What Do Artificial Waves Mean for the Future of Competitive Surfing?




Could this be the surf contest of the future? Image © Paul Roget

Could this be the surf contest of the future? Image © Paul Roget

Competitive surfing has always been as much about an individuals wave selection, as it has about the moves that take place on the wave itself. But that’s all set to change. The ability to read the conditions – mentally analysing and computing the slightest ripples on the surface of the ocean – could become a skill of the past. At least in any competition taking place in an artificial man-made wave, that is.

A contest in Kelly Slater’s Californian splash park is imminent. And it’s sure to be a carnival. A real spectacle. Whatever your view on the impact of artificial waves on the sport of surfing, competitions in these pools are going to happen. There’s too many high profile figures with too much invested for wave riding in purpose built parks not to be seeking maximum exposure. All of which means fans of surfing will soon be watching their new favourite sport from the bleachers, at the same time being offered the chance to fill their faces with overpriced hotdogs, whilst wearing replica competition vests.

Apparently surfing sells, and those financially vested in the industry must be licking their lips at the ability to further exploit the sport to a captivated audience. The TV networks will no doubt have had their fancy tickled too. Scheduling becomes infinitely more feasible if the dreaded scenario of a surf contest with no surf can be consigned to the past. No longer necessary is the inane chat designed to fill the lulls between sets, and the eternal problem of how to tackle the inconvenience of capturing athletes riding waves far out to sea, ceases to exist. TV executives are sure to have recognised that ad breaks can be timed to perfection around the delivery of the mechanical wave. And to a non surfer, the charade will probably look even more impressive than to those of us who perhaps approach all things artificial with a hint of caution, meaning huge untapped audiences lie in wait.

But how will competitive surfing itself be affected? Well, nothing in the artificial wave’s appearance is going to be a surprise. The same lump will arrive on cue, time after time. Meaning that surfers can not only practice and prep for every wave, but they can adopt a strategy for every minute of a heat. If they wish, they can plot a series of very specific moves that will hopefully progress them all the way to the final. Competing surfers can decide before they enter the pool exactly what turns they’re going to execute in which section of the wave. Preparation can begin days, weeks, even months before an event. Suddenly surfing becomes a whole lot less extreme, and not a lot different from other expressive sports such as figure-skating or rhythmic gymnastics. The competitors will in effect be able to perform perfectly rehearsed routines to a panel of judges watching at the side of the pool.




Which also raises the question: can we judge those riding artificial waves in the same way as we judge those in the ocean? On the current tour, points are unofficially weighted towards specific manoeuvres in different events around the world. At Pipeline the tube-ride rules, at Trestles judges crave massive airs, but in this artificial environment – where the playing field can be tweaked by those sitting at the controls of the wave machine – we could see the judges asking to witness specific moves. Round 1 could be a freestyle demonstration, round 2 limited to barrel-riding, round 3 rewarding those taking to the air, and so on. The resulting champion confident that they are rewarded for their all round surfing ability.

Or are they?

Could this new branch of competitive surfing result in the creation of a new breed of surfers? Could it even herald the birth of a separate tour? Just as is the norm in athletics – where athletes choose to specialise in either indoor or outdoor events – might we soon see surfers who choose to focus their talents towards riding waves in the pool, and those who denote themselves specifically ocean surfers? It’s argued that competitions in wave pools will exist in harmony alongside those in the sea, but can a surfer who hasn’t practiced a routine for months on end hope to compete against someone who has their path to the final mapped out, turn by turn?

Will the temptation of Olympic medals see some surfers focus solely on riding artificial waves? Image © Paul Roget

Will the temptation of Olympic medals see some surfers focus solely on riding artificial waves? Image © Paul Roget

The real dilemma for surfers who will qualify to compete is sure to be where to lay their loyalty. If surfing artificial waves does unleash the marketing potential clearly envisaged by so many, then the financial reward of performing in chlorinated water is going to be high. The draw of Olympic medals, sold out arenas, and the unbridled adoration from hollering crowds could (for some) be difficult to turn down, begging the question: will surfers have to decide if they are going to sell-out and entertain the nacho-munching-masses, or stay true to the sport they know and love for reduced recognition?

It’ll be interesting to see where surfing is in 10 years time. It’ll be more interesting to see who chooses to take which path. And it would be most interesting of all to know which direction an 18 year old Kelly Slater would have turned.

Tom Keyes

Recently returned to the UK after several years chasing waves in Asia, Tom takes inspiration from living on the doorstep of Cornwall's finest beaches to write articles and features on all thing surf related. Regularly featured on Surfing Sections and The Inertia his work has been viewed and shared by... Read more

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