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History of Wave Pools

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Remember when Rick Kane in the classic albeit campy surf flick North Shore with his critical chlorinated turns in an Arizona wave pool earned himself a free ticket to Hawaii? Of course, he subsequently parlayed those skills into near glory at Pipeline with a little help from a few awesomely stereotypical local characters.

Those were the days. We thought we had achieved the zenith of artificial wave pool intelligence: dribbling 2 footers that burbled and gurgled thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. But as the smart phones, military drones, and CGI special effects have taught us, technology never stops. The new era of artificial wave pools is upon us, but if history is any indication, getting surfers to drop in might prove to be an uphill battle. Let’s journey, shall we, through a quick history of the surfing wave pool.

It all began in England at the The Wembley Swimming Pool in London. The swimming pool was built in 1934 and boasted a size of 200 by 60 feet in which tiny lumps of water were generated by electric pistons that moved giant paddles. It was a far cry from dream-like point break barrels, but the seed had been planted and swimmers rejoiced at the novelty.

Three decades later, Tokyo, Japan was the site of the Summerland Wavepool. While it was the first pool to be used by surfers, it was also used similar piston power and produced sub-par lumps that barely broke. Surfers at Summerland were required to ride body boards or soft boards for safety concerns, which was the second problem for wave pool developers to overcome: safety. The idea of a pool full of surfers riding hard fiberglass surfboards spun a tangling web of possible lawsuits and legal problems. But the first and most glaring problem was that the waves sucked. They sucked hard. And the price of building and running a machine capable of real waves for surfing far outweighed any possible profits.

That didn’t stop anyone from trying. With help from cosmetic and hair care behemoth Clairol, Big Surf in Tempe, Arizona was built in 1969 for some 2 million bucks. The sprawling facility included a 300 by 400 foot wave pool on a 20 acre Hawaiian themed paradise. Stoked by images of 60’s surfing, Phoenix construction engineer Phillip Dexter, who wasn’t actually a surfer, went to work building a facility for an activity he’d barely even experienced. But the result was the best effort to date. Fred Hemmings among other highly ranked pro surfers of the era made a trip to the pool and reports were positive. Still, it wasn’t Jeffrey’s Bay. Heck, it wasn’t even Cocoa Beach.

Historically, the next seismic jolt to the wave pool story came from the industrial North. In what sounds like a headline from The Onion surfing edition: Australian Power Surfer Tom Carroll clinched the 1985 World Inland Surfing Championships in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Aussie goofy footer remembers a strangely out of sync moment that juxtaposed 80’s surfing icons against what looked like a local YMCA rec pool, “We got out of the car – Pottz, Elko, Glen Winton, and I – and we’re standing there with our boards looking at a swimming pool, going, ‘Is that it?’” However, video of the event captured Carroll at the height of his powers working tiny wave chunks and blowing the top off 2 foot chlorine green mush balls. As critics began to sound off, they failed to realize that the ASP had recently held an event at a Florida sand bar where contest directors had to enlist the help of a passing boat to generate rideable waves. If I remember correctly, Hawaiian tube master and all-around power surfer Dane Kealoha opted to get drunk instead of surf the event. In the grand scheme, Allentown staged a viable surf contest. But the surf world didn’t bite.

Over a decade later, Kelly Slater won the 1997 Typhoon Lagoon wave pool event. This Disney pool didn’t change the game, but it may have raised the stakes a few notches with longer and more discernible wave-like lumps. In fact, for an east coast surfer stuck in the summer doldrums, Typhoon Lagoon is downright rippable. But still, it ain’t Jeffrey’s Bay.

In 1997, the Sunway Lagoon in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia utilized a patented hydraulic pumping system to create waves up to a what their website claims to be some 9 feet! The pool (lagoon) measures an impressive 139,800 square feet and looks every bit the fantasy desert oasis with lost temple walls and palm trees serving as a backdrop. Rip Curl staged a series of video and 360 photo shoots that were visually impressive, with an infinite supply of punt ramps for high caliber aerial maneuvers.

But while Sunway added some juice, it was the Japanese who used similar technology to Disney and just about nailed perfection when they constructed the Ocean Dome wave pool in Miyazaki, Japan. Part of the world’s largest indoor water park with the largest retractable roof in the world to boot, this concrete paradise was the stuff of surf porn. Pascal Stanfield of Transworld Surf magazine described it as “… waves of crystal-blue perfection, spitting right- and left-handers every two minutes, Jimi Hendrix blasting through the airwaves, and shooting stars overhead. “ However, in 2007 after some 15 years of operation, low attendance and a weak profit margin shut down what was then considered the best artificial wave in the world.

But the quest continued. In 2005 in northern Spain, developers began work on the Wavegarden system which uses an underwater mechanical apparatus, a “winglike sled” that is moved from side to side in any large body of water (lake or pool). The water body must be a minimum 656 x 164 feet with a constant water level. Look at the video and you will say, “The waves in Spain break insanely on the plane!” The waves are small but clean and tubing and confidence is high that coming innovations will enhance and augment the surf possibilities. But can Wavegarden break the hex of wave pools past and can they handle the competition sure to come from new concepts coming from shaper Greg Webber and 11-time world champ Kelly Slater’s new ventures that promise an endless, churning point break?

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