The Race to Create the Perfect Artificial Wave

A surfer gets some air time off an artificial wave in Europe. By Veronika Stuksrud/Shutterstock

Surfers are constantly on the hunt for ideal conditions, but the proverbial "perfect wave" is elusive. If they have the money (or are good enough to have sponsors), riders will travel to the ends of the Earth to find good conditions. Most surfers, however, simply settle for whatever waves are nearby.

Part of the allure of the sport is experiencing the natural power of the ocean. This is a force that cannot be replicated ... or can it? Ambitious engineers are creating waves that mimic the roar of the ocean, and the era of surf-specific water parks is coming much sooner than you think.

The idea of human-made surf has been around for a while. Many major water parks have FlowRider systems. Widely seen since the 1990s, FlowRider relies on powerful jets that shoot a sheet of water up a wave-shaped base at 20 to 30 mph.

Boarders are able to ride continuously, doing tricks and carves for as long as they can stay upright. But most purists don’t consider this sport surfing. Because the sheet of water is only a few inches deep, flowboards don't have fins, and because the “wave” is stationary, the technique is different and the sensation of catching a wave — an integral part of surfing — is absent.

Riding an artificial wave in San Diego
Riding an artificial wave in San Diego.

Riding an artificial wave in San Diego

Wave pools are popular in water parks. Technically, these are artificially created waves that can be surfed, though most wave pools are populated with kids floating on inner tubes. Surfers like to hit the artificial waves at Malaysia’s Sunway Lagoon, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Siam Park on Tenerife.

Over the past few years, there has been a race to create waves specifically designed for surfing. The goal is to replicate the conditions of some of the world's best breaks.

One of the most heralded of these first-generation concepts is called Wavegarden. This system uses a specific layout to mimic the natural conditions of a reef break. Basically, the wave maker, which can be hidden under water, produces 4- to 8-foot surf that roll across a large lagoonlike pool for up to 20 seconds.

The Wavegarden design calls for a barrier running down the middle of the pool. This creates two separate waves, one that breaks right and the other that breaks left, making it possible for surfers to ride facing the wave or with their backs to it, no matter what their stance.

A demonstration Wavegarden in Spain has enjoyed success and praise from surfers, and the buzz is that this system is past its prototype stage and ready for wider use.

Typhoon Lagoon at Disney World
Typhoon Lagoon water park at Disney World near Orlando features a wave pool. Ashley[CC by 2.0]/flickr

Another positive for Wavegarden is the equipment requires much less energy than the wave pools in most major water parks.

Surf legend Kelly Slater has lent his name to a company looking into other unique designs, the best of which it plans to incorporate into the world’s first surf-themed park.

The centerpiece of the company’s vision is a wave that will roll around a large circular pool indefinitely. Though the concept and layout don't seem to mimic the ocean, the designers claim that, from the surfer’s perspective, conditions on the artificial waves will be very close to those seen in the best natural surf spots in Australia, Tahiti and Hawaii.

Another player in the wave-making game is WaveLoch, the company that created the FlowRider technology. The company is now involved in creating wave pools that can generate surfable waves. One unique design features a moveable reef; when the underwater topography is changed, the wave takes a different shape.

FlowRiding has become a competitive sport that sometimes draws large crowds, and the company's wave pool designs also have spectators in mind.

Ocean surfing in New Zealand
Natural waves, such as these off the New Zealand coast, can be unpredictable. Dave Young [CC by 2.0]/flickr

One of the reasons this technology is so exciting is that it can revolutionize surf competitions. Professional contests are now held over a 10- to 12-day period. Surfers simply have to wait until conditions are good enough before taking to the water. This can mean several “lay days” between heats.

Once they do take to the water, heats last for 30 minutes, on average, with each rider trying to score well on only two waves. Often, the winner is the competitor who was lucky enough to drop into the best wave of the heat.

The waiting game is an accepted part of the sport for pro surfers and spectators. However, the possibility of seeing competitors surf 10 to 15 waves during a heat and then seeing their opponent surf the exact same waves is enticing.

As the artificial wave race heats up, it will be interesting to see if any of these inventions can generate the same level of excitement as Mother Nature.