Kanoa Igarashi. Photo: WSL / Rowland
Kanoa Igarashi. Photo: WSL / Rowland

Split Peak: Do We Want An Artificial Surfing Future?

Editor Todd Prodanovich and features editor Justin Housman debate the finer points of freshwater surfing

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017 will go down as the beginning of a new chapter of surfing competition. Sure, it wasn’t the first contest held in artificial surf (Allentown, Pennsylvania, anyone?) but it was the first time the best surfers in the world gathered to compete in what can certainly be called a world-class artificial wave. It was aptly titled the “Future Classic,” and it was a taste of what is surely to become a bigger part of surf competition—and surfing as a whole—as we move forward. But the reactions to this freshwater future have been all over the spectrum, from open-mouth drooling to ham-fisted lambasting. Here, SURFER editor Todd Prodanovich and features editor Justin Housman discuss the divide.

TP: In the aftermath of Kelly’s not-so-secret-after-all wave pool event, a lot of people are talking about how this will somehow kill the parts of surfing that we love most—that once you take the unpredictability of the ocean, and the many factors that have to align for someone to catch a great wave, it becomes sterile at best, and boring at worst. Honestly, I don’t understand that at all. Unless I missed something, Kelly can build all the wave pools he wants and that’s not going to stop anybody from paddling out at their local beachie to wait for that perfect confluence of factors and catch a wave the old fashioned way. Do you think people are being a bit overprotective here? Are wave pools the menace they’re made out to be?

JH: Wave pools are not a menace for the average surfer. Wave pools will not change the surfing experience for the average surfer. Wave pools will absolutely change competitive surfing and probably the way pro surfing looks and feels, but that’s already very far removed from Joe and Jill Six-Pack’s daily surf life. The only way I could possibly see wave pools impacting my life as an ocean surfer is if, within a decade, there are hundreds of wave pools pumping out hundreds of good new surfers who all of a sudden decide they have to start surfing in San Francisco, and that shit will not be happening.

TP: But as far as competition goes, let’s be honest here, surfing and competition were strange bedfellows to begin with, and there are probably a few reasons it took this long to get surfing into the Olympics: A) every wave is different, and therefore, it’s not a level playing field for competitors; and B) competitors spend the majority of their heats bobbing around in the water just waiting for a wave to appear. Wave pools kill two birds with one stone. With that in mind, surfing in a wave pool may not be a spiritual experience/miracle of nature, but then again, neither is the US Open of Surfing. To me, once the best men and women really get dialed in artificial surf, they’re going to push themselves to places we’ve never seen, and it’s going to be a spectacle with every event. Sure, the ocean can top that when you look at J-Bay this year or Tahiti in 2014, but those firing-on-all-cylinders events are the exception, not the rule. What would you rather watch?

JH: Good question. As it is, I’d watch about two-three waves tops at Kelly’s Wave before growing bored. I’m far more interested in how good surfers handle the weird bobbles and sections that a real wave throws at them. I always will be. Unless you’re really, really into complicated airs, I can’t imagine that watching the same wave over and over will offer a lot of drama. Pretty quickly, I’ll begin to divorce in my mind what I see happening in wave pools with what happens in the actual ocean. Now – having said all that, who the hell knows what wave pools look like in 10 years. I’m not interested—at all—in surfing a perfect section peeling ten feet from a steel pier with a freight train roaring above it. Take that monstrosity away, and, I don’t know, maybe it’ll be cool. But take any analogy you want from other adventure sports. Would you rather watch climbers in a climbing gym? Or on El Capitan? Backcountry powder skiing? Or a half-pipe freestyle competition? Your answer to those questions might be “both,” and, well, that’s fine. But I agree with most other curmudgeons I’ve read in the last few days. I’m mildly interested in what’s going on in Lemoore because it’s an important part of surf history, but I barely consider it surfing. To answer your question directly, I’d rather watch an edited contest in good waves with the lulls removed than real-time wave pool contests.

TP: To me, the immediacy of watching live competition makes it so much more exciting for some reason. Even with the lulls, I still prefer watching live events to highlight reels. But if the WSL does make the big changes that are rumored, and if those changes involve streamlining contests to a single day—the absolute best of a waiting period—then maybe that would solve 90 percent of it. I’m not saying that wave pools are the perfect contest setting as they currently are, but it sure as hell seems like they’d provide a more entertaining stage than what we get most of the time presently. And you’re right, we have no idea what wave pools will look like 10 years from now. Maybe one day, they’ll be able to produce double-overhead tubes, followed by shoulder high air-wedges, and then roping point break faces for good measure—every competitor gets scored in every wave type. Sounds pretty far fetched, I know, but I think phase two of wave pool tech is going to be all about variation. Then we’d have our cake and eat it, too.

JH: I mean, when you think about it, you just described the variety already baked into the current WSL Tour. Maybe competitive surfing is the problem. Not the setting. Wave pools or no.

TP: Well, sure, but the wave pool-version of variety would be minus the waiting periods and the lulls. And that’s massive.

JH: That’s why wave pools ain’t a menace to me. The problem they solve is making a surf contest easier to run and to sell. And that’s not my problem.