The benefits of wave pools are obvious, but what about the costs?
Another week, another wave pool. This time various sources have quoted Greg Webber as saying he's weeks away from breaking dirt on his long discussed wave pool. Webber, as usual, was bullish. "Wavegarden will end up being redundant," he was reported to say. "They’d be horrified at what Kelly did and even more fucking horrified when I build my one."
Now you've seen Kelly Slater’s man made wave haven't you? Does a bear shit with one eye closed? Does Darth Vader sweat playing squash? Of course you have. That perfect wave was cyberinjected, not by coincidence I’d theorise, into the surfing world’s eyeballs the day after Adriano’s de Souza world title win at Pipeline back in 2015.
Since then the steady drip of footage of surfing's top professionals, and Flume, surfing the artificial perfection have backed up Kelly's original statement that, “This is the best man made wave ever made, without doubt.”
As a surfer I never to cease to marvel at the wave. I had drawn such waves (well, being a goofy I scribbled lefthanders, obviously,) on my pencil case for the better part of my secondary schooling and would cut my left testicle off (the right already sacrificed for a Mentawai boat trip) to surf it. However there was one aspect of the whole wave pool movement that has barely been commented on. Kelly, Webber and Wavegarden are attempting to create both a wave and a commodity, and their lack of mutually exclusivity had me worried.
Some people would say that the fact that waves come free is one of the very pillars of surfing’s appeal. Kelly's wave, as good as it is, and Webbers, as good as he says it will be, won’t come free. It will cost money and need to be sold and marketed. With my limited economics and knowledge of supply and demand, I predict it won’t be cheap. As a comparison, the cheapest rate at the only current artificial wave open to the public, Wavegarden's one in Wales called Surf Snowdonia, is around $60 per hour. If Kelly’s wave has a fair say in surfing’s future, will surfing’s future be only for the rich?
Now I know artificial ones aren't the only perfect wave that you have to pay for. For a good 30 years Tavarua in Fiji was the same. The owners of Tavarua Resort had the legal right to enforce exclusivity over the waves of Cloudbreak and Restaurants, and the only way to surf them was to fork out the 500 bucks a day to stay there. Elsewhere in the Maldives and in Nihiwatu in Indonesia, ownership of certain waves meant to surf there also came with a hefty price.
The owners always maintained that this exclusivity came with a more sustainable stewardship. The local people, and the local environment, were looked after far better than if rampant unchecked surf tourism was to take its place. They have a point, as a trip to Bali’s Bukit Peninsula will show you.
However it’s perhaps easier to maintain environmental and social standards, when you are charging small numbers of rich people a shitload of money to go there.
Of course the man made waves are a little different. We are not exactly sure how easy these are to replicate, or where they can be made. Perhaps their existence will take the pressure of existing quality waves whose crowds are mostly at breaking point. I mean the Superbank is perfect, and costs nothing to surf, but trying to get a wave out there on your own can be virtually impossible.
Yet I can’t see these pools being any type of antidote to surfing’s wider problems. The lack of capacity and huge demand won’t address crowding issues. It’s anticipated that new wave pools will also tend to be based where the most surfers are, that is near the coast, which kinda defeats the purpose. Kelly’s wave is a thing of beauty and an incredible engineering feat, a testament to a group of surfers who spent years making their own drawings on pencil cases become a reality, but lets not kids ourselves that is a solution to surfing's problems and not a profit machine.
That reality is that they will come with a cost, both out of your pocket and maybe to the culture of surfing itself. Like an aging Hollywood star whose plastic surgery turns into a grotesque mask of a former fake beauty, we are not quite sure where this man made perfection will takes us. Maybe, just maybe, we should leave our surfing fantasies in the ocean, where they belong?
Main Image courtesy of Webber Wavepools