I'll never forget the first time I laid eyes on the small-scale model of American Wave Machines' PerfectSwell system at their San Diego headquarters. Not because the tiny artificial peelers set my imagination ablaze with notions of surfing's freshwater future. In fact, it was the exact opposite of that. When the engineer pressed the button on the control pad and an inch-tall wave crashed in the table-sized model pool, I thought to myself, "You've got to be kidding…"
Yes, lack of imagination was my sin that day, and I realized the error of my ways in May of 2018 when Instagram exploded with visions of barrels and backflips somewhere in Waco, Texas. The captions called out American Wave Machines and their PerfectSwell tech, and I knew then and there that the tiny scale model should have been a sign of big things to come.
Fast forward to present and I got a chance to catch up with American Wave Machines founder Bruce McFarland, a former aerospace engineer turned wave maker, to discuss the technology currently powering those dream ramps in Waco, and where it will go from here.
So the PerfectSwell tech at BSR was really a game changer, and I know you've got a new project coming together in New Jersey. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Yeah, we've actually got a few different locations where they'll be implementing our wave technology within the next year. One of them is the American Dream development in New Jersey, just outside New York City. But all of them are going to be really exciting. The facility in New Jersey is going to be in a more traditionally-shaped wave pool, because it was actually designed quite a while ago. It's a smaller space and so there will be shorter rides, but it's still going to be very similar to BSR in terms of the surf performance you're able to get out of it. The exciting thing for us is the location, because of the tens of millions of people in the surrounding area. It's going to be an enormous indoor facility, pretty much dwarfing any other indoor facilities you can think of, and it will have warm water and warm air all year round.
Are we going to see a lot more of these pools using your tech in the future?
Yeah, you will. Before we implemented our tech at BSR, people wondered, "Will surfers travel to a place like Waco, Texas to surf these waves?" And now we know that the answer is yes. If the quality of the wave is high enough, then people will come from all over to surf it. BSR was selling out as soon as they announced the reopening. The appetite for surfing is growing, and I think it will only grow more with surfing being added to the Olympics and the audience that brings. For our clients, they want to know that these facilities will pay for themselves in a reasonable amount of time, and we know now that's possible. Even in a place like Waco, which is a couple hours from major cities like Dallas, Austin and Houston, people still come to surf. So, yeah, there's a lot of interest in implementing this technology elsewhere, and we've got projects in development in several places all over the country, from the East Coast to the West Coast.
Can you tell us about these other facilities in the works?
Once they're announced by our clients, then we can talk more about the details, but before that we can't. In the case of the American Dream project in New Jersey, they already announced and are going to be opening up in the fall, and our team is there now installing everything. But for the others, we don't discuss the details of those projects until certain milestones are met. The permits, city council approvals, things like that take a long time and so it can be hard to gauge exactly when a facility will open up until you get past certain hurdles. We don't want to announce a date, then have it change, or get people's hopes up and then have something fall through for one reason or another.
As far as the tech itself goes, do you guys feel like you've found the right formula and are satisfied with the performance as is, or are you actively developing a 2.0 version?
We might make some adjustments here and there, but we're definitely sticking with some version of the pneumatic system we have now. Air power transformed the water park industry, which used to use big hydraulic gates to push water, but the initial expense followed by the maintenance and energy costs ended up causing hydraulic systems to get phased out. Of course, water parks previously just used this tech to create bumps in the water for people to bob up and down in a pool. Our invention was about using those ideas to create quality, surfable waves. So we've been looking at this for a long time and have created other types of systems, like a mechanical system we developed for a university, which made sense for their purposes, but couldn't be applied on the scale that we need for surf parks. But the adjustments we will make will be to try to make them as efficient as possible, and to try building them to have smaller footprints—so that you could, say, put one in an unused mall parking lot. We're also working on making bigger swells—again, it would be the same technology, just scaled up.
How does scaling up work, exactly? What do you need to do differently to turn a 3-foot wave into a 6-foot wave?
Well, every aspect of the system needs to be scaled up. You'd need to build it in such a way that the system had more power, and you'd need more space and more water, so a deeper pool. It's a much bigger undertaking than what we've done so far, but from the feedback that we've gotten from surfers who have ridden the Perfect Swell waves at BSR, they say it's plenty big as is, so that's not necessarily a priority for us right now.
I think in the abstract, everyone wants to see a 6-foot, Backdoor-style barrel in a wave pool. But in reality, you'd have way more patrons lining up to surf something chest high.
Yeah, definitely. We take feedback from the surfers and the operators here, and we've actually heard more than anything else that people want the wave programmed to be less hollow and easier to rip. Because of that, the guys have developed a "Lowers" setting in the system, which is based on a Lower Trestles-type performance wave. But in general, we've been asked to tone it down more than ramp it up, in terms of how steep and hollow the waves are that people want to surf.
Is there a set number of permutations of what can be produced, or can you pretty much create an unlimited number of different waves?
As far as we're concerned, it's endless. There are a lot of parameters that can be adjusted, and to learn what each adjustment does, we have to program it, run it and get feedback from a surfer on it. So we've only just scratched the surface. This season, our team wanted to develop a new air wave—we won't get rid of the old one, but this one is just another option. The goal for that one was to be able to do an air and then get a barrel afterwards. They call it the "Air Link" section, and to get it dialed, we had a pro surfer in the water for 4 hours, riding each wave and giving feedback. The engineer would make adjustments in one direction, and the surfer would say, "No, it's getting worse," so they'd go the other direction until the surfer said it was getting closer. Eventually they got it worked out through listening to the feedback and incorporating those changes. In the future, we see the user interaction evolving with this technology, so that you might be able to affect your session online or through a Perfect Swell app. We've already developed an app–it's just not commercial yet. But we want to incorporate that so that surfers can choose waves or maybe even do some degree of wave designing, then surfers can affect their own session and surf waves that much more customized for them. It's pretty crazy to think about, but just about everything else that you do these days can be affected by an interface through your phone or another device, and that's going to be a big part of the future of this tech.
If someone wanted to put one of these in their backyard, how much would that run them?
The backyard model…we haven't put a price on that yet [laughs.] But it just comes down to how long of a ride you want, how big of a wave, and then we can calculate the cost. If you have a 6-acre backyard, we could put in the same Perfect Swell system as the one at BSR. Otherwise it's probably best to wait until one opens near where you live.