Surf Parks: Innovative or Disastrous?
LAGUNA BEACH, CA - Some of surfing's biggest names aren't just catching waves. They're also talking about making them.
Surf parks - massive pools with repeating, artificial waves - are the latest buzzword in the surf community, as everyone from top athletes to retailers look for ways to expand the sport, boost sales and create a standardized way to train that could help surfing earn an Olympic pedigree.
This month, dozens of industry leaders, surfers and investors met in Laguna Beach in Southern California for the first annual Surf Park Summit to spark interest in a business proposition that could breathe life into a sport that struggled during the recession.
Enter the dream surf park, a 2-acre wave pool capable of generating anything from tiny beginner ripples to 10-foot barrels every minute, with every wave the same.
Customers would pay by the number of waves to learn the sport or refine their technique and learn new tricks.
Some even believe surf parks could propel the sport into the Olympics, a dream that has so far proven elusive.
Olympics aside, everyday surfers who already live near the beach say even they would use the parks as a supplement to the ocean, to refine their skills on a consistent wave or get in a few rides when the natural surf is bad.
"In a park, you can always get in a perfect position, the wave will always be perfect and you can really work on your surfing," said Cliff Char, 54, who's been surfing 15 years near his hometown of Seal Beach.
Detractors, however, worry that in the rush to surf parks, the sport will lose its soul.
Betting on artificial waves, they say, will sanitize and commercialize a pastime the most passionate surfers describe as a solitary, rugged pursuit where athletes and nature commune. They say the sport will lose sight of its culture and history if the next generation learns to rip on chlorinated water.
"The problem is, 'surf culture' is about so much more than just riding a wave. It is about having a genuine respect and connection with the ocean," said Zac Heisey, a surfer and freelance writer who addressed the debate on his blog, In The Name of Surfing.
Others are concerned that the energy required to power waves big enough for surf parks will contribute to global warming.
A park that would attract serious surfers would run between $15 and $25 million to build and need to be at least 2 acres in size to allow surfers to paddle in, Lochtefeld said. With current technology, the energy price tag for one hour of waves could be up to roughly $500, he said.
Other wave companies have said they can produce waves for $1 a wave, said Matt Reilly, director of operations and marketing at Surf Park Central, which put on the summit.
Despite the challenges, history is filled with examples of extreme, outdoor sports that have been tamed for the masses.
Before chair lifts, ski bums had to hike up mountains to ride down and rock gyms made rock-climbing possible miles from any mountain, said Dan Harmon, a development manager with Select Contracts, which builds and operates leisure and sport projects worldwide.
These examples, combined with hopes for the Olympics, have fueled the search for new ways to draw in potential surfers.
"They're places to train, they're safe, controlled environments that allow people that initial introduction and that is absolutely key," said Harmon, whose company operates Saudi Arabia's wave park. "If we can get them in, then we can get them hooked."