Thought it timely to post this now the WaveGarden in Snowdonia is happening.
A worldwide exclusive magazine trip to the Wavegarden test facility in the Basque country. A man-made lake deep in the mountains where the artificial wave revolution is quietly in progress. Alan Stokes, Ben Skinner, Toby Donachie and Harry Timson had rare full day access to get the measure of the beast.
The received wisdom is this:
• Artificial waves are naff.
• You can’t reproduce the majesty of the ocean in a swimming pool (not in any sensible way that doesn’t cost the earth at least).
That there received wisdom is like totes wrong. The Wavegarden is about to change everything.
Artificial waves aren’t new. Various ones have been tried. From Typhoon Lagoon through the Japanese Ocean Dome, Siam Park in Thailand, made famous by Stab Mag jet-ski tow-at sesh, and the Tenerife park. The recent star is the Wadi wave pool in the Middle East. The trouble with all these places is cost. They cost a mint to build, in excess of twenty million Euros and use huge amounts of energy: pumping water up in to tanks to be dropped to make the wave. The reset time is slow. So one surfer gets to ride one wave every five minutes. If they fluff the drop that’s a real pain. It’s also not an operation that will ever cover its costs. The huge Japanese one went bust a few years back and the rest remain as pools for tourists to play in 99 percent of the time. Nothing more than a curiosity for the magazines and brands to play with when they’re cranked up to the max. The quality and size however is good. Anyone that’s seen Dion Agius or Reubyn Ash’s clips from the Wadi park can’t deny they’re perfect for progressive high-performance surfing.
The other concept that’s yet to evolve past the small scale model phase is the disputed ‘doughnut ring’ shaped Slater/Webber model. Supposedly there are plans to build many but none as yet are confirmed (Gold Coast project recently shelved) and there are issues with the concept I’ll delve into later.
Which leads us to the Wavegarden. The runt of the litter. The Basque curiosity which first emerged two years ago and went viral very quickly. The small, but perfectly formed, DIY left in what looked like a farmer’s field captured the world’s imagination. It looked like a water feature Charlie Dimmock had knocked up after a few too many mojitos. A rudimentary hole in the ground lined with black pond liner that somehow had this mesmerising hollow left running it’s length. The smattering of tour pro’s that sampled V1.0 were impressed. The verdict was the same: the concept is a definite runner … it just needs to be bigger.
Two years later in June this year and another video dropped on Vimeo. The first look at Wavegarden v2.0. Again a who’s who of the world’s pro contingent starred. Dane, Medina and more who did things on the substantially bigger, and now also doubled up, white lined, all together more professional looking installation. Just over a month later it’s had 400,000+ views.
The Basque test facility is just that. It’s their mad scientist lab for working on, improving, and occasionally breaking the concept. It’s where they can turn things up to 11 and see what happens. It won’t ever be open to the public. V2.0 is built on the same land as V1.0. They just made the hole bigger. But there’s the rub. The remote mountain valley that is their Bond villain style lair for world wave domination is limited for space. On one side a steep pasture and the other drops down sharply in to a river. They’ve pushed it as long and as wide as they can. But the science remains the same. The planned commercial operations, which number in the double digits, will be sited on land with more room. So the lakes can be wider and longer. Which means the waves can be bigger. Right now the test site is the ultimate grom/junior training ground. Sure grown up surfers can smash it but it’s a bit too small to go proper nuts. When they make the wave proper overhead it’s going to be a sight to see. Which, being British, we’ll be the first to witness. The Bristol and North Wales developments lead the pack and should be the first commercial operations open to the public in the world. Which is pretty flipping rad.
‘What about the cost and the energy use?’ you cry. Well kids here’s the thing. Not only does the garden produce a sweet left and right running long enough to knock off six turns every wave once at the end the magic tech that makes the wave does some fancy stuff and is ready to go back the other way. Yep. You read that right. So you surf a left one way. Wait three minutes (at the moment, they’re working on a one minute turnaround for the public versions) and surf a right back again. Imagine that. Getting a wave so long you can do six turns, really work on the kinks in your technique, frontside and then repeat backside. With two people riding simultaneously either side of the lake. So the wave count is good. The energy use minimal. Once up to speed the wave generator, the tech of which we’ll leave you to marvel about, suffice to say it doesn’t involve gravity dumping water like the established parks, uses little energy. And here’s the kicker: a basic Wavegarden is yours for €4,000,000 euros. Yep. Less than a fifth of the cost of other schemes and able to sate many more surfers a day. The expression is: #winning. And for more cash you can go bigger and longer. If you had the land and the money you could build one a mile long, hell, if you’re an oil sheik, ten miles long. The tech is that clever. The next step in research is sections, ‘just needs something to hit at the end’ is the main response from pro’s. While the majority of us will be happy as is.
A quick word about the Kelly/Webber/doughnut concept. The WG guys have been working on this for 15 years. If there’s a way of making waves they’ve run the physics through the ‘puters and modelled until their brains overheated. The ring concept they’ve theorised, considered and discounted. The short version is: it won’t work. Well. It will work. But only if the pool is ridiculously big. Like a mile wide. Otherwise it’ll be backwash central. So they’re quietly confident that the Wavegarden, of all the competing technologies, is the one with the beans to actually make it commercially.
Suffice to say we were all blown away. Any doubts we had about the concept evaporated the second we saw that first sheet glass barrel reel down the garden. It’s legit. So legit it ain’t funny. Stoker, Skindog, Toby and Hazza frothed all day. It was a day of non-stop laughter, good times and more waves than you can shake a stick at. The next day they all slept until midday so broken were they by the beast. Read their opinions on the beast at the the end of the feature.
Cynics will sneer ‘these kook pools are just going to clog the real oceanic line-ups with lake learned grockles’. Well heads up Mr Grumpy: the Wavegarden ain’t for beginners. If you can’t paddle into a wave and stand up then you’re not going anywhere. It’s for intermediates and advanced surfers who will, to a human, froth on it til they can froth no more and will go home exhausted beaming from ear to ear. Any cynic won’t be once they’ve had a go.
The wider lagoons at each end are perfect for people to learn how to stand on foamies in a safe controlled environment but the fact remains a lake and the sea are completely different. Learning to surf in a lake won’t get you very far in the sea. It’s like all surfing should be: it’s about having fun.
In closing we’ll be watching progress at Bristol and Wales very closely. Next summer is the proposed opening for Wales at least. We can’t wait. We’ll be amongst the long list of people wanting to help ‘test’.
Huge thanks to: Josema, Felip, Jaime and crew at the Wavegarden for following their dreams and for giving in and hooking us up when they’ve got the whole world wanting a go. A more warm, humble, stoked crew you’ll never meet.
Also big thanks to Paul and Michelle at Shifting Sands in Labenne, France (shiftingsandssurfhouse.com). An ace surf friendly home stay with comfy beds, home made bread and an epic crew. If you’re off to Hossegor and want a chilled place to stay hit them up.
THE PRO Q&A
Our test pilots featured through out had a solid eight hour shift at the park. We were supposed to have two whole days but the weather was proper poop the second day and they didn’t want to operate the garden in the middle of a wild mountain storm. Here’s the crews views on the whole dealio.
Seeing it for the first time was the Wavegarden anything like you imagined it to be?
Stoker: Well I’d seen the video that Wavegarden had released with Medina, Dane and Taj but the first thing that was surprising was how big the pool was, it’s hard to get a scale until you see it first hand.
Toby: I was surprised when I first saw the size, it’s so much bigger in real life then on the videos.
Ben: It was incredible to see it for the first time, it’s surroundings are breathtaking! I couldn’t get my head around it at all before we got there, and when we got there, the excitement over ruled any thoughts. Just started frothing!
Harry: Not at all! I thought it would be more like a Flowrider, where it’s not exactly like surfing but it’s so much like a real waves it’s incredible!
How weird was seeing that first wave?
Stoker: So strange to see a wave in such a bizarre environment. It’s so quiet and surreal in those valleys surrounded by forest at the edge of a turquoise pool of calm water then this wave pops up from nowhere it’s like you’re in some kind of dream. When they pumped the first wave alarm bells started ringing in my head and I was watching this perfect barrelling wave for 200 yards. I was then thinking okay the potential here is mind blowing.
Toby: Mind blowing. Staring at a flat lake and suddenly it just appears. So glassy and flawless that you almost cant see the almond barrel winding down the bank perfectly.
Ben: Well, myself and Stokesy went on the first wave of the day, I hadn’t even seen a wave break yet, it was just a lake with a pontoon in the middle, until this small lump moved towards us, and Stokesy said, ’This is it. Paddle!’ Before I knew it, I was stuck behind the section watching a glassy chest high wave barrel off in front of me.
Harry: Crazy, and seeing as the water was calm its barrelled the whole way and pretty much was like a dream come true!
How freaky was surfing your first wave?
Stoker: The first wave that they create at the start of each day is so glassy and perfect you kind of don’t know how to surf it. We say it’s ‘glassed off’ in ocean conditions but this is something else. This is so perfectly still that you can’t really see the wave; pretty trippy. But that first wave is top to bottom barrelling glass perfection. Can you even imagine how that’s going to look when its overhead? I think I will actually cry.
Toby: It was so intimidating sat there then all of a sudden just seeing a tiny lump shape up out of nowhere and begin to break.
Ben: Very. I completely kooked it!
Harry: First wave was a bit weird trying to get used to surfing a waves that doesn’t have one drop of water out of place!
How many waves did it take before you had it figured out?
Stoker: Three waves in and I was feeling a lot more comfortable with the dynamics of the wave. Think shallow sand point with an essence of river current standing wave running through it.
Toby: I’d say it took it two goes round until I worked out where to hit the pocket to come back out with speed, because it’s a perfect wave, but it’s not like an ocean wave it felt more like a river bore.
Ben: Quite a few waves, it is a combination of a real wave and a bore wave. So it takes a while to figure out the way the wave moves and where you can turn, noseride, etc.
Harry: Not sure exactly but definitely took a fair few!
Was surfing in the middle of the Basque mountains the strangest thing?
Stoker: So strange. It’s like they have created some kind of surfing Utopia. It’s all made even more enjoyable because the Basque people are so warm and friendly.
Toby: Unbelievable being in such a contrasting place. The mountains were stunning, even though we didn’t get the best weather, it was incredible. There were even Shetland ponies running about!
Ben: It certainly was, it felt like the experience of a lifetime. It felt so strange driving into the mountains for a surf. But when you see it for the first time, you can’t help but to be blown away.
Harry: The background around it is so crazy and it’s even weirder when you remember you’re surfing in the middle of a grassy valley with huge trees!
Do you see it as a legit tool for improving your surfing?
Stoker: As it stands right now it already is legit. You can improve your technique in a few waves and if you’re a grom you can get barrelled. It’s head high and perfect for groms and that’s awesome. The wave its self is actually quite powerful for the size but we need bigger, longer waves to give it that ‘wow’ factor. Over the next year or so we are going to see some crazy waves produced by this technology.
Toby: 100 percent in my opinion. This is the biggest step forward in the surfing revolution for a long time, it will help surfers improve faster due to the consistency of the waves and the frequency of how often they come. After just one day of surfing the Wavegarden I personally already feel faster and fitter.
Ben: 100 percent. I think it’s going to be great for surfing in a lot of aspects, but coaching in particular, this is next level.
Harry: Yeah for sure seeing as now the whole of Europe is pretty much flat!
Would you pay to use one?
Stoker: If it’s overhead and barrelling who wouldn’t? It’s the gold at the end of the rainbow if you’re a surfer. The other thing that I thought was really cool about the experience was the social aspect it brought. The ability to talk about your waves with your friends that are riding a wave at the same time plus having an environment with people watching and cheering from the close shoreline or the boardwalk above the wave.
Are you excited for the Bristol/Wales ones?
Stoker: I’m super excited to see these projects happen here in the UK. I think it will be great for up and coming talent. It also has a huge advantage for people with disabilities: it’s a safe and controllable environment which means people that maybe haven’t have the opportunity to try surfing now can … that alone is super rad.
Toby: So pumped, I wonder which one will get done first?
Ben: Really excited! How good is it that the UK will be the home of the first open to public one in the world!
Harry: Yeah can’t wait flat summers will never happen again! Also you wont get any kooks in the way.
Considering they could produce bigger/longer waves do you think proper barrels are possible?
Stoker: They can make this wave as big as you want, you just need the pool and the power. Think about that mental perfect grinders on tap?!
Toby: After having a conversation with the engineer at the end of the day, it truly seems possibly I don’t know about stand up barrels but definitely be able to get a few visions especially for the groms.
Ben: If it was two metres high you would be getting barrelled all day long!
Harry: Yeah for sure after surfing the one in Spain the potential for it is insane. Easily get barrels and I’m sure they will find more crazy stuff to do!
Did that one day session improves your surfing in any way?
Stoker: Well I’ve had a sneaky few goes now it’s definitely made my legs stronger. At the end of the day you’ve ridden more waves and done more turns than you would ever do at the beach. The repetitive aspect and being able to go back to the exact same section on the wave and do the same again helps your surfing in a massive way. The first thing I thought was: ‘So this is how skateboarders or snowboarders have it.’ It was very weird to be waiting for the exact same wave again!
Toby: For sure. My surfing feels quicker and more fluid, I’m stoked and I want to get back out there to surf it again soon!
Ben: I definitely felt quicker in my reactions when I got home and back in the surf, so yes.
Harry: Afterwards you seem to feel a lot quicker however you don’t normally get a wave that lets you do eight turns with the same section every time!
How much did you ache the day after?
Stoker: Lots! Haha, I was on full froth out turned up to 11.
Toby: The day after I couldn’t even bend my knees, thought I’d proper hurt myself but it seems to have been just really tight quads … needed to do more stretching!
Ben: I felt pretty tired in my legs, we caught a lot of waves!
Harry: So much! Felt like the most hardcore workout!
When did you last have a session where you did six turns a wave all day?
Stoker: Maybe Snapper once or Maccas in the Ments.
Toby: A very very long time ago. So long I cant even remember!
Harry: Last night in my dream somewhere!
What are the downsides?
Stoker: It’s a perfect man made barrelling wave that’s only going to get bigger and longer. It’s hard to find any negatives. I’m sure if you dig deep enough you could but that’s the same with everything. I reckon the positives far out way the negatives. I’m sold for sure.
Toby: It’s slightly weaker then an ocean wave and due to it not having sections it was slightly difficult to get any projection upwards out of the lip on airs.
Ben: I can’t see any. It will never replace ocean surfing, it’s just going to add to the experience.
Harry: Not a lot but if you wanted to be picky I guess the only thing I can think of is the time you have to wait between waves.
Seems to me it’s the ultimate thing for intermediates and advance surfers to work on their technique. What do you say to people that reckon there will heaps of new beginner surfers clogging the line-ups?
Stoker: I would say get over your selves. Stop worrying. Life’s way too short. Get out there and get amongst it and claim it like your Da Souza.
Toby: Well there is the possibility of surfing getting increasingly crowded but thats happening naturally anyway. If you’re willing to get up early or go searching then you can always find a quiet spot to get your kicks too.
Ben: Well, there are a lot of beaches in the UK, find one without a crowd if that’s what you want, don’t stop our sport growing.
Harry: They can have the line-ups and I’ll surf the Wavegarden! Haha!
Are you going to take the WG dudes up on their offer of ‘popping back if you’re in the area’ in the summer?
Stoker: I’m already booked in haha!
Toby: Yes! As I have mentioned previous in these questions because I’m just so damn excited about it!
Ben: HELL YEAH!
Harry: Without a doubt!
If you won the Euromillions would you get one for the garden?
Stoker: If I won the Euromillions I would get one for the top of my boat.
Toby: Damn right! I would get one in my garden, the biggest one I could fit!
Ben: Do you need me to answer that?!
Harry: What kind of a question is that?! You’d have to be stupid not to get one!
Originally in Carve issue 145.