No artificial environment can replicate this moment. Photo: Glaser
No artificial environment can replicate this moment. Photo: Glaser

The Big, Giant, Missing Ingredient in Wavepools

Hey, remember the ocean? The reason you probably got into surfing in the first place?

Today, it’s very windy. I’m watching whitecaps toss and churn beneath the Golden Gate Bridge from my desk. It’s not a surf day, but I’ll probably head down to a little cove near my house for a paddle, just the same. To feel the cold saltwater tightening my skin. To feel the sand crush beneath my feet. To listen to seabirds squawk and chatter. To smell the rotting kelp. I don’t like to go more than a couple days without at least swimming in the ocean, no matter how shitty the surf is. I like feeling connected to it; no, I need to be connected to it. Though I have many more outdoor interests, my life, for more than 20 years, has revolved almost entirely around the sea.

As has yours, I imagine. As has every surfer on the earth. For now, at least.

But, amazingly, to me anyway, despite the hundreds of thousands of words written about the Surf Ranch, and Snowdonia, and Wavegardens, and the very fun-looking wedgey-ramp business going on in Waco, Texas--many of those words actually critical of wavepools, calling the waves they produce boring and predictable without the chaotic, random sections of naturally-breaking waves while offering suggestions for how to make fake waves and competitions in them better--there is not nearly enough philosophical pondering and kvetching about the fact that without the ocean, none of us would be surfers in the first place. Therefore wavepools are a genuine abomination. Are they not?

I kid, but only a little.

In all its moods. Photo: Chachi

I’ve long wondered why surfing didn’t turn every surfer on earth into a proselytizing environmentalist, the same way lots of mountain sports do for their acolytes. Now I can’t help but wonder if the immediate popularity of wavepools doesn’t go some way toward answering that question. Perhaps lots of surfers don’t think much about, or of, the ocean at all.

Remember, the ocean? The beautiful ocean that drew you as a child, or adolescent, or, god bless your soul, adult, to frolic in its endless surf? I’m talking about the actual, natural thing, or things, that make up an ocean: the water, the salt, the animals, the dangers, the sand, the reef, the plants--all of it. I’ve always thought the ocean was the most important part of surfing.

There is not nearly enough philosophical pondering and kvetching about the fact that without the ocean, none of us would be surfers in the first place. Therefore wavepools are a genuine abomination. Are they not?

No board? That’s fine. Bodysurfing is nearly as fulfilling. A swim in the open ocean is a joy. Sailing can scratch the itch. If you simply want to stand and ride on a quick-moving board of some kind, hell, you’ve got plenty of options that don’t involve the ocean, but you, me, all of us chose to surf. In the ocean.

Of course, there is no reason why we can’t enjoy a wavepool built far from the ocean, too, while being head-over-heels in love with the sea. I have little doubt the experience would be fun. I have not surfed in Waco. I have not surfed in Lemoore. But I was born a cow patty’s throw from Lemoore, as a matter of fact. Unlike surfing in the ocean, there is almost nothing in Lemoore to remind you of the beauty of nature, save the occasional spell-binding sunset, made hazy and dramatic by the lung-searing cotton defoliants and heavy-metal laced dust drifting through the air. One of the most joyous days of my life was when, as a 12-year-old child, my mother told me to toss my G.I. Joes and baseball cards into our rotting Buick because we were moving to the coast. I never looked back at that dusty place.

And yet, somehow, the surf world’s attention, for the better part of a month, has been fixated on that dusty place. On Lemoore. On Waco. On places far, far removed from the sea from which we all came. I will never understand it. Surfing without the ocean, or a massive lake, feels like a silly stunt. Not an interaction with the visceral reality of the world’s most astonishing natural force.

I do not begrudge those who froth at the mere sight of wavepools. I am simply confused by that reaction. The ocean is the best part of the surf experience. If I had to choose between having to surf in a wavepool for the rest of my life, or getting to swim in the ocean while never surfing again, I’d choose the ocean without a nanosecond’s thought. What about you?

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