I chose to stop writing about surfing a little over a year ago, save for the odd blog post. Surfing comprised a large portion of my work as a professional sports journalist. The last real surf-related project I took was for Wax Magazine, which was started by some cool and talented folks but pretty much embodies the NYC hipster vibe so often ridiculed in surfing culture (weird art, graphic t-shirts, Richard Kenvin, and no, absolutely, no thrusters!). Each quarterly issue has a theme. I contributed to the second edition–#5 is the latest–and don’t remember the theme. They asked me to write about wave pools. I’ve never been much for personal essays. I generally don’t give a shit about the writer’s life, per se, and thus assume most readers don’t care about mine. I’m not above essays, I just rarely write them. Instead, I chose to write a reported essay, the kind which you can find in most decent magazines: Esquire, Wired, the New Yorker, and so on. Think GQ’s John Jeremiah Sullivan, only far shittier. Since then, I’ve casually monitored wave pool development. And just today, in Australia, Stab magazine reported that Greg Webber, founder of Webber Wave Pools and a subject in my piece, has found a location to build his first ocean replicator:
After all the chatter, we have a real geographical setting for Greg Webber’s first Wavepool: Glenview, on the Sunshine Coast. Part of a new $90 million waterpark that’ll give the Gold Coast a real good run for tourism bragging rights, the Sunshine Park planning application has been lodged by developers Waterplay Pty Ltd (who you’ll know from such wavepools as Wadi in the UAE and Sunway Lagoon in Malaysia).
Part of me still finds the whole venture gimmicky. But it’s fascinating nonetheless–and provides no shortage of debate in the surfing community. I decided to revisit my original draft from April 2013 in which Webber claimed his first wave pool was likely to be operating by March 2014 in Indonesia. So a bit of a deviation from his initial intent. If WWPs look anything like the mockup drawings, people might be waiting in lines for waves in the very near future.
Below is an excerpt introducing Webber (before edits for typos, etc).
Manufacturing waves has long ceased as a novelty for Greg Webber. As a child, the Australian surfer and shaper became captivated by wave behavior. The intrigue first sparked not by holding his breath and watching waves from behind and below as they unraveled overhead, but instead from a children’s book. “It came from a little golden book. It’s like nine or ten pages, it was called Tommy’s Camping Adventure,” describes the 53 year-old. “There’s an underwater scene where he’s swimming about the legs of his parents. There was an instant, weird feeling of ‘my god, this is a different world under here.’”
From there, Webber evolved through the various stages of grom-hood, learning to surf and shape boards, yet always curious about how the ocean floor makes wave act like they do. By the early 1980s, Webber was over shaping. He needed a change, and set off to university to study coastal engineering. He could always fall back on shaping, if need be. But slow pace of academia bored him, and his impatience prevailed. “What made me walk out of university was a third-year student saying, ‘mate, don’t worry about that, you’ll get to that in third year,” Webber recalls of wanting to study under water patterns. “I thought, ‘this is nuts.’ I’m not going to wait two more years to get to a position where I can get the things out of my head that were wave pool designs into reality.” Frustrations aside, Webber had at least absorbed enough of the basics of wave behavior, combined with his ocean knowledge accrued by surfing and shaping, to devise a scheme to actualize the creative ideas idling in his mind.
Fast-forward to the year 2000. Webber and his brother, Monty, are steering a dinghy around a stretch of sand along the shores of the Clarence River, somewhat north and somewhat west of their base in Yamba, New South Wales. Greg angled the boat to send a series of wakes that transformed into perfectly peeling waves upon reaching the sand. For the next year, the pair repeatedly visited the Clarence, captivated by the beauty of the glassy waves as they broke without changing shape or losing size. The brothers edited a video of their expeditions into a twenty-minute short called Liquid Time—a trance-inducing collection of seemingly endless tubing rights and lefts that rolled into an award for its cinematography in 2004 at France’s International Surf Film Festival de St Jean de Luz. Webber soon turned his attention to the math behind the wakes that was initially studied by British physicist Lord Kelvin—he of absolute zero renown. It wasn’t long before toiling with boat wakes morphed into a template for new business venture, and Webber Wave Pools came to life.
It’s all about control—imposing subtle changes to the speed of the hull at different slopes on the pool floor to provide waves that change throughout the ride. Webber’s design will drag a mechanized hull along the outer edge of a linear pool, creating wakes that eventually break as waves along the inner shore, the hull then loops back to the start. He calls it loop-linear. “If you can make a mechanically perfect wave, that means you can shape the wave in ways you could never do otherwise,” he says. “Because you’ve geared to a gradient, it will either be tubing on its head at two meters or mellow at one-point-seven-five.” Webber, it turns out, realized that linear pools were most ideal by accident. His group was awarded a grant to study the effect of wakes in circular patterns. While conducting research at Delft Hydraulics (now Deltares) in the Netherlands and Tasmania’s Australian Maritime College, the team determined that circular pools were too inefficient for the space they occupied.
Now, Webber says, he has a guy who’s ready to make it happen. For roughly $3 million, Webber believes he can construct a fully functioning prototype on a plot of land in Indonesia about the size of two Olympic swimming pools that will generate over five-foot waves that last about fifteen seconds. And he plans to have it operating by March next year. In Webber’s world, the fluctuation in gradient, combined with the depth and speed control of the hull, is a conduit to mimicking the uncertainty of the ocean. He envisions a wave that will change throughout the ride in a completely random way. And because the wave is automated, that randomness can be duplicated over and over. Webber assured me the irony was not lost on him.
The quest to produce the first unending wave is obviously not Webber’s alone. The Inertia.com’s Ali Shrode wrote that “companies like Kelly Slater Wave Company, Webber Wave Pools, The Wavegarden, and American Wave Machines have all made varying claims that their products will make it possible to experience rideable waves in a more controlled environment.” Webber is simply the most vocal about his plans. (A rep for the Kelly Slater Wave Company informed me that granting interviews is presently violates policy.) But battles over patents, imperfect technology, and the sheer cost of commercializing an otherwise free commodity have so far proven insurmountable. As a result, their wave pool concepts, beyond the odd prototype, remain immaterialized on a scale large enough to supply any perceived demand.