Wave pools: A new era in surfing, or a new kind of surfer?

I wonder whether I would still be surfing at all if we had perfect waves to ride every day. I think I would have become bored with it all ages ago. 

What keeps me interested is the scarcity of really good waves here in Cape Town. 

I surf every day that I can, rain or shine, big waves or small and I can’t seem to get enough of it. But that is because I never quite get everything right when I ride a wave. Maybe I could have hit the lip harder; I would have made that tube if I had only dropped my shoulder a fraction more; I should have paddled harder for that last wave. The problem though, is that I can’t go back and ride the same wave again to correct my mistakes. The next wave will be very different to the one before it, even at spots that have “perfect” surf. 

Many things are appealing because they are difficult to attain. Their inaccessibility make them sought after and valuable, like diamonds, limited edition sports cars, beautiful women… or good waves. 

Surfing is fun even when the swell is weak or when the shape of the walls we ride is below par, but those conditions merely keep us going until the next good swell. What makes us come back for more on cold, rainy days, when the onshore is howling and when we’d rather be doing something else is that we want to be ready when that magic wave comes along one day. We live for the feeling of bliss that only a wave can produce, that incredible sensation that we can’t describe, so fleeting, but so absolutely mesmerizing and compelling that we have no choice but to return for more as soon as our tired bodies allow us to paddle out again. And then we try to catch another magic wave. Unfortunately this does not happen very often, even to the best of us. The better you get, the higher your expectations – the goal posts have merely been moved. 

But a strange thing happens to me when I get to surf good J-Bay for a few days on end. After a while, I become demotivated. Even though there are still brilliant rides out there with my name on them, I just don’t feel like paddling out as badly as before. Those never ending walls for carving and speeding barrels that repeat themselves ceaselessly are so plentiful that they have lost some of their appeal. I’ve consumed my quota. As the petrol attendants say, I’m full up. It will take a week or so of flatness to restore the desire for stoke. 

Enter the wave pool, the newest hype in the surfing world. I assume that if the machine settings are kept the same, that the waves would all be identical to each other. That means that you can go back again and again to work on your technique, timing and so forth. You could get really good. But wouldn’t it become boring?

I know that skate and snowboarders have half pipes that never change and that there are thousands of adherents to those sports who don’t seem to get bored. (No pun intended!) I suppose that you can vary your trajectory down the slope to change your ride completely, but somehow it all seems to get a little stale after a few repetitions.

Will wave pools change the kind of person who surfs? Will we get more perfectionists emerging from wave pools? People who don’t like the ever changing sea, with all it’s imperfections? Will wave pools train up surfers who are technically proficient, but unable to handle rough ocean conditions? Or, will we simply see more Slaters and less Wilbur Kookmeyers? 

Over the last two or three decades surfing has changed from a frowned upon counter culture lifestyle to a clean, acceptable sport. The Hippies have had to move their rusted Kombi’s and camper vans away to accommodate the flashy cars of high flying overachievers who now also surf. The whole sport has become much more regulated. I no longer feel very comfortable surfing at certain beaches that are now policed by life guards and municipal employees. A different kind of surfer goes there: the kind of guy who feels reassured by the safety officials and who prefers to shower off afterwards in a sterile changing room without getting sand on his feet. The dude who likes to show off his flashy new clothes while sipping cappuccino’s at the trendy beach cafe after the session. 

Will we now see another shift towards super athletes who surf perfectly? I have visions of ranks of sleekly toned surfers emerging from the wave pool factories and marching down the beach in step, paddling out in unison and taking turns to methodically rip each wave from the backline to the beach. 

I’m sure that this newest innovation in surfing will increase performance levels: the sport will become accessible to many more people and that alone will bring more talent to the sport. Add the opportunity to practice in perfect conditions whenever you want and you have a recipe for success. 

But will it still be fun?


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