Last December, the entire surfing world stopped and dropped everything to gape at Kelly Slater’s new video in wide-eyed disbelief, as his glassy manmade wave peeled down and created a perfect barrel lasting for minutes. The wave pool itself wasn’t a new concept as there had already been other wave pools around the world, but leave it to Kelly to do what he does best, and absolutely kill his competition. Within days of being released, the video of Kelly’s manmade wave racked up millions of views, shares, and comments. Some people loved it. Others weren’t so sure.
On the one hand, people were mesmerized by the perfect break. Kanoa Igarashi, one of the lucky few invited by Kelly to test out the wave, said, “Oh my god, it was next level. Honestly the whole thing didn’t sink in until the next day. Guys were getting barreled, I was getting barreled and the waves were as perfect as they come. I was in disbelief the whole time. My childhood dream of getting perfect waves was happening in front of me, in a wave pool nonetheless. It was crazy! I’m still tripping on it.”
The clean and powerful barrel that goes on for over a quarter mile without even one other surfer out there to drop in is truly every surfer’s dream. It’s literally what surfers chase all over the world. The launch of this artificial wave pool led to pretty high stoke levels, as surfers realized they’ll be able to go get barreled any day of the week, regardless of their location or ocean swell.
On the other hand, some surfers were concerned that wave pools could deprecate the very essence of surfing. Having to adapt to an ever-changing and imperfect wave is part of the challenge. Surfers need to know how the weather, tides, currents, winds, and swell affect waves. No two ocean waves have ever been the same, and that’s part of the fun. The pursuit of the perfect wave adds to the thrill and is an essential part of surfing’s core. Some surfers believe that without the unpredictability of a break, surfing will lose its “soul.” But still. A perfect wave is a perfect wave. And that’s hard to resist.
Plus, Kelly says his wave pool is no replacement for the ocean. “It’s not meant to replace anything. I’ve always said this is a supplement to surfing in the ocean, and something for fun. I guess it could help grow the sport more quickly, similar to the way skateparks have grown skateboarding, and the potential for the Olympics can’t be overlooked.”
Wave pool surfing is never going to replace ocean surfing, so there’s no reason to dislike it. If you want real breaks, go surf in the ocean. Those waves aren’t going anywhere. Wave pools are simply meant evolve the sport, and they’re fundamentally breaking boundaries to offer people new experiences.
Wave pools mean the sport of surfing will spread to places where it’s previously been impossible. A kid in Arkansas will no longer have to wait for his family to take a trip to the coast to experience that joy of riding a first wave. Artificial waves will reduce limitations and open up the sport of surfing, meaning surfers could be coming from all over the world, not just coastal areas. For all we know, the next Kelly Slater might be from South Dakota.
Wave pools could also provide training grounds for surfers to practice techniques. No ocean swell? No problem! Whether it’s a kid taking a lesson, or a pro practicing an aerial, wave pools will provide the means to practice and progress at any time.
There are concerns that pool surfers won’t gain all the skills that ocean surfers have. They won’t have to paddle out through breaking waves or adjust to changes in the way waves break. The ocean is always going to be the ultimate surfing experience, because it’s more of a challenge. But these new wave pool surfers should be able to take their surfing skills and apply them in real waves.
Another factor to consider is that artificial waves may lead to surfing becoming more of a mainstream competitive sport. Wave variation has prevented surfing from ever establishing a level playing field, which has held it back from reaching its full potential as a competitive sport. But wave pools remove inconsistency and even out the field of play.
With the recent Olympic Committee approval of a recommendation to include surfing in the 2020 Olympics, surfing has a chance to become an Olympic sport. It won’t be voted on and made official until next month, but the possibility of using wave pools to even out the level of play could play a role in the decision. Come August, we may just have a new sport too look forward to in the Tokyo Olympics.
Whether you like it or not, artificial waves are going change the future of surfing forever. With the creation of Kelly’s perfect wave, we’ll soon have thousands. And the more waves that exist in the world, the more waves for everyone – in both the ocean and in the pool. While the “soul” of surfing will stay in the ocean, wave pools are a great supplement that are about to evolve the sport of surfing in an extraordinary way.
If you haven’t seen Kelly’s wave yet, go watch for yourself. And to all the wave pool haters out there, if you got a text from Kelly inviting you to surf the wave, would you really say no? I’d love to see you try.