Words by Sam Haddad
It’s not often that a Hawaiian surfer lands on your head. Especially if you’ve never been to Hawaii and you’re at the kook end of the waveriding spectrum. As in someone who sticks to easy longboard-friendly breaks, the opposite of what might appeal to Kalani Robb, a former pro from the North Shore, who was once described as the next Kelly Slater. Though that doesn’t come close to being the strangest thing that will happen to me today.
I’m in a beautiful Welsh valley with a 360-degree view of green. Dark deep-forested slopes cover one end, lighter grassy rolling hills the rest. There are no beaches. No ocean. No sea cliffs. Just a freshwater mountain reservoir, which is what I’ve been surfing today. Not wakesurfing. Actual surfing, on waves, albeit man-made ones, generated at the touch of a button in a seemingly-simple yet obviously quite complicated way.
The wave machine at your local swimming baths this is not. The technology, pioneered by Wavegarden, a tiny team of super-brainy surfer-engineers from the Basque Country works like this: a waveplough, which you can picture more easily if you think of a snowplough, sits in the centre of a lake pushing water to form waves on either side.
Surfers are protected from the plough by a metal cage, which allows water to pass freely out to generate the waves, though when you’re surfing you never get close to the plough as the water forces you away from it, even though you’re meant to point your board towards it.
Riding towards a giant metal waveplough, which is what the expert surfers have to do to ride the wave at its biggest, while intermediates ride the centre and beginners the whitewater at the front, is a counter-intuitive mind-melt. At first at least. Early on it causes one of the British pros, who had come to test it out, to holler: “This is messing with my head!”
Their group includes Oli Adams, Alan Stokes, Jayce Robinson and Reubyn Ash. The head of GoPro, Nick Woodman, is also here surfing with Kalani Robb. There’s also a heap of national news sites, global surf media and good old BBC Breakfast TV.
It’s seems funny to think that the biggest story in surfing right now, since perhaps even the shortboard revolution in the 1970s, is happening in an inland lake in Snowdonia. Not Hawaii where the sport was invented or even California where it came of age and entered the public consciousness. But maybe it’s not that surprising as we are a surf-mad nation that needs regular high-quality waves. It’s still early days, but it looks like Surf Snowdonia could offer that in spades.
The waves should arrive every two minutes, like clockwork, allowing you to shred a ridiculously high number in a 50-minute session. Far more than you’d normally ride in the sea. Especially these seas. You also get your section of wave to yourself depending on your ability, so one expert at a time and one intermediate, while six beginners surf together.
The Hawaiian landing on my head thing was only because we were on a test day. And while the Surf Snowdonia website promises 2m barrelling waves, and I didn’t see any barrels in my time there, the waves were eminently rippable. Something the British coastline quite simply fails to deliver on a consistent basis.
And with this set up being just an hour and a half from Liverpool and Manchester by car or three hours from London on a train, plus a taxi ride, you could plan to surf after work and actually know you would be getting decent waves. Something no surfer can ever guarantee especially one on these fair Isles.
The quest for a perfect artificial wave has been the Holy Grail in surfing for at least a decade, with even Kelly Slater amongst those attached to various projects that have yet to come to fruition. Wavegarden has been operating a test facility in the Basque Country for a few years but this is their first commercial venture. Their second is due to open in Austin, Texas next year.
But it’s not just for land-locked spots, I met an Aussie who wanted to roll out ten of these centres back home over the next ten years, many of them in surf towns. The point about this wave being that even great surfers can get better by riding it, on repeat. While contest surfing could well be about to change forever.
Casper Steinfath, the Vice President of the International Surfing Association (ISA), the sport’s global governing body is also at Surf Snowdonia for the opening. Their goal is to get surfing into the Olympics, having made the shortlist for Tokyo 2020. I ask him how Surf Snowdonia might affect that bid?
“We’ve been trying to get surfing in the Olympics for 10 years but some countries are land-locked plus you’re always at the mercy of changing conditions but this Wavegarden technology has allowed the dream to be much more realisable.”
I ask what he thinks surfing would bring to the Olympics? “A freshness and a new dynamic, which would compliment the new direction of the Olympic movement. You could maybe draw a parallel to snowboarding when that was included…”
And what would the Olympics bring to surfing? Given that many in the sport see its inclusion as the ultimate sell-out. In fact heaps of people hate it even being called a sport for that matter. For the record I’m not one of those people, having experienced London 2012 first-hand and Jenny Jones’s snowboarding bronze live on my laptop, it’s hard to stay cynical at something which brings that much joy to the athletes themselves.
Steinfath says: “The Olympics are the ultimate stage. I’m an athlete myself and there’s no bigger dream for me than to be able to represent my country at an Olympics somewhere. The consistency would make contests fairer and also push the level up even higher.” Especially in women’s surfing I’d imagine, as historically they’ve often failed to get the ocean at its best in contests.
From the glass-fronted restaurant where we’re sitting, which looks directly and breathtakingly onto the action, you can picture a tiered seating arena at one end, which would give epic views of a contest. An energy drink brand are rumoured to be planning one later this year. Could we see a global night surfing contest sometime? Steinfath, who is Danish poetically answers: “It’s the imagination that sets the limit.”
What would he say to haters or even undecideds, who question where this leaves the soul of the sport? “We all love surfing and I don’t think this new branch takes anything away it. If anything it’ll give us a stronger voice on the international stage on matters such as pollution and coastal development.”
One of the best surfers I’ve seen ripping so far at Surf Snowdonia, Kalani Robb aside is Jo Dennison, a four-time Welsh Champion and former British Champion, who is also the head of the Surf Academy here. I ask about her role here: “To help people experience surfing but also to help local kids get into surfing and the healthy lifestyle that goes with it.”
How would this have helped her as a young surfer?
“It would have been a dream come true. Just to get the same waves and to be able to practise your manoeuvres and look at some video footage and then go back in the water and instantly improve.”
Surfers in warm weather countries with more consistent breaks, such as Hawaii and Australia, leap ahead of their British counterparts at super-young ages as they can get in the water and surf decent waves so much more. Could this kind of facility be a game-changer for British surfing, as snowdomes have been for snowboarding?
Is it too big a step to suggest they might help us get a Brit on the WSL Championship Tour? “I don’t think so, one problem in the UK is the inconsistent swell, but a facility like this will give you the wave whenever you want it at the touch of a button. It’s going to help the surfers surf everyday and learn manoeuvres. Sometimes you can not have waves for six weeks and when you’re not on the water that makes a big difference.”
I ask Jo Dennison about how she thinks it will impact contest surfing?
“For the first time you’ll be able to watch surfing in a proper arena. In the ocean you can just see little dots but no one really knows what’s going on. This definitely makes it more of a visual sport and more of a spectator sport. You could have commentary over the top.”
And as a surfer, do you want to be watched by big crowds? “Totally!”
I once asked the six-time World Champion Stephanie Gilmore what she thought about wave pool contest surfing, she rode the Wavegarden test wave back in 2013, and she said:
“I just think that’s part of progression. Perhaps that’s just me being envious of the tennis players and the other sports stars who have set schedules for their events. They just show up and have all these people in the stadium watching them.”
“There are many places on the tour that have natural amphitheatres but it’s not the same as you’re not going to show up at 11am on the Sunday and have pumping 6 foot waves. You’ll never be able to recreate what the ocean can deliver but why not try it out?”
As she says you’ll never be able to recreate the ocean but to focus on that too much is missing the point. This is meant to be an extra dimension, an add-on, to help all levels of surfer charge better and be more stoked on surfing the next time they’re in the ocean.
How did it feel for me to surf it? Weird! But also pretty cool, the rush of riding a wave was similar but the bit in between, waiting on a super-still lake with no horizon to gaze longingly at, then hearing a machine whir into action behind you, was mad as hell.
The freshwater wipeouts felt softer and not having to paddle to keep position or catch waves meant that I was way less tired at the end of a session, which isn’t necessarily a great thing. But overall my experience was wholly positive, especially given the natural beauty of the setting.
I hope future wave pools are built in such lovely surroundings and not on grim industrial estates next to TFI Fridays. It would give a pleasantly-skewed meaning to the term ‘destination wave’, while making the whole notion of surfing an artificial wave that much more palatable or dare I even say soulful.
Find out more at surfsnowdonia.co.uk