How a San Diego wave obsessive is leading a global race to create artificial surf pools that could change the sport forever
(This article was published in 1927 magazine, Spring 2016)
Tom Lochtefeld’s perfect wave isn’t Pipeline, Jaws or Cloudbreak. It’s powered by computers and air pressure, and its ﬁrst versions, set to open in Bristol and Rotterdam over the next year or so, won’t be near a beach. But Lochtefeld, who has been surﬁng since the 1960s, insists his ﬁrm Wave Loch’s technology is “the real thing; it will be like surﬁng perfect ocean waves, and it could change the sport forever, eventually taking surﬁng to the Olympics.”
Lochtefeld is just one of a new breed of visionaries who see a future where surfers will ride artiﬁcial waves in dedicated surf parks, not just in water-park wave pools. Players include Spanish company Wavegarden, Australia’s Webber Wave Pools and the Kelly Slater Wave Company, backed by the greatest competitive surfer of all time. The big question is whether their dream can be a viable business.
Artiﬁcial waves are, of course, nothing new, and neither is surﬁng them. King Ludwig of Bavaria, the famous builder of fantasy castles, used electricity to create ripples in a lake way back in the 19th century. The ﬁrst “modern” wave pool was built in Budapest in 1927, with the ﬁrst surfable wave appearing in Tokyo’s Summerland amusement park in 1966. Arizona’s Hawaiian-themed Big Surf waterpark had a crack in 1969, though the waves, like those at Summerland, were weak and required lightweight boards.
Tom Lochtefeld’s ﬁrst brush with man-made waves came in 1983, at his Raging Waters water park in San Dimas, Southern California. Lochtefeld had grown up surﬁng the Big Rock break at La Jolla, north of San Diego and, after an early career at KPMG and then in real estate, had co-founded Raging Waters in 1981. It was one of the ﬁrst modern water parks, with water slides, tubing rivers and all. In 1983, it took delivery of its ﬁrst wave machine, one of only a handful in the country. “On the ﬁrst day after it arrived, I got my surfboard, all excited, thinking I could surf these waves,” recalls Lochtefeld. “But it was total crap; you just couldn’t. It soon became an obsession, despite repeated threats to my sanity.”
Back in the 80s, the technology wasn’t there to create a surfable deep ocean wave, so Lochtefeld turned his attention to a “sheet wave” that ﬂowed over a stationary padded surface and could ﬁt in a space smaller than a tennis court. He sold his oceanfront house in La Jolla (“my wife wasn’t thrilled”) and, needing more funds, in 1987 sold his 25% stake in Raging Waters for $2m. It took three years of development, much of it spent around a wave tank in the hydraulics lab at UC San Diego, and more than a hundred models, but by 1988 he ﬁled for a patent for “a wave-forming generator”, paying more than $200,000 to patent lawyers.
It was 1990 when, with barely any money left , Lochtefeld sold plans and licensing for his new FlowRider machine to the Schlitterbahn water park in Texas. The FlowRider blasts water up an incline made of soft , trampoline-style mat, creating a simulacrum of a wave that can be ridden on either a bodyboard or a short “ﬂowboard”. By 1993, Lochtefeld had sold a FlowBarrel, a larger, curling wave that uses the same technology but with a steeper incline, to a waterpark in Norway.
The FlowRider was an almost instant success, with 90s board sports legends like surfer Kelly Slater and skate-boarder Tony Hawk working on board designs and new techniques. Today, there are hundreds of ﬂowboarding machines around the world, including 12 on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. There are WaveHouse surf parks, with tiki bars, hammocks and food around the surf machines, from San Diego to Chile and Singapore. There’s even an annual World Flowboarding Championship, held for the past two years at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Waterworld.
Lochtefeld admits that he probably should have left it at that. He’d created a new sport and a stable business that, with FlowRiders selling from $450,000 to $2 million each, had allowed him to buy back his old house in La Jolla. “A saner person would have quit, but the dream from the beginning had been to replicate the waves in the ocean. FlowRider was an analogue, not the real thing.”
In 1997, he patented his ﬁrst design for a dedicated surﬁng wave pool, and has been working on it ever since at Wave Loch. “My wife isn’t thrilled, again,” he notes dryly. “Luckily, she’s very supportive of me.”
But Lochtefeld isn’t the only one chasing this dream. Last summer, Wavegarden, founded in Spain in 2005 by engineer Josema Odriozola and sports economist Karin Frisch, opened the much-hyped Surf Snowdonia in Wales, and are planning another facility in Austin, Texas. Then last December, a viral video was released of Kelly Slater, the greatest competitive surfer of all time, riding a beautiful, perfectly barreling wave in a top-secret location 110 miles inland.
“There’s a lot of pressure when you’ve been working on something for 10 years,” he says in the video, referring to the Kelly Slater Wave Company, the team behind the prototype wave. After we see him surﬁng in the beautifully clean barrel and jumping from the lip of the wave, Slater declares his wave “the best man-made wave ever made.” Other companies, such as American Wave Machines and Australia’s Webber Wave Pools, have also been working on new surf pool technology, all of them claiming the best waves and technologies.
The problem is, according to Lochtefeld, both the Wavegarden and Kelly Slater waves are doomed to fail. “They way they work is essentially by pulling a huge mechanical plow through the water,” he says. “You can create a great wave, but there are two main fundamental problems: One is that you’ve got this hulking piece of machinery underwater that is liable to break down; the second is that you can only get a wave every two minutes. It means that, as a business, it’s just not going to be sustainable.”
Surf Snowdonia, which cost more than $17m to build, received favorable reviews from surfers when it opened in August 2015, but has been beset by regular mechanical problems, closing early last summer and being forced to make eight full-time staﬀ redundant.
Lochtefeld’s answer, with the SurfLoch SurfPool, is to use air pressure, which means no moving machinery in the water. Instead, the design uses a pneumatic air system to create the wave energy; the shape of the pool ﬂoor turns that energy into a large primary wave and then a smaller secondary wave, which dissipates the wave energy without producing backwash. It’s due to ﬁrst be seen in action at Rotterdam’s RiF010, a publicly funded surf park on a city-centre canal that’s being built this summer; and then, early next year, at The Wave, a surf and health park near Bristol, England. Both parks promise three grades of wave on one lake (advanced surfers will paddle out to the largest waves at the back), with waves every 8–10 seconds. “You’ll be paddling out like in real waves. It will be the real thing, though you can potentially catch 20 waves an hour rather than a handful.”
Lochtefeld admits it’s a always a work-in-progress. “It’s like a puzzle that you have to keep approaching from 100 diﬀerent perspectives, almost like a sculptor, whether that means the materials or the computer chips for the air control.”
Not everyone is convinced, though. Scottish company Murphys Waves is the current market leader in man-made waves, having created 500 regular wave pools and 14 surf pools over 22 years, with all of its surf pools in water parks such as Tenerife’s Siam Park or Wadi Adventure in the UAE. They diﬀer from the likes of SurfLoch and Wavegarden in that they don’t see surf-only pools as their main business, and also in the technology they use, which essentially allows tonnes of water to pour from a chamber at the end of their pools over man-made reefs to create waves.
According to managing director Jim Stuart, theirs is the most eﬀective technique. “We looked at using air in the 1990s. We thought it sounded wonderful, but we took it to experts at Edinburgh University, who are the best in the world, and they simply said, ‘It won’t work.’ Essentially, once you scale it up, air becomes very unpredictable, and if you get a vacuum it can be quite dangerous.”
Lochtefeld refutes this. “The technology wasn’t there in 1990, but 26 years later, with diligent testing and advances in computer science, it is now possible to create great waves safely and predictably using pneumatics.”
Either way, Stuart is unconvinced that a surf-only park can be successful. “Even if the technology’s right, the business model of a huge surf-only pool is ﬂ awed. You’re not going to get enough surfers to have it booked up every hour of every day. And if you’re talking about it as part of a wider attraction, Disney’s been doing that at Typhoon Lagoon for years.”
As a model of failure on both scores, he points to the much-hyped Ron Jon Surfpark in Florida, which promised ground-breaking technology but was a disaster when it opened in 2008, prompting a bitter response from surfers.
The Murphys model, he says, is epitomized by Siam Park in Tenerife, where the pool is a family wave pool by day, and after the main park closes is dialed up for the surfers. “We’re in the leisure industry rather than the surf industry,” says Stuart. “The people we deal with generally aren’t going for a pipe-dream, they want a return on investment.”
The dreamers, however, still believe in surf parks, and not just in the idea, but in the business plan. Nick Hounsﬁeld is a co-founder of The Wave in Bristol, which will be built this summer to open next spring. A former osteopath who was concerned at how lifestyle choices aﬀected his patients, he had a revelation when his father was dying of cancer: “He inspired me to do something big, bold and crazy, and as a surfer, this came to me.” The idea was a surf lake in a beautiful landscape, with gardens, a swimming lake and a campsite, with yoga, triathlons, healthy food and education about marine conservation all part of the package. “It was all about taking this new technology and using it to make a positive impact; not just for it to spring up in theme parks.” He went to Sir Tim Smit, the founder of England’s Eden Project, a collection of giant domed greenhouses, who told him, “It’s a ridiculous idea, and you have to do it.”
The project has grown from a dream to a reality, with a succession of crowd-funding campaigns and grants covering the projected cost of around $9.5m. Having originally planned to use Wavegarden’s technology, last year, after “months of sleepless nights,” Hounsﬁeld switched to Lochtefeld’s Surfpool technology. “We went to everyone,” says Hounsﬁeld, “and increasingly Tom came to the top of the pile. He’s been doing this such a long time and he’s the real deal.”
Rotterdam’s RiF010 or The Wave in Bristol might be another false dawn for surfers, but Lochtefeld believes it could be the start of something big: “Facilities like this could be like golf courses, and they could bring surﬁng to parts of the world that have never had waves before.”
Surﬁng has been proposed as a new sport for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, with the idea that events will take place on artiﬁcial waves. “It’s hugely exciting,” says Lochtefeld. “The Olympic oﬃcials want to see that surﬁng is a truly global sport; artiﬁcial pools could be the push that give millions more people the chance to ride waves and get that indescribable feeling, which is really what all this is about.”