Wave pools – the good and the bad

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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 we established in our most recent piece, wave pools aren’t exactly a new concept. They are, however, becoming an increasingly prevalent part of surfing with every passing year, and with change invariably comes controversy – and a whole lot of discontentment. Naysayers despise what (and who) they bring to the sport, while others see them for the added opportunity they bring. So who is right and who is wrong? As always, it’s not quite that simple, but let’s take a look at some of the points for and against these pools anyway.

Let’s begin with the arguments from the standpoint of professional surfing. The 2018 addition of the Surf Ranch Pro – held at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch and rebranded the following year to the Freshwater Pro – to the Championship Tour raised plenty of eyebrows, but will it ultimately prove to be a positive or a negative for professional surfing?

Complaints about the competition centre largely on the idea that surfing in a wave pool is a contrived version of the real thing. Few would argue that the ability to read the conditions, sit in the right spot, and know when to go and when to wait for the second or third wave in a set, is a major part of the skill of surfing. In Kelly’s wave pool, this skill is made redundant. You know what kind of wave is coming left because it’s literally made by a machine, and as a result there’s no need to do very much analysis of the conditions at all – perhaps a little understanding of the wind direction and strength, but nothing like what’s required out in the ocean.

There are certain types of surfers who are always going to be at an advantage under these conditions. Those who can pull off the most difficult manouevres, the likes of Gabriel Medina and Filipe Toledo, will generally thrive in a wave pool because they can generate incredible speed and perform huge airs at will, and in artificial conditions those moves will always be available to them – unlike in the more random conditions the ocean serves up. For others it’s the exact opposite. The likes of Connor Coffin, who relies a lot on long, drawn-out carves and stylistic surfing, simply don’t have the power to match it with guys like Medina and Toledo. And the results of the two events at the Ranch so far, at least on the men’s side, do a pretty good job of highlighting this point – in 2018, Medina beat Toledo with a score in the final of 17.86 to 17.03. The following year? Same finalists, same winner, this time 18.86 to 17.33. The danger of repetition on a yearly basis at this event is very real and would no doubt be a point of discussion among both competitors and event organisers.

Wave pool devotees, however, would no doubt argue that this simply means the best surfers are winning the event. Maybe if Connor Coffin’s reliance on carves is so detrimental in this event he should learn how to take his game to the air a little more often. And if he’s not capable of it, then perhaps he doesn’t deserve to win the event. The removal of the randomness of the ocean arguably means that it’s more of a level playing field. Every surfer gets the opportunity to surf the same types of wave the same number of times, and those who perform the best win. There’s no possibility of a heat where one surfer just so happens to catch all the breaks while the other paddles into unexpected close outs time after time, or gets knocked off his or her board by a dolphin mid-wave, or whatever else can go wrong out there at sea. It’s simply the competitor and his or her board. 

All these are valid arguments, so it’s easy to see why there is so much consternation among the surfing community about whether they add to or detract from competitive surfing. And yet, for all of that discussion, potentially the cause for even more debate is what impact wave pools will have on the everyday surfer – the amateurs of the world, which virtually all of us are.

Many believe that the existence of wave pools will ultimately cause more problems for surfers in the ocean, as counterintuitive as that may sound. While they do offer an alternative place to surf and subsequently drag a few away from crowded line-ups, they also potentially mean more and more people will learn to surf in them, after which they will begin surfing at local breaks. Certainly this could mean numbers in the water may increase, but while we would all love to have the best breaks in the world all to ourselves, the ocean is a pretty big place and there are plenty of waves to go around. Perhaps of more concern is that those who learn to surf in artificial conditions will overestimate their ability and be unprepared for dealing with things like rogue sets and other surfers. 

On the flip side, these pools have the potential to make a whole lot of people who may not have the time to get down to the beach for a surf very happy. Take URBNSURF in Melbourne, for example, a wave pool which has just recently opened up near the airport. Victoria has some of the best waves in the world just an hour or so down the highway from the big smoke, but unfortunately for Melbourne’s roughly six million inhabitants – or at least those of them who surf – there aren’t really any options in the city itself. This means that while the Surf Coast, Phillip Island, or wherever it may be is great for a weekend getaway, it isn’t really viable to head down to the beach for a paddle after work. URBNSURF means that those city slickers wanting a mid-week surf without having to miss a day’s work can now do just that, and it’s hard to see that as being a bad thing.

They also give surfers of all abilities the chance to work on their craft without many of the impediments that exist in the ocean. While surfing in a pool will probably never match the real thing, it can be a great way to improve your skill level or work on a particular default you might have by getting a whole bunch of consistently breaking waves within a short period. Those who have ever been down the aforementioned Surf Coast of Victoria, for example, will know how tough it is to find lefts there. This certainly isn’t a bad thing for the hordes of regular footers who flock to the perfect, peeling rights in the area, but it does make it difficult to work on your backhand. Book a session on a left at a wave pool, however, and you can get 15 of them in an hour – more than you might get in a year otherwise. 

So while some may whinge and moan about the potential wave pools have to increase the number of surfers in the world and subsequently the crowds at local breaks, these arguments are largely offset by the benefits these pools offer, and are probably made predominantly by those who feel entitled to a certain section of the ocean and who drop in on people if they haven’t seen them around before. The advantages for the vast majority of everyday surfers are significant, and it’s unsurprising to see that public opinion on these pools seems to have swayed more in favour of them with every new person who tries them out.  

From a professional standpoint, the argument is perhaps a different story. It’s easy to understand why some fans don’t like watching the Freshwater Pro as much as they enjoy an event at Bells Beach, but at the same time as a once-a-year thing and a showcase of the world’s best surfers, maybe it’s worth it. Perhaps the argument should centre more around whether or not it should be part of the Championship Tour, or whether it would be better suited as a standalone event.

Regardless, wave pools are here to stay whether people like them or not, and in coming years they’ll no doubt become increasingly developed. Those that we have today will probably look relatively basic in a few years’ time, and the more advanced these pools get the more popular they will no doubt become – so we’d better get used to them.