Allentown, Pennsylvania's early attempt at creating a chlorinated surf spot, used as the venue for a 1985 pro event. Photo: George

This article is from our April 2012 issue, themed “The Science of Surf.”

It might not have been a DeLorean, but the cheap rental doing 88 miles an hour through the streets of Allentown, Pennsylvania, with 16 surfboards strapped to the roof was about to deliver its occupants into a blinding future. It was 1985 and the pro tour found itself in the most unlikely location you could dream up for a surf contest outside of, say, Pyongyang or New York. Hundreds of miles from the coast, this group of travelling pros were in Allentown to christen the town's new wave pool, and their heads were swimming in futuristic dreams of a chlorine-blue Trestles awaiting their arrival. The reality was something else.

"We got out of the car—Pottz, Elko, Mr. X [Glen Winton], and I—and we're standing there with our boards looking at a swimming pool, going, 'Is that it?'" recalls Tom Carroll. "I remember thinking at the time, this is the weirdest place on the planet for a surfer to be. The guy running the show added to the vibe. He was this buff guy who wore these tight exercise shorts that made my boardshorts look baggy."

The waves were fabulously bad. A seismic gurgle from the bowels of the pool preceded an industrial-sized toilet flush, unleashing a knee-high kiddie pool wave. The surfers had seen nothing like it, due largely to the fact swells with a three-second interval don't exist in nature. The tour's first—and last—wave pool event was destined to be remembered as a running joke. "But the funny thing was that it wasn't even the worst wave on tour that year!" laughs Carroll, who'd won the world title the previous year in Florida on waves generated by a boat being driven up and down the beach.

Thirty years later and we're on the cusp of a legitimate wave pool becoming reality. The technology has now caught up with the dream, with engineers molding concrete and steel to bring water to life, conjuring—if you believe the pitch—head-high barrels, all day, every day. Wave Garden has already begun construction of it's public facility which is scheduled to open in the spring of 2012. Two other high-profile proponents have wheeled out competing, yet fundamentally similar, designs that utilize a doughnut shaped pool a giant, metal rotating arm used to create the waves. Double-figure World Champion Kelly Slater and avant-garde Australian shaper Greg Webber both have visionary pedigree—Webber exploring what's possible with a board, Slater what's possible on a board—and both have been busy re-imagining what surfing might become should their respective imaginariums get off the ground. The world seems boundless and wanton enough right now for it to happen. But being able to construct these great chlorinated Death Stars is one thing. Why you'd want to when you've got perfectly good oceans delivering waves for all eternity is another.

No matter how advanced wave pool technology becomes, man will have a hard time doing any better than this Indonesian right. Photo: Childs

Surfing (in the ocean) is considered by the more productive quarters of society (i.e. everybody else) to be a frivolous waste of time. Building small oceans in landlocked cities to go surfing in must surely be considered not only a frivolous waste of time, but also a frittering waste of resources that could surely be channeled toward something more meaningful. It's Miller's Air Conditioned Nightmare all over again—surfing meets Disneyland.

Surfing purists are already turning in their future graves at the prospect. They look beyond the novelty of surfing a man-made wave and see what follows: wave pools being used as a phalanx into untapped surfing markets throughout Asia, Europe, and mid-West America. They see a great schism opening up along the Kane-Burkhart line as surfers incubated in these hothouses find their way to the coast. They see an act once instinctive, spontaneous, and performed in harmony with the natural world becoming virtual, programmed, and binary. They see surfing becoming more science than art.

"I remember working it out, clearly," recalls Tom Carroll of the Allentown wave pool. "The 11th wave was the one to go on. After surfing in the ocean and having to deal with all these variables, suddenly in the pool I could catch the 11th wave and surfing became a mathematical equation. I knew how many turns I could do and where they needed to be on the wave. You could literally choreograph it." Carroll worked it out so well he eventually won the contest.

But here's a fundamental question: If surfing is taken from the oceans, is it still surfing, or does it become something else entirely? What makes surfing, surfing anyway? Is it a surfer on a board on a wave, any wave, anywhere, or does surfing imply some connection with the ocean, seeing that's the only place we've ever done it? And what about the great unknowns of surfing? Doesn't the fact that you have no idea when your next wave is coming, where it's coming from, let alone what it's going to do once you catch it, define surfing as much as anything else? Isn't this where surfing's magic lives?

When the dream is realized and the novelty wears thin, will standing in line to be spat out of a six-foot indoor tube 30 times in a day live in your memories as fondly and vividly as that the one 6-foot tube you tracked down and surfed on your own in Baja or Bali or at your local beach? Wave pools will never replace the ocean for anyone who grew up in it. But like most change, it will come incrementally, barely noticeable until suddenly there's a generation of kids in cities all over the world who've surfed all their lives but never seen the beach.

Tom Carroll, typical of most surfers, seems willing to give wave pools the benefit of the doubt for the time being. "I don't know, I'm pretty open-minded on most things. I was in the foyer of a big casino in Las Vegas the other day and as I was standing there waiting to check in and I thought about how cool a wave pool running through the place would be, one of Kelly's circular ones. If it could happen anywhere, it'd be Vegas, right?" Tom's telling me this from the departure lounge at LAX, and down the phone line I hear his flight to Honolulu being called. A new west swell arrives the day after he does, or so they reckon. It could be big Second Reef Pipe. It might be Sunset. The only thing for sure is that he'll be surfing in salt water.