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Olympic Surfing Dreams: Will Surf Parks Transform the Future of Surfing?

The opening of Surfs Up New Hampshire, the first surf park in the United States, marks a turning point not only for surfing attractions, but also for the surfing community’s acceptance of artificial surf.  

Surf simulator attractions have become increasingly popular over the years as the leisure industry has tapped into the growing interest in surfing as a pastime, but these have largely failed to address that crucial requirement of the serious surfer – an authentic wave.

Innovative leaders in artificial wave technology, American Wave Machines (AWM), created the technology behind Surfs Up New Hampshire and a huge new wave pool in Sochi, the venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics.  AWM believe that surf parks have a function beyond the casual leisure industry – a function fundamental to the future of surfing itself.

Blooloop caught up with AWM’s John Luff to discuss what these landmark projects mean for both the sport of surfing and surfing attractions.

Ice Cream Headaches

John Luff,  founder of Surf Park Central and business development for American Wave MachinesLuff (left) grew up in Maryland on the East Coast of the US. He explained what sparked his interest in surfing away from the ocean.

“Have you ever eaten ice cream too fast? That ice cream headache is what it feels like to surf in the winter every time you go underwater. That’s when I first started thinking about surfing outside the ocean in essentially a controlled environment that mimics a real ocean experience.”

Surf parks, often teamed with other extreme sports venues, tick the experience economy boxes in terms of the entertainment, educational, aesthetic and escapist aspects.

“Surf Parks are the key to making surfing a mainstream, commercially sustainable sport and to promoting surfing as an iconic lifestyle that transcends all nationalities and cultures, ” says Luff.

“Surf parks are the answer to several of the big barriers between where the surf industry is now and where the industry has the potential to go. With such a small core surf market when compared to the aspirational customer base of most surf related companies, there’s a massive void that needs to be filled.”

Catching the Wave

Surfing is ranked in the top 20 most popular and fastest growing sports in all countries, cultures and demographics.

Global surfing market to reach $13.2 billion by 2017…the primary driver is the initiative of surfing equipment makers, marketers and associations to make surfing much more approachable than it was in previous years …

Aug. 2011, Global Industry Analysts, Inc.

By eliminating the inherent variables associated with surfing in the sea, surf parks such as those using AWM’s technology can provide quality surfing waves all hours of the day and through all seasons, making surfing, hitherto limited to those who live near quality surf, accessible to everyone.

Inevitably, surf parks face scepticism and even resistance from some – very much as climbing walls and artificial ski slopes did when they were new.

There are those who feel that surfing is about so much more than the wave – it is about a contract with the elements.

They feel that a connection with nature, a respect for its elemental forces and an interaction between human and ocean are an intrinsic part of surfing, and are unlikely to be drawn to surf parks. Or are they?

Luff says,  “It’ll be an interesting thing to watch and see how that develops. The connection with nature isn’t something we’re looking to replace, by any means.”

But he adds that the authentic surfing experience AWM offers could be what inspires a deeper connection for someone who didn’t grow up on the coast.

“And these will be the new soul surfers, which has big implications: an army of surfers with a vested interest in protecting waves, coastlines and the environment.”

Olympic Surfing Dreams: Will Surf Parks Transform the Future of Surfing?

Surf Park Central

Luff, is also the founder of Surf Park Central, the largest news and media resource for surf parks, wave pools, and surfing beyond the ocean, and co-founder of the Surf Park Summit: “an event which kind of grew from a mutual belief in the potential to act as an accelerator for the industry and act as an economic engine for the future of surfing.”

Luff explains, “I went to the director of the SDSU Centre for Surf Research, Dr Jess Ponting with an idea to collaborate on a conference that would bring together surf park industry innovators and early adapters, key individuals in order to accelerate the industry and help overcome hurdles in the space – essentially make things happen faster.

“Surf Park Central is a resourcing community bringing together industry members, investors, developers, wave companies, brands, surfers, more or less all interested parties to help grow awareness and accelerate the building and development of surf parks.”

Surfs Up, New Hampshire

Rob Kelly at Surfs Up New Hampshire

The new Surfs Up New Hampshire park in Nashua uses AWM’s SurfStream wave system; a deep-water standing wave.

Luff says,  “The New Hampshire project has exceeded everyone’s expectations. We brought in some serious East Coast New Jersey surfers with very deeply seated reservations about what artificial waves could provide in terms of experience – and what we saw was a good indication of what we can expect from a larger core surfer population.”

Among the surfers given a foretaste of the New Hampshire experience were world-renowned Todd Holland and professional surfer Rob Kelly.

Todd Holland’s verdict was unequivocal: “This is great. Once you get going down the line, it feels just like racing a big section.”

Rob Kelly (see image above and video below) blogged at length about his experience: “The most impressive thing about this wave…is the barrel… To me, this was the coolest part of this wave. It stays in place but is still always changing. This allowed us to ride the wave for 3 days straight without ever getting bored.”

“Before this experience I’ll admit I was a bit of an artificial wave skeptic.

“I left each session riding this wave feeling stoked, which is the same feeling I spend so much of my time and money chasing waves around the world to get. It’s the reason anyone that surfs is so addicted and the fact that this wave replicates even just that aspect of surfing alone makes it a homerun in my eyes.”

Controlled Environment

Speaking of the New Hampshire park, Luff added that it had demonstrated the accelerated rate at which skills can develop in a controlled environment where every wave is perfect and learners aren’t at the mercy of wind and weather.

“There are so many variables that can affect whether surfing’s even possible in the ocean that day or not.

“What might take a month in the ocean – getting up on a board; going down to the line; pumping; seeing a style develop  – can be accomplished in a day. There was a guy in New Hampshire who got up on a board on his first day; three days late he tucked into his first barrel. It took me a year and a half to get barreled my first time, and I don’t think I came out of it: I went over the falls.”

Sochi: Olympic Surfing Dream

There are other AWM SurfStream projects in the pipeline – one at a shopping centre in Montreal; one at a leisure park in Rapid City South Dakota. But the project that is really causing ripples is the surf park in Sochi, Russia – site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

a drawing of an American Wave Machines designed surf parks

The Russian surf pool will be around 160 feet wide by 200 feet long, and its innovative PerfectSwell system will be capable of delivering an infinite variety of waves, from tiny, knee-high white water waves perfect for a beginner to the giant ‘barrelly’ waves, catering to elite professional surfers – and everything in between.

The popularity of surfing continues to grow, and, with the emergence of wave technology such as AWM’s PerfectSwell and Surfstream, the barriers to surfing being an Olympic sport are vanishing.

In an interview with Reuters, Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association, said that “surf parks will give the opportunity to learn to ride waves in a safe way to millions of people around the world… without man-made surfing waves, our Olympic surfing dream would be just that: a dream.”

Olympic ringsCutting-edge technology such as AWM’s SurfStream and PerfectSwell systems could help the ISA to make surfing part of the Olympic Games.

Luff believes we are at a tipping point.  All the barriers to surfing as an Olympic sport have, he says, “come tumbling down.”

He adds with compelling confidence: “I 100% believe it will happen. I would be willing to bet, if the right entities align, surfing will be in the Olympics by 2024.”

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