When Nick Hounsfield was five years old, his father, Brian, bought a surfboard. It was the mid-1970s, and surfing, thanks to the nascent commercialisation of the sport in California and Australia, was beginning to acquire a serious following in Britain. Brian, an osteopath and sailing enthhusiast who, as Hounsfield remembers, always “liked to be part of the next new exciting thing”, tried to teach himself to surf. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very good. (“Dreadful, in fact! Though he had fun, which is what mattered.”) Instead, he took to putting young Nick on the board, and pushing him into waves. And Nick, it turned out, was a natural.
On holidays, and trips to the coast from their home in Surrey, the father watched as his son surfed for hours. ”It was meditative,” Hounsfield recalls, sitting at the kitchen table of his family home in Bristol, every inch the classic surf dude with plaid shirt, bare feet and tousled beach-blonde hair. “It still is. I feel the mental health benefits more than the physical. It comes from having a sense of space with pockets of excitement from the waves; the calm between those waves is just as important as the surfing itself.”
It was a feeling he shared with his father, and they enjoyed sailing, surfing and swimming together into adult life. Nick trained to become an osteopath too, eventually sharing a practice with Brian. Both took an interest in the relationship between stress and physical health, and of the positive impact on health of spending time in and near the sea.
Early in his career, Nick noticed that many clients suffering muscular problems were inhibited and anxious, suffering from constant low-level stress that drip-fed their bodies with adrenaline. The adrenaline caused blood vessels to constrict, reducing bloody supply to the muscles, in turn causing stiffness and pain. In many cases, if he invited clients to talk about the causes of their stress, he would feel the tissues softening under his hands as the client relaxed, the adrenaline subsided and the blood flow resumed. He became good at getting clients to open up, and found that giving some people permission to relax and connect with another person was almost sufficient treatment in itself.
In 2011, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 67, Brian died. This hit Hounsfield hard. “I was being struck by a sense of mortality really,” he recalls. “Coming from a healthcare background, I had this realisation that a lot of people just weren’t happy, and that that was affecting their health. I could see that a lot of that was based around anxieties, and my feeling was that they weren’t getting out or exercising enough, and weren’t communicating with each other very well.”
As his father lay dying, Hounsfield promised him he would “do something bold, something that would leave a positive impact on the planet and society”. After his father’s death, he began to think about spaces where different generations of people could socialise freely. The best examples he could think of were Mediterranean beaches he had visited on holidays, where he had watched 80-year-olds, middle-aged parents, teenagers and young children happily enjoying the same space. “That was an ideal,” he says. “But I had to ask myself: how can we create that in Bristol?”
It might have remained an unanswered question, but by chance one evening that year, when he was up late watching surf videos on YouTube, he came across 30 seconds of grainy footage of a small artificial surfing lake being built in the mountains near San Sebastián, in Spain’s Basque Country. It was called Wavegarden. “I thought straight away, the surfing could be a hook to pull people in, and a space around it could deliver the community,” he says. A few weeks later he flew out to Spain to meet the two brothers behind Wavegarden. His mission: to use their technology to fulfil the promise he had made to his father.
Surfing is not just a popular and lucrative sport (figures of 23 million surfers and global revenues of $5.5 billon to $7 billion are commonly cited); it is also seen as a profoundly meaningful experience. Still, its revenues and profile have grown significantly, particularly in the past seven years. In 2013 the Association of Surfing Professionals, the global governing body, was acquired by ZoSea Media. Its CEO, Paul Speaker, had worked as a marketing director for the NFL, and co-founder Terry Hardy is the manager of surfing superstar Kelly Slater. ZoSea reorganised the various public pro-surf competitions into the World Surf League, and marketed media rights as a single package for the first time. In February 2019, they sold them to Fox for an undisclosed, but likely well north of the $30m paid by the previous partner, Facebook. In 2020, surfing will be included in the Olympic Games for the first time, with two days of competition based on a beach 65km from Tokyo.
There are, however, barriers to further growth. Popular surf beaches can become unpleasantly crowded, yet there are still armies of potential surfers with no access to the ocean. And live broadcasts of events are hampered by the need to wait for suitable sea and weather conditions – for the Tokyo Olympics, a leeway of 16 days had to built into the schedule. Tourism and leisure businesses can be built around surfing, but as with broadcasters, such businesses want action that can be scheduled. The solution of artificial inland lakes equipped with wave-making machines has long been anticipated, but a good surf wave proved impossible to build until five years ago, when increases in computing power enabled engineers to better model turbulent ocean swells. The question now is: what sort of waves should be made? And for whom? And what might the answers mean for the soul of surfing – and our relationship with the sea itself?
Engineers have been trying to perfect artificial waves in water since at least the 1870s, when King Ludwig II of Bavaria installed an electric wave machine in a man-made underground lake at his Linderhof Palace near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Up to 30 years ago, wave-making machines used one of three methods: paddles; blowing pressurised air onto the surface; or sucking in and expelling water. Then, in 1991, a US attorney and water park entrepreneur called Tom Lochtefeld launched the WaveLoch FlowRider, roughly the size of a five-a-side football pitch, which used a fast-flowing sheet of water shot up a sloping plastic surface, known as a “sheet wave”. Riding at oblique angles to the current, surfers could surf down the slope, allowing the current to take them back to the top when they reached the bottom. The FlowRider wasn’t surfing as anyone knew it, but it was popular (there are now more than 200 around the world) and had shown the potential appeal of artificial waves in a world where surfing was beginning to boom.
But to make real waves that surfers wanted to ride wasn’t easy. It’s a lot more than sending down a single big ripple now and again, as in a wave pool aimed at swimmers; good, surfable waves are powerful and in ideal conditions they roll in with regularity. Real waves can begin thousands of kilometres from where they will wash ashore, started by wind blowing the water’s surface into ripples, which eventually create a swell – a travelling pulse of energy whose size and shape are determined by other waves and swells, the sea bed below and the air above. When the swell nears the shore, the ocean floor becomes shallower or takes on new, irregular shapes, and this can make the wave peak and break. When all these forces interact, the movements become complex and volatile – yet these are precisely the forces one needs to understand and manipulate to create a series of waves in a pool.
To build a wave-generating machine, you need to model the waves on a computer and then, by further trial-and-error modelling, work out how to generate them. Twenty years ago, explains Oliver Strong, a simulation engineer with engineering consultancy FEA Solutions, modelling sea movements could take months, even years. An increase in computing power has now brought this down to a couple of hours, and made high-end computational fluid dynamics (CFD) more widely available. Steven Downie, an associate in Arup’s advanced digital engineering group, says that, in this new world, the goal is now to successfully model turbulence, when thousands of different forces and micro-currents affect each other.
“You have to model movements down to an individual molecular scale, which makes it the biggest challenge,” Downie says. “It’s been particularly hard to know what would happen to the model when you enact in the real world, because there are always differences between simulations and reality, but the calculations are becoming much better.”
Nestled in the Pyrenees, the Wavegarden headquarters is an extraordinary sight. Its centrepiece is a fan-shaped lagoon with an engine house at one end, below which about 30 paddles protrude into the water. Clustered around the lagoon are other low-rise offices in which seven engineers (who are, of course, also surfers) work at monitor screens showing simulated waves in splashes of colour. In the water, when I visit, a team of people from a surf equipment company test boards and wet suits in waves created by the paddles. Suddenly, the water level will lurch down as the paddles suck it in, and then it rises up, hits the opposite wall, and rolls down the lagoon to wash up on a concrete shore at the far end. The shape of each wave is determined by an operator casually tapping on a laptop in a cabin overlooking the pool.
Josema Odriozola, the engineer behind Wavegarden, gestures at some low, round humps passing down the pool. “We call these waves Waikiki, because they are small, and have a little white water like in Waikiki,” he says. “They’re good for people to learn on. But we can make many different kinds.”
In the cabin, the operator at the laptop presses a few keys. “This is the Beast,” says Odriozola. “It is based on waves on the west coast of Ireland, which are some of the hardest in the world to surf.”
The water drops again, and this time a vast seething mass rises up, crashes hard against the lagoon wall, and then breaks as it rumbles down the pool to crash noisily at the beach end. Odriozola laughs. “I couldn’t ride that one,” he says. “But some of the best surfers who come here, they want the challenge.”
Quietly spoken, and dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, Odriozola grew up in nearby San Sebastián with his brother Fernando. Both lifelong surfers, they co-own the company: Josema takes care of wave generation, Fernando handles sales. They started out 15 years ago when Josema, a trained engineer then working in sports marketing, hit on the idea of launching the surfing equivalent of a skate park, though his dedication to the cause long predates that. He became an engineer because sailing as a young boy instilled in him a lifelong obsession with waves. “If you want to sail, you have to understand the physics of wind and water, and if you want to surf, you need to know how wind affects the swell, how currents affect waves. Surfing connects you with nature, and physics explains nature. So when I first started to think about artificial waves, my first thought was, I might find a way to do it or not, but at least I will learn more about waves.
“Having said that,” he adds, “I never thought it would be so complicated.”
When Odriozola started out on the project, he discovered there were several wave technologies in existence or development, “but none making waves that people wanted to surf, waves that had the right shape and felt natural. And no one had used CFD to actually design waves before, so we had to learn, and develop software. Sometimes a wave modelled on a screen looks good, but just doesn’t feel right when you create it in the water.” Using his engineering knowledge, fluid dynamics specialists, and a small testing pool with rudimentary paddles, he began creating simulations based on his own memories from 30 years of surfing around the world, and images of surf spots from Google Earth.
By 2011, when they first met Hounsfield, the brothers were working on a design in which a rectangular 300m lagoon was bisected by a pier, and a snowplough-shaped sled dragged along the pier to create a large wave on either side. Initially impressed, Hounsfield set up a company (called The Wave, because “I wanted to make waves of positive change”), and spent two years finding a site and securing planning permission for a 70-acre park, with the lagoon at its heart. It was only after that first burst of activity that he began to spot shortcomings in the Wavegarden technology.
When he surfed its waves in the Pyrenees base, the waves felt too fast and unnatural, there was a minute and a half between them, and if any repairs were needed, the entire lagoon had to be drained of water. Gradually, he began to realise that it wouldn’t deliver his plan for an egalitarian, relaxed space.
For one thing, he had already done the maths that showed to make back the £25m investment, he needed about 150,000 surfers through every year. To pull that many people in, you would somehow need to offer waves of sizes and speeds that worked for beginners, intermediates and experts; but if you separated sessions for each ability-group, it was unlikely all the sessions would be filled. And there was a bigger issue: it was crucial in Hounsfield’s vision that every visitor felt unintimidated and of equal value, so that they could relax and feel a connection with the surroundings, the way people did on those Mediterranean beaches. If you in effect separated the visitors based on surfing ability, that wasn’t going to happen. “We wanted to create a place where people can feel they’re relaxed and supported, and can fall over without being judged,” he says. “If we just end up with lots of hyper-cool, worthy surfers who can’t smile, then we’ve failed miserably.”
The problem was, unsmiling and hyper-cool people are a sizeable part of surfing’s image, and so it’s at this point that the nature of the waves intersects with the sport’s rather complex sociology. The quest for “the perfect wave” is surfing’s ultimate dream, but surfers also have multiple categories of waves, defined by either the obstruction that causes waves to break, or the force generating them.
Beginners like to ride on small, humped waves at 180 degrees to the direction the wave is coming in, propelled along simply. Once they’re competent, they look to ride waves that are concave (or “open faced”) at right angles to the direction of water. These competent surfers differ in the extent to which they believe surfing should be about improvement and performance as opposed to just having fun; and that belief forms the basis of a strong tribalism.
Surfing has a long tradition of environmental awareness and activism, and a concern with social justice. Commentators often make a case for it as a spiritual, even quasi-religious experience; for the psychologist, counter-cultural figure and psychedelic-drug enthusiast Timothy Leary, writing in the 1960s, surfers were “futurists, leading the way to where man ultimately wants to be… The act of the ride is the epitome of ‘be here now’.” In this “soul surfing” vision, equality and connection with nature are everything – and, as one frequently-quoted maxim has it, “the best surfer is the one having the most fun”.
However, riding the WSL-era growth of the sport is a focus on the commercial expressions of the “lifestyle”, and an increasing visibility for the talented and attractive. This has drawn in new people – some claim to show off a prowess they don’t have – which makes them a focal point for the resentment of long-time surfers who feel their physical and cultural territory is being encroached on. And they can be hostile in defending it. Some soul surfers would say there’s a fourth tribe of macho, highly competitive people who see the sport as a sort of aquatic Formula 1, venerating the pros and champions and scorning those of lesser ability.
For some observers, this latter version of surfing is epitomised by the highest-profile of the new wavemaking technologies, Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch. Slater is arguably the greatest-ever surfer, an 11-time world champion with a social cachet akin to that of Michael Jordan in basketball. In autumn 2018, he opened a project he had been working on for many years: a 600-metre long, 150-metre wide artificial lake in central California, which uses 100-tonne hydrofoils running down one side to create a single, perfect wave. The wave can be adjusted in size, but Surf Ranch is all about spectacle and glamour. It is hugely expensive – about $10,000 an hour to visit – and the wave can only be created once every four minutes, so it’s not a beginners’ zone. The World Surf League has invested heavily because, according to WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt, it will “push elite performance”.
Critics include the Ireland-based surfer and activist Sophie Hellyer point out that while artificial surf lakes have the potential to reach out to less privileged groups – those who can’t access the sea, disabled “adaptive” surfers, and novices – it is clearly not a realistic prospect, and in that context the big waves these surf lakes produce take on a sort of showy, elitist significance.
There is another issue with these waves: their uniformity can give people a false sense of security and predictability when entering the ocean. William Finnegan, the author of the acclaimed surf memoir Barbarian Days, rode the Surf Ranch wave last year, and found it irresistible, yet “strangely soulless”. Finnegan’s use of the word “soul” is telling; for those who care, this isn’t just about sport, but about an activity that can connect people to a higher plane of meaningful existence.
“Surfing politics,” says Sam Bleakley, a British surfing champion and writer, “can be very divisive. Simplistically, I think you can trace a three-way split: the egalitarian, mindful and ecologically minded, often ‘locals’ and regulars to the surf break; the ‘aggressive locals’ who often resent the commercialisation and incomers; and the “kooks”, who are relative newcomers, perhaps attracted by the glamour and lifestyle. The latter are often deeply, and unfairly, resented by ‘aggressive locals’, who complain that they don’t respect traditional surf etiquette in the water.” Aggressive locals are likely to oppose artificial wave lakes because they’re inauthentic, make people think surfing is easier and less dangerous than it is, and are likely to attract yet more inexperienced newcomers to popular breaks. “You could say it comes down to what you believe it means to be a surfer,” says Bleakley. “But for many people it’s more than that; it’s about our place in society and in nature.”
Hounsfield – very much a soul surfer (though he doesn’t use the term) – was left with a seemingly unfeasible vision, needing different wave sizes in the one pool. Progress stalled while he investigated other technologies. In 2015, a company called Conwy Adventure Leisure built the lagoon design as Surf Snowdonia, on the site of a disused factory in north Wales, and the reception from surf journalists was mixed. Moreover, the first of several stoppages to drain the lake for repairs occurred within a month of opening. Despite these issues, the lagoon is seen as a success, and the surf pool is now the centrepiece of an adventure park.
In November 2016, Hounsfield was invited by the Odriozolas to see a new kind of lake they had developed. Standing at the edge of the mini-lake in the Pyrenees, he listened attentively as they explained the new system. In this model, known as the “Cove”, waves would be generated by paddles at the apex of a triangular shaped pool and, after hitting the wall on the other side of the apex, break down the pool like waves coming into a coastal cove. More paddles along one side could add shape to waves as they passed, but the real secret to the wave shape lay in the base, formed of a complex arrangement of flat-faceted surfaces.
These, devised with thousands of hours of computer simulation, replicated the effect of coral reefs. Josema Odriozola had got the idea from memories of watching waves breaking over such reefs when he was surfing. Using this biomimicry, the Cove could produce up to 1,000 waves an hour in the pool, but more importantly, it could change the shape of a wave: beginning at, say, a pro-level two metres, mutating into an intermediary size, and then ending as a beginner-friendly 50cm. More than that, as each shape cedes to the next, a current tugs the surfer back – meaning pros can’t surf right into the beginners. The technology allowed all three ability ranges to surf in a lake together, the equivalent of a football novice training on a pitch with Premier League professionals.
This system, surrounded by native grass and woodland, and powered by renewable energy, would provide what Hounsfield needed. He felt the universe answering his prayers – and then got out his surfboard.
Due to open in October 2019, the Wave is currently a 70-acre building site on former farmland in Easter Compton, a village 20 minutes’ drive from Bristol. Costing £25m to build, it will include a 200 metre by 200 metre artificial lake surrounded by natural meadow and woodland, where some of the projected 150,000 annual visitors can camp or stay in huts. It will be Europe’s first artificial wave pool for a “mass surfing audience” and, although others are under construction, only the second in the world, after the BSR Surf Resort that opened in Waco, Texas, last year.
Walking across the site in rubber boots and hard hat on a sunny day in early summer, Hounsfield comes to a stop at the edge of the vast, excavated hole that will soon be the lake. Work on shaping the crucial lake bottom will be delicate, painstaking and time-consuming, he explains. “It’s by far the most difficult part to build. Wavegarden supplies the measurements and angles, which they calculate with secret formulae that they guard very closely. The surface has to be formed by laying a series of concrete facets a few centimetres wide. It’s measured down to molecular level, and the tolerance when we’re building is one millimetre in a 200-metre wide pool. And for all the technology, it comes down to a bloke pouring concrete. If it isn’t perfect, it has to be redone. We’ll be doing a lot of checks.”
Hounsfield freely admits that the objections he anticipated have materialised. His mission may be based in a soulful, ecological surfing ethos, and the lake an approximation of the open, democratic nature of a real beach, but to some surfers with a “local” mentality, the mixed-ability pool puts him firmly in the commercialising camp.
“I knew some surfers wouldn’t like us using beginner-level waves,” he says. “You might be surprised at the degree of complaints and anger I get sometimes. Someone a few days ago saw on our Facebook page an image of a young woman paddling out [lying on a board and stroking with the arms to reach the waves], and commented that she was positioned wrongly, and if we used pictures like that, all we were going to do was clog up the sea with people who didn’t know what they were doing.” He makes a point of personally debating with objectors, and in that instance explained he wanted to use images of people of all abilities to make it clear that beginners were as welcome as pros.
“The only thing to do is to explain what we believe in,” he says. “We’re trying to do something to help the community and the planet, not be a place solely for champion surfers. I also like to point out to people that they were beginners themselves, once.”
For now, he is winning the argument. Thinking among the medical community has in some ways caught up with Hounsfield’s ideas. Across the world, government organisations now recognise the burgeoning “blue health” movement, which recognises and seeks to exploit the benefits that spending time near water has in terms of health, stress and relationship building. That recognition has already helped him agree a deal for the next Wave – a £40m, 100-acre centre in London’s Lea Valley (home to 117,000 of the UK’s 650,000 surfers), for which plans have been submitted and seem likely to be approved. He says he has backing to build five more in the UK and abroad.
There is some debate in his team, he says, about who should ride the first wave at the opening. He’s not going near it himself (“I don’t want the attention! And what if I cocked it up?”) and wonders if it should be about any one person at all. “I mean, it’s not even just about surfing. The Wave is about all the things we need to be addressing, you know. About a more holistic vision of life. It’s about everything.”
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