What we lose in the quest for the perfect wave

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Marcus Carman, Designer @ 50 Crates

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Surfing a perfect wave every time is every young surfer’s dream, and thanks to recent developments in man-made waves and urban surf technology, it’s now possible to do so. But how does the reality size up? Where does surfing a mechanical wave sit on the froth-o-meter?

I had heard of a wave pool being built in Melbourne for some time but never really paid it much attention. Until one morning when I went to surf at Pt Leo on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula. I was looking out at the surf deciding whether or not it was worth my time to commit to going out, sizing up the swell, wind and cold of that October morning. As I looked out at the 3-4 breaks on offer at this point, I got talking to another surfer. Mike knew this spot better than me and offered some inside knowledge about the breaks. Quickly convinced, we headed out for a surf.

As always after an hour or two and a few great waves, the stoke was high. I was excited to know the spot a little better and to have made a friend I could share it with. That was when Mike asked if I had heard about the new wave pool being built in Melbourne. I had, but I hadn't really considered that it could be for me. When it comes to surf skill, it's fair to say that both Mike and I fit into the lower tier of the intermediate category. Both originally skateboarders who had transitioned to surfing in our mid-twenties, we’re a little behind the curve of young talent that the surfing community has to offer. But as he spoke of this mythical endless supply of perfect waves, Mike successfully peaked my curiosity. He explained that this was an opportunity to hone your skills, learning a specific manoeuvre without the need to allow for the variations that surfing in ocean presents you with.

It only took one conversation and I was sold. I was on board with the concept and ready to give it a go.

Image: URBNSURF

I subscribed to URBNSURF's mailing list and began to get regular updates of the Melbourne's first wave pools progress. Set for open in January 2020 the hype was beginning to build. The pros and cons of surfing wave pools had become a common topic of debate on surf days.

One friend expressed an unwavering conviction that the very concept of a wave pool is a hypocritical move by a surf industry that constantly portrays itself as environmentally conscious. He argued that by creating a mechanical wave pool, the industry actively contributes to the world pollution that so many of its purists stand against.

January came and clips of URBNSURF's wave pool inaction were all over the ‘gram. That's when the group texts started firing up. Myself and three others promptly arranged a Saturday surf in one of the park’s ‘intermediate’ sessions.

Upon arrival we are met with a conveyer belt of1.5-2m high waves with surfers shredding left and right, almost synchronised in their movements. I can’t decide if it’s the greatest thing I've ever seen or the most off-putting. We sign in for our session, don our wetsuits, listen to a quick safety briefing and eagerly dive into the surf pool. Everything is familiar and yet so foreign at the same time.

The wave machine produces 10 – 12 waves per surfer over the course of an hour, which are shared between a maximum of 18 surfers. We form an orderly cue and wait for the machine to do its thing. The line-up is true to surfer’s etiquette when at a point-break in the ocean.

The machine fires up and our instructor yells at us to paddle. From the top corner of the pool fires a small ripple of a wave, creating momentum all around us. The first surfer begins to paddle for the anticipated wave and soon takes off, firing his way down the line as the rest of us watch intently from the line-up. Out comes the next wave and the next surfer paddles takes off and rides away. And another wave another surfer, another ride. Rapidly approaching my turn, I witness as one wave is missed by a novice. Neither the machine nor the crowd waste any time on inexperience and the novice is left scrambling to get out of the wave of the next incoming surfer.

After the 10 or so waves the machine switches off, the waves seize, and the calm of the pool returns. A few minutes pass and we are back in action! The waves fire up and I know that one is destined to be mine. I began my paddle, without much of a glimpse to the oncoming wave and before I know it, I'm up. The wave is clean, it's perfectly blue, and for a split second I'm free. It's surfing, it's the feeling I know and love. I could be anywhere in the world and it wouldn't matter because I'm on a wave.

The hour passes quickly and the analysis begins.

There’s no doubt that I had more good rides in one hour of a wave pool than I would an hour in the ocean on a day of average swell. It was great to surf multiple waves of consistent form again and again. But there’s just no escaping that the wave pool removed some of the humbling elements of what makes surfing such a beautiful escape from the stresses of modern life.

The thing that first drew me to surfing was the desire to travel and experience different waves all around the world. I remember when I first started surfing, paddling out a south-east facing beach break in Devon, England. I had come straight from work and the sun was setting out on the horizon. As a beginner at the time I had struggled to get any waves during the session, but my spirits were upheld by the euphoria of being removed from civilisation and immerse entirely in the awe of nature.

Wave pools around the world will help pave the way for generations of otherwise landlocked admirers to become professional and amateur surfers, allowing them to more acutely train their specific turns and manoeuvres. Just as skateboarding was born in the streets as a form of self-expression and then moved to purpose built skateparks for the sake of professional competition, so too will surfing edge further and further from the coast. It’s only a matter of months until surfing makes its debut in the 2020 Summer Olympics, where there is a requirement for variables in conditions to be removed so athletic ability can be judged on an even playing field.

Perhaps inland wave pools will allow for better surfers than ever before, but the ocean will always lay claim to the purity of spirit and human emotion that comes with riding an imperfect wave.

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