Subjected, as we all were, to a few anxious moments at the end of last year, The Wave Bristol has navigated the woods of financial uncertainty and will begin construction in 2017. If all goes to plan, the park will open to the public early next year and provide a central hub for surfing in the UK; or at least for those south of London.
For any of you who have lost track, or lost interest, here is a quick reminder of where we’re at with inland surfing.
It all really kicked off around six years ago, with Spanish company Wavegarden creating a prototype of a small but perfectly formed wave that broke over the length of a pool. Driven by something a bit like an underwater snowplough, this produced a single line of swell that depending on the size and depth of the pool, would offer multiple sections of a surfable wave for beginners and advanced surfers. More powerful and more efficient than any of the pump based systems that had come before, surfers and business folk alike were impressed.
In August 2015, Wavegarden opened to the public at Surf Snowdonia, just outside the village of Dolgarrog. Minus a couple of technical glitches, the park has been a hit, attracting 150,000 visitors in its first season, twice the number predicted, and hosting a Red Bull Unleashed competition with some of the sport’s biggest names.
Surf Snowdonia as soon from the central pontoon.
A fantastic start, but the bar would be raised again before the year was out. Not one to be outdone, 11-time world champion Kelly Slater released footage of his own version, using similar technology to create a fast, barrelling wave that turned the heads of even the most stubborn purists. Though not open to the public and perhaps not suitable for many, the implications for high performance surfing were clear and in May 2016 the World Surf League bought the Kelly Slater Wave Company, with its wave-making system.
Even with the dubious water colour, we still wouldn’t mind giving this a go!
Whether for competition or as a means of training, it seems surfing’s governing body views wave pools as a means of furthering the sport. Other authorities have taken note and though Tokyo 2020 will see a competition run in the ocean, wave pools must have been high on the agenda for the IOC when awarding surfing Olympic status, with half an eye on future tournaments.
So what does this mean for surfing back home in Britain? Understandably both Surf Snowdonia and The Wave Bristol will be hoping they can encourage more people to take up the sport, but what kind of impact could wave pools have on our most gifted wave riders? Regularly left in the dark ages by more accomplished nations, we now find ourselves leading the way in what many see as the ultimate in training and improvement.
Early indications suggest this is not an opportunity that will be wasted. The Wave Bristol have said they will run a ‘High Performance Surf Centre’ in collaboration with Surfing Great Britain, intended to support and develop athletes. Surf Snowdonia meanwhile hosted an event on the 2016 UK Pro Tour, also holding high performance coaching sessions for the Welsh Junior Squad.
Certainly many believe that mechanical waves could take high performance surfing to an entirely new level. After his visit to Surf Snowdonia Ozzie pro Jack Freestone praised it as ‘the future of surfing’ with UK Tour director Dave Reed calling it ‘a fast-track for any surfer who wishes to rapidly improve their skills’.
It is not however, an opinion shared by all. As well as those morally opposed to the whole concept; “soulless”, “against the principles of the sport”, etcetera, there are critics of the model being used in North Wales.
Touting Wavegarden 2.0 technology: ‘The Cove’, that looks set to make its commercial debut in Perth later this year, Australia’s national surf coach Andy King suggested the current system could lead to dull, ‘robotic’ surfing’. The company licensed to roll out the updated version, which will use a diamond shaped pool, say it will produce one wave every four seconds, instead of one a minute, leading to more variability in an environment that looks and feels much more like the ocean.
An artist’s impression of the wave pool to be built in Perth, Australia
With similar projects lined up for Sydney and Melbourne as well as across North America, the global map of inland waves will likely look very different by the time the Tokyo Games begin. Indeed our days of being torch bearers in the field may soon be at an end. Local councils will however be encouraged by the achievements of Surf Snowdonia and on an island of around 500,000 surfers, many of who live miles from the sea, there will be plenty of interest.
If the park in Snowdonia is a trial run, a toe dipped in the water; the fortunes of the Bristol site could be a pivotal moment for artificial waves in the UK. A positive response would pave the way for further projects and perhaps be the first step towards creating a new nation of world class surfers.