“All these people signed non-disclosure agreements in order to attend,” says Roberts. “All these leaders in the industry were mesmerized watching the prototype making its little two inch high endless waves. That was the greatest time of my life to see and explain to all these amazing people how we could revolutionize this great sport. Everyone there agreed that it would change the sport and help it grow.”
But ’77 world champ Shaun Tomson was less than impressed by the demonstration: “ I reviewed a design at a Quik event at the Ocean Institute at Dana Point many years ago and while I thought the concept of a never ending circular wave was rather elegant and quite brilliant the execution was poor,” says Tomson. “It reminded me of rowers on a trireme (a type of galley ship) trying to maintain a constant wave. There must an easier way to produce a constant swell without all that flapping.”
Slater admits Roberts inspired his interest in wave pools but says there were clear problems with his technology: “Kevin’s ideas definitely sparked the idea in my mind to see where this could go,” says Slater. “His original concept was using a multi-paddle wave generating system around the outer walls that were timed to work in unison. The part I really liked was that it was dynamic with an ever-changing wave. Where it fell short was the fact that the waves were basically still in the subcritical realm or windswell-like. His assumptions of the energy needed were off according to our full time scientist, Adam Finchem.”
Roberts knows his now infamous youtube clip has held him up to some ridicule, most notably on Lewis Samuel’s now defunct blog, Postsurf. Robert’s breathless narration, delivered in hibiscus print Hawaiian shirt in front of a backdrop photo of a palm tree and a tropical beach, included the immortal lines: “The way that you lose this race is by wiping out and the wipe outs will be spectacular … I liken this to a Nascar type environment, a racing environment. It’s so exciting.”
This comment on Postsurf from someone called “Skinny” was typical of the reaction from surfers: “I just watched a ripple go around in a pool of dirty water behind what appears to be a meth house. I want their drugs then I can picture fitting into that tiny ripple and its endless possibilities too.”
Roberts realizes now he may have got his initial pitch to surfers wrong. “First let me say that I’m very sorry that I am the worst spokesperson on the planet and I said more than a few things that shouldn’t be said to surfers,” Roberts admits today. “Mistakes are made but it doesn’t diminish the potential of the invention.”
Slater has this bit of advice for his former collaborator: “I haven’t spoken to Kevin in a long time. He’s definitely passionate about his concept but I feel he would be better represented hiring someone else to do his marketing and taking time to prove out his science more thoroughly.”
Slater concedes he also discussed wave pool designs with Webber in Australia in 2005 or 2006. “Greg and I spoke at lengths probably five or six years ago in Coolangatta about wave pools but didn’t catch on to the fact that we were both actually making our own, probably because we were both being tight-lipped or maybe didn’t realize the other was serious,” says Slater. “At one point about two years ago we could possibly have joined forces but we were both too far down the road on what we’d worked separately on for years … There are clear differences in our technologies and even Webber is aware enough about that to have modified and re-applied for a patent to include the core idea exclusive to our technology which is a ‘Solitary Wave’. Greg himself can tell you the difference between a Kelvin Subcritical Wave (boat wake/wind swell wave) that I believe he is producing and a Soliton or Solitary wave (groundswell) that we are producing.”
Greg Webber, meanwhile, continues to refine his design at the Australian Maritime College in Tasmania, with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Australian Research Council. He says he hopes to have a full-size working model built within two years, at a cost of around $10 million. He is currently in discussions with investors.
“We have had contact from a guy, an Australian surfer with lots of money, who wants it for himself and his mates. His priority was, how much to make two metre waves? He’s not after any business models. That might speed things up for it hugely,” says Webber.
How confident is he that his design will work when scaled up? “100% completely. I not only know it will work but I know why other things don’t,” he declares.
Webber says he spoke to Roberts in 2005, after his own design was patented. “I was interested to see what he was like, because I thought the concept was highly complex, but what we were doing was achieving a similar thing with less complexity,” says Webber. “We have a US patent which considers his patent. We haven’t infringed on his thing in any shape or form … We know we have the right to build exactly what we’re building. That’s clear.”
And Webber remains convinced his is the superior design. “With all our experience, this is the cheapest and the simplest. It’s the most idiot-proof thing you can get. When you get it right you’re making waves at an incredibly low cost.”
Webber says he welcomes Slater’s presence in the wave pool market for the attention it brings. “He’s giving credibility to this overall design in a way, that I could never do,” says Webber. “With all the media contacts in the world, I’m still only a surfboard shaper … We still get on well. I really think in the end we’re going to end up working together in some way. He’s got the profile and I’ve got the design.”
With the acceptance of Slater’s patent, that prospect now seems unlikely. “It won’t be long before one or both of us create something people can enjoy. I’m sure it’ll be fun either way and as Greg said, competition is good for this type of thing,” says Slater.
Webber, on this point at least, agrees: “Now that they have their own patent getting some traction with the US office then maybe it will just be a matter of both teams trying to make the most amazing waves possible, in different ways, as against what did look like an impending IP battle,” says Webber. “A much nicer battle hey, the battle to make the biggest best waves on earth. Oh, that’s right, forgot about Teahupoo.”
For more, check the following clips:
Kevin Roberts’ Surfing the Ring
Kelly Slater Wave Company
Greg Webber Wave Pool