear of overpopulated lineups, and perhaps some elitism. When we are in the lineup, we are the 1%. When we surf we enjoy an experience that launches us out of the mundane.
So why do we resist a technology that might offer the opportunity of surfing a perfectly consistent wave to us and to others? Because within our souls, we are snobs of the worst sort. We know Sartre was correct: “Hell,” he exclaimed, “is other people.” And if there is a Wave-Co generator, it is basically a ski lift. And where there is a ski lift, there will be a madhouse of people. And if there are more people in our lineups, our positions, and even our existence will be challenged. And what if they even surf better than us? Let the snobbery spread.
Our lineups are already crowded. We know most everyone surfs poorly. And if they surf well they lack style. Or worse, they lack soul. Just read comments on Insta, Surfline or The Inertia. We know. And we know the first principles of surfing are not technical. They are soul and style. KSWC however, will generate an entirely new generation of techno-fiend surfers.
If we project wave pool popularity out 10 years, our breaks will be littered with children (not even groms) replicating the drop-turn-bang-drop-turn-air that so pleases the WSL judges. And they will be more skilled than we can hope to be. By then, even if we sell our souls and participate in this mechanized beauty, we will have aged and (Kelly will be the exception) will never surf as well as we did that one time on that one wave.
This technology will erode the ethos of our sport. It will create weak surfers. They will be risky. They will misunderstand or not even conceive of etiquette. They will be soul-less techno fiends. They will misunderstand beauty. Surely they will fail grace. They will drop in.
So should the Kelly Slater Wave be set aside as a training ground for Olympians, the elite group currently sampling its beautiful curves, or be outlawed for eco-conscious reasons? If this wave becomes fodder for the masses, surfing may lose its soul. Every Manny, Moe, and Jack will surf. And they may surf better than you. Everyone will understand timelessness. Everyone will carve, shred, rip and curl. The sensation of surfing will spread like a disease. Or a drug. “And if everyone is super, no one is.” Elite status, gone. Snobbery, gone. 1%, gone.
I know this because I lived it first in ‘84, when I spent $500 (all I had at the time) for a used, tax-evaded, partially broken, made in France/designed in Utah snow surfboard. Not a snowboard. A Winterstick. A swallowtail. It was shaped with a foam core and molded with surfing in mind. The snow surfboard. There is a reason the snowboard we know today had its birth in the icy hills of Vermont. The metal edge, the bindings: the ice. These snowboards designed for ice are ridden in a way that bears little resemblance to surfing. Current snowboards are designed for resorts and packed conditions.
In contrast, snow surfboards had no substantive bindings–one had to be able to move their feet. It had flex. It had foam. There were no metal edges. Metal edges on a surfboard? No need. The Winterstick even had a skeg. It had a single to double concave to V. The Shred-Show dude would geek-out over it. Snow surfing was to be done off-piste. Its raison d’etre was powder, because powder was the only medium reminiscent of the sensation we seek. Powder is the sensation of the 1%.
So we hiked. Nationally, there were a small number of ski resorts that permitted snowboarding. One of them happened to be near my home, but we spurned it. We knew the purchase of a lift ticket would suck the life from what we did. Because we surfed the backcountry. We cut our skis short or used snowshoes for the uphill slog. We carried skins and crammed our skis into our backpacks because we failed to conceive of anything as brilliant as a split board.
And I, for one, continued to spurn the resorts for the beauty of the untracked pow until the day Shaun White shot into the lower atmosphere doing some sort of mute grab, leaving me slack-jawed.
That was when I broke down. I went to that resort. But to this day I still do not catch air in a halfpipe. For I cannot. And when I ride switch, there is generally a 5-year-old who passes me with a perplexed look on her face as she alternates toe to heel, as if that’s what one does from the womb. My skills seemingly degenerated as snowboarding took advantage of ski lifts. With the simple tech of a ski lift, kids were able to accomplish in a few days what took a purist a season to master.
The second iteration of this debate was argued and defended, deftly, in my Philosophy 105 class. The assignment: write a paper on a controversial topic. Defend a stance. Give counter arguments, support your points. Summarize. Drive argument home. I chose the topic of trad climbing versus the new/controversial sport/gym climbing. But by then, I was a bit wiser.
I understood my purist argument had to change slightly. By then, I had started to see nuance. I began to reflect, to deliberate. And the progression of snowboarding informed my thoughts. New school vs. old.
I was arguably a better climber than snowboarder and my views were informed accordingly because I had experience at the sharp end of a rope. I’d nearly destroyed my lower extremities due to a fall with my poorly placed trad gear. I’d also witnessed a zipper line of pieces pull 1,500 feet off the deck in Yosemite and helped rescue a group of outgunned traditionalists. I knew the problems with traditional climbing. Yet I appreciated its beauty and ethos as well.
That said, we were fearful of what we saw in the new “gym” climbing and even angry about many of the “sport” routes. American Fork Canyon was beginning to bloom. Overweight, out-of-shape, and under-skilled climbers were drilling their way into history with cheap top ropes and unconscionable style. Their ethics and ethos were bad. Their litter scarred the canyon walls. Moreover, they (I refer to the men) wore lycra tights and never considered that such an aesthetic might be expressed in the routes they created. For some perspective, they were surfing in speedos.
Yet as I witnessed their detritus, I also saw enough to recognize that we’d be better if this subset of climbing blossomed in a specific way. It became obvious that we would progress further, faster, stronger. So we built a gym in the garage. Technique was honed with wood and plastic holds. We pushed our limits using the sporting techniques bolstered by a trad ethic. Thus my argument and practice evolved.
Technique changed and as it did, the sport changed both in degree and kind. A new discipline of mixed climbing emerged. The limits of traditional climbing advanced. The ethos of ice climbing ironically became cleaner, less reliant upon wrist straps. And with improved technique, routes and incomprehensible lines sprouted on blank faces of both granite and ice.
It is a strong statement to say that a sport can change not just in degree, but in kind. But I believe we’ve seen it already in other disciplines. Ask Jeremy Jones if he participates in a different sport today than he did when he rode a helicopter to the top of every run. He now has an entirely different view of backcountry snowboarding. His boards are also of a distinct design. The truth is, most resort snowboarders can’t physically comprehend what he does. Because they are differing sports in kind.
And any climber recognizes the similarities between a top rope and free solo, but only a fool would argue they are the same sport. They are so different in degree that they are different in kind. Alex Honnold does not play by the same rules, the same game or in the same field as most climbers–even if he just climbed the same crack on the same wall. But it does not mean a gym, TR, or trad experience doesn’t influence or improve his solos.
The insights and templates of these experiences can be overlaid onto surfing as it faces the KSWC. The tools, the style, the risk, the entire ethos of this new opportunity in surfing is so different in degree that it verges on a difference in kind. And such differences can only be understood by insiders of the sport.
Wave pools will create a subset of surfing. Just as “backcountry” is distinguished from the halfpipe in snowboarding, a new discipline in surfing will soon exist perhaps as “park vs. ocean,” just as different as longboarding is from riding a shortboard. Or as different as big wave surfing is from stand up or wind surfing. At some undefinable point, the risk and commitment of the big wave experience defines a new sport because the experience is simply that different. Such will be the differences between park and ocean surf. But the different experiences will enlighten the sports and their players.
The experience at wave pools may actually feature a literal standing line. With tickets. Maybe even a wristband a la water parks across the world. There will be no double wave hold downs. No one will be trapped inside. One won’t even have to paddle out or claim a position in a lineup. Any concern about unmarked hazards will be forgotten. There will be no need to read the ocean or wait for sets or judge position. There will be no need to gauge the quality or direction of a swell. There will be little need to paddle. It will be a brief exercise in position, stroke, pop up, set a perfect line, bottom turn, get barreled. Soon something I’ve sought and perpetually failed at, in spite of earnest effort, will become commonplace. Just like that.
And there may be a silver lining: some may prefer the mechanized wave in the same way some prefer to ski corduroy.
For me, undoubtedly the skills cultivated in a contrived wave riding experience will push and improve my surfing. Similarly, it will push the sport forward as the skills of the masses improve.
And there are other huge advantages to a predictable wave. We will better understand fin and board design under controlled conditions. After all, controlled conditions are what science and design engineering are all about. We are currently designing fins and boards in the uncontrolled experience that is an ocean.
The sport of park surfing will push us all in the ocean. Our surfing journals will be full of stories of discovery/rediscovery reminiscent of those of gym rats who step outside to discover trad climbing. A discovery of wilderness. The notable feeling of rock. It will be just as we see with the resurgence of snow surfing. These are tales of timelessness and enlightenment. We will read and be reminded of the same in surfing.
After all, it is an essence we seek as we surf. It is the timelessness, the rhythm, the random operant conditioning of intermittent bliss that drives our quest. My home break is frequented by longboarders, short boarders, SUPs and an army of wind surfers. The 1km paddle keeps most of the body boarders away; they appear about as frequently as the monk seals. But as I’ve transitioned between all types of boards and distinct forms of surfing, I recognize them as different sports in kind. But I appreciate their essence and spirit as surf.
Such a recognition helps mitigate my anger at a windsurfer or SUP when they ride what I perceived as my wave. This attitude helps me see the beauty and grace in their activity. And I’ve come to realize there are even good days better suited to riding a longboard. And others where I wish I was a better windsurfer. So though they may be distinct sports, I don’t deny they are all legitimate forms of what we call surfing. The ocean is our medium. Our boards are instruments. And I am pleased to watch artists at work.
So if given the option, I will show up at a wave park. I will pay. I will bring my best boards. I will ask for help. I will beg for instruction. I will use that wave like the very ski lift that transported Shaun White to another dimension. For I know that within this system I can increase my wave count. I know I can refine technique. I can record my flaws and I can work them out with consistency. I know I can be refined, improved, coached and criticized. And I will be a better surfer because of it.
But I also know something the future wave pool rats may not discover for a decade or two: that nirvana lies in the unpredictable, the windblown, the vacant and the cold. I know that the meditation lies in the wave count. The crush lies on the inside, the breathlessness is beneath, and the sets don’t always come in three. I know the fear. I know the beauty. And I know the frustration and pain. Without these, it is as the purists insist, a technical exercise.
So bring on Kelly Slater’s perfect wave. I’d love to see one of my kids rip turns like John John one day at my home break. But I know they won’t get the technique, repetition or consistency out of our wave. And they certainly don’t have JJF genetics on their side. So let them learn proper technique. Let them learn etiquette. Let them witness grace. Let them visualize style.
And then let them return to the ocean and our wave. Let them bring their beauty and newfound power. Let them combine it with the unpredictability and the wind. Let them paddle through and duck dive the sets. And let them discover how to meld technique with the beauty and power of the ocean. Therein we will see grace. Therein we will see style. Together we will experience the epiphany of the ocean in its unpredictable beauty.