Why Are Wave Pools Making So Many People So Very Mad?
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Late last year I went to Lemoore, California and caught seven waves at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch. It was ridiculous fun, one of the coolest experiences of my life, and after two hours in the pool I couldn’t contain the fizz in my veins at having had the chance to surf the place. I felt very lucky and genuinely surf stoked by the whole deal. It was filth, ay.
My experience at the wave pool was intentionally selfish. I didn’t go there to judge it, or to grill WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt on her grand plans for the thing and what role it might play in the future of pro surfing. I didn’t even care about the WSL’s motives behind the embargo papers we (a bunch of other surf media types who were there on the day as well) all had to sign that prevented us from talking about our time at the Ranch until February 1. My only agenda at the pool was to get pitted because when I see perfect barreling waves, everything else goes out the window. Selfish, I know, but it’s a truth that’s kept me surfing my whole life and one I’m not about to try and hide here. I surf ’cause it’s fun.
But surfing is bigger than only having fun. It’s more important than splashing around for your own personal fulfilment. It’s a lifestyle and a culture that comes with responsibilities; particularly to the environment, to its own history, and to what it means to be a surfer. And there are a lot of surfers that believe this wave pool challenges those responsibilities, that the soul of surfing is being yet again sold out by corporate fuckery and this wave pool is another example of elitist bullshit cooked up to make more bucks from something that should be enlightening us to the plight of the natural world. And maybe they’re right, but here’s the thing… a wave pool is not the ocean. It’s not even part of the ocean. In the case of Kelly’s pool, it’s not even near the ocean. And aside from those waves breaking in it, it will never replicate the true feeling of being in the ocean either. I can’t speak for the other wave pool designs, but Kelly’s pool was developed in the remains of an old water ski park, and if he wants to spend a heap of time and money making his own waves to sell to the WSL then good on him. And if the WSL want to then make hotel/stadium/sporting venues around these wave pools and try to sell groms on the dream of one day winning a World Title in them* then… Ha! Good luck to them. But I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the doomsday rhetoric surrounding how wave pools are gonna change surfing for the worse.
How much power do they use? What are the side effects of the land clearing? Where is the water coming from? Is there any waste or pollution to consider? What other collateral damage might come from the constructions and running of these things? These are all legitimate questions any major development faces that demand discussion and debate before the first shovel strikes soil anywhere. However, the argument that wave pools will change the culture of what we do, or change the mindset of the next wave riding generation to care less about the ocean, or change and ruin pro surfing, doesn’t wash. Sure, they might act as a training facility for future wave pool Olympic champions, they might even create a different sport altogether, but regardless of how many companies build the things to sell the idea of surfing to a mass market, they will never change the way we feel when we go surfing in the ocean.
I guess it’s easy to say the wave pool is awesome when you’ve had a go in the thing, but getting upset about elitism or having to pay for waves is nothing short of sour grapes when the ocean is dishing ’em up for free every single day. You don’t have to choose wave pools over the sea. Nobody is forcing you to ride one if they give you the shits. You might have to cop hearing about them for the next few years and, yeah, that’ll get old pretty fast if it’s not a snoozefest already, however my gut feel is this: if the reason you surf is to have fun, and you get a chance to ride a wave pool, then you might have the time of your life. If you have an ethical or environmental issue with them, then there’s always be the next swell at your local to keep you stoked as well.
*The WSL has made no claim that any of this is part of their future vision for pro surfing…