Wave Pools – Where and when did they come from?

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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

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. Some felt taking the league to Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch would be a brilliant opportunity to see the world’s best surfers unimpeded by the randomness of the ocean, something which would enable them to showcase their ability like never before. Others saw it as a publicity stunt, a representation of Slater’s influence on professional surfing and something which would see a large part of the challenge of surfing removed. 

This is probably a reflection of the views surfers hold about wave pools more generally – there are plenty for them and perhaps even more against them, but one thing that holds true around much of the world is that most surfers have a foot in one camp or the other. 

And yet, for all the conversation and controversy they have drummed up in recent years, wave pools have actually been around for a while. The first example can be traced way back to the mid 19th century, when King Ludwig II of Bavaria had artificial waves created in his private lake – I don’t imagine he nor anyone else was surfing them, but nonetheless they existed. 

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A couple more popped up over the next hundred years or so around the globe, but again they weren’t made for surfing. One in Germany and then one in England used differing technology to create waves in swimming pools – those little lumps that are now present in plenty of different pools around the world and which serve mostly as a novelty that wears off pretty quickly.

A few decades later, the phenomenon infiltrated the surfing world. 1969 was a big year for humanity – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon for the first time, The Beatles spontaneously sang to a handful of lucky passers-by in London in their last ever live performance, and Big Surf opened up in Arizona in the United States. Presumably it was pretty rudimentary compared to what is on offer today, but the three-foot waves which could be ridden for 20 seconds were revolutionary at the time.

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A number of other examples of wave pools designed for surfing appeared over the remaining 30 years or so of the 20th century. Almost certainly the most memorable one was in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a smallish town to the west of New York notable for little other than a full-sized replica of the Liberty Bell, and which around 150km away from the nearest surfable beach. Despite that seemingly fairly significant obstacle, in 1985 they managed to create history by hosting a professional surfing tournament. 

It was dubbed the Inland Surfing Championships, a name as conventional as the concept was revolutionary, and contrary to what you may expect it actually draw a pretty damn good crew of surfers. 25 of the top 30 in the world ventured out to Lehigh County, including household names such as Tom Curran, Shaun Thomson and Aussie Tom Carroll, the latter of whom would ultimately take out the $4,500 prize for first place. 

There were unsurprisingly some criticisms made by competitors, particularly the 69 of them who didn’t win, but all in all the tournament was reasonably successful. Despite that, the world of professional surfing would remain largely ocean-bound for the next three decades or so.

Outside of professional surfing, however, artificial pools continued to make both literal and figurative waves around the globe as technology allowed for increasingly elaborate designs. 1993 saw the Sunway Lagoon in Malaysia, with waves up to nine feet, open up, while 15 years later this size was topped by the 11-footers on offer at the Siam Park in the Canary Islands. Surf Snowdonia opened in 2015 offering up 20-second rides on a six-foot wave, but it was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean that same year where wave pools really began to capture public attention. 

Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch, located in Lemoore California, attempts to create the perfect wave that Slater, by his own admission, has dreamt about his entire life. Undoubtedly the pool is as advanced as any on the planet, and this combined with Kelly’s enormous public profile and influence meant it was inevitably going to be the cause of much discussion.

Whether he or anyone else anticipated that it would ultimately become a leg of the World Surf League we might never know, but just three years after it opened that’s exactly what happened. Of course, as we now know, this wasn’t the first professional surfing tournament to be held inland, but it was the first to be included as part of the world title race and significantly more advanced than its 1985 counterpart back in Allentown, Pennsylvania. 

And unlike the Inland Surfing Championship, the event at Kelly’s Ranch wasn’t a one-off. It returned to our TV screens in 2019, renamed the Freshwater Pro after being called the Surf Ranch Pro in its inaugural form, and would have once again in 2020 had COVID-19 not decimated the Championship Tour. In 2021, assuming all goes to plan, it will be the ninth of 11 events on both the men’s and women’s side of the tour, and there don’t appear to be any signs of it disappearing off the schedule any time soon. 

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We are in the midst of a technological revolution and wave pools are just one of the infinite beneficiaries. Whether this will ultimately have a positive or negative effect on surfing, both professional and amateur, around the globe is the cause for plenty of debate, and is something that most surfers seem to have a very strong opinion on. In the next article, we’ll go into some detail about many of the arguments which have been raised both for and against wave pools, and discuss what their long-term impact on the sport might ultimately be.