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Wave pool technology – how does it all work?


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When the World Surf League announced that in 2018 it would hold its first-ever event outside of the ocean, it set tongues wagging in a big way.

Wave Pools


As the wave pool industry continues to develop, more and more high-quality artificial waves are popping up all around the globe. As we’ve talked about in previous articles, there are now first-rate inland waves on offer everywhere from Europe to the USA to Australia – and quite a few average ones as well. And though it’s perhaps unsurprising given the man-made wave is still in its relative infancy, what’s interesting about them is that the technology used varies enormously from pool to pool. Go to Kelly’s Surf Ranch, URBNSURF in Melbourne or one of the Surf Lakes locations – when they’re open – and though the waves aren’t identical, they bear plenty of similarities. Take a look beneath the surface, however – or to the side of it in some cases – and you’ll spot plenty of differences. 

With that in mind, we’re going to take a bit of a deep dive into the different technologies used at different pools around the globe. In many cases one company is responsible for the development of many pools, meaning these waves use similar technology, but there are still plenty of different designs around the world. 

Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch

Kelly’s Surf Ranch is a part of the Kelly Slater Wave Company, and the technology it uses is unique to this park – though how all of that technology uses is not necessarily known to the public. Kelly likes to keep some of his pool’s secrets close to his chest, but we do know the basics. 

Essentially, the pool in Lemoore, California, has what’s known as a hull attached to an engine which runs down the side of the track. As this hull is dragged along the water, the wave is pushed out. That it is called a ‘hull’ is about as much information as we get though – what exactly it looks like or is made out of is kept close to the chests of a select few. Slater did, however, give us some idea when he let slip that it is the opposite to a boat hull, which is designed to move easily through the water – whatever exactly that means it resembles is up to your imagination. 

The hull can move in both directions, enabling it to create both rights and lefts, and its angle can also be changed to alter the specifics of the wave. These waves can be surfed for around 45 seconds and are almost without question the best artificial waves going around, though the way they are produced means that one can only come through every couple of minutes.

Murphy’s Waves

Murphy’s Waves were a pioneer of artificial wave pools, and have numerous locations around the world. However, as is often the case, the first version of a product isn’t necessarily the best, so while these pools were industry leaders a few years ago, they’re beginning to slowly be left behind.

These waves are produced by water displacement, which occurs when a big tank above the pool fills with water then drops it into the pool. Sounds fairly rudimentary, but the company themselves call it an ‘advanced hydraulic wave system’ and claim it can produce barrelling lefts and rights up to four metres high. Maybe that’s questionable, and the pools run by Murphy’s are generally seen these days as more of a novelty than a chance to get a genuine, first-class wave in a pool. Still, they’ve provided plenty of fun for a lot of people at places like Wadi Adventure in Dubai, Siam Park in the Canary Islands, and Typhoon Lagoon at Disneyland, Florida. 

Surf Lakes

Surf Lakes and its technology is still in its infancy, having not yet opened up a pool to the public, but according to their website enquiries and potential locations are popping up thick and fast around the world. The furthest they’ve gotten is in Yeppoon, Queensland, where they’ve developed a prototype to work on the design. The public aren’t able to use it, but footage of the pool in all its functionality is available – and it looks pretty good.

This one is produced using what they call a ‘plunger’. Essentially, the pool is a big, roughly circular lake, and smack bang in the middle is a huge, apocalyptic-looking mechanism which creates the waves. It works much like a giant version of what happens when you drop something into water – little ripples filter out in all directions. Multiply that by about a thousand and you have Surf Lakes. The machine slowly lifts up into the air and then drops back into the centre of the lake, sending out waves in all directions. The contours of the bed of the lake then contribute to the shape of the wave.

Because the waves go in all directions, Surf Lakes will have the advantage of being able to accommodate a huge number of surfers. The company says there will be eight breaks, with each break able to deal with 50 sets of six waves every hour – that’s 2,400 total waves per hour. Not bad. Delaying the production of these are the fact that there have been some mechanical issues along the way and that it’s mighty expensive – though with almost two and a half thousand waves being produced per hour we’re guessing they’ll be able to make up for that financial outlay pretty quickly.

Wavegarden

Wavegarden is responsible for a couple of the parks we mentioned in our previous piece – both URBNSURF in Melbourne and The Wave in Bristol – while they are also the masterminds behind Surf Snowdonia and the newly opened Wave Park in South Korea. 

The company is relatively guarded about the specifics of how they produce their wave – something we’re finding to be pretty common among industry leaders – but there is some information available. They initially started out with a type of pool they called ‘The Lagoon’ – this used a similar foil-type technology to Kelly’s pool, though the waves were much softer. Wavegarden’s explanation on how it works seems like a deliberate ploy to confuse everyone – or at least me – using self-aggrandising terms like ‘revolutionary lagoon bathymetry’, ‘in-house developed dissipative shores’ and ‘state-of-the-art hydrodynamic wavefoil’, but regardless of how they described it, it hasn’t worked too well because of how slowly it produces waves.

Recognising these limitations, Wavegarden came up with a different system, this time called ‘The Cove’. This requires a diamond-shaped pool – like you’ll find at URBNSURF – in which the wave is created from the tip of the diamond by either paddles or compressed air – they’ve never told us which. This seems to have a little more scope for success, and given it’s now responsible for a couple of the better-known artificial waves in the world, the decision to change their design appears to have been a good one by Wavegarden.

These are the pre-eminent wave pool designs in the world at the minute, but there are a couple of others out there – the American Wave Machines PerfectSwell concept is one in particular which seems promising. As the industry continues to grow, these existing technologies will no doubt continue to develop and pop up at new locations, while other innovative ways to create an artificial wave will also enter the fray. It’s an increasingly competitive industry and is improving at a rapid rate, and given it is still in its infancy, it likely has plenty more improvements still to come.