Photo: Pacotwo
Photo: Pacotwo

The Barrels The Basque Built

Inside Wavegarden’s new 1000-wave-per-hour prototype

Deep in the lush, woodland hills of the Basque Country, rocky, unpaved roads wind down to a riverside canyon, where a river, flush with spring thaw, feeds the pool at Wavegarden's prototype: The Cove. Karin Frisch, her husband Josema Odriozola, his brother Fernando, and a small army of engineers have been hard at work in this beautiful little canyon for more than a decade, developing Wavegarden's technologies.

"Ideally, we'd like to see pools two-thirds bigger than this one," Josema said of The Cove's teardrop design; a wide, curved outer perimeter with the wave-making apparatus jutting into the pool's center, splitting the pool in half. "With a commercial facility using this design, you're not looking at five or six people in the water at a time. You could reasonably have 50 surfers on each side, with a variety of waves available at the touch of a button. "

As the wave emerges from the center, it wedges off the pool's left and right walls, creating mirror-image rights and lefts that peel along the pool's shaped bottom. While wave quality improves the longer the interval, The Cove is capable of creating non-stop waves at 8-second intervals. The length of the wave is only limited by the size of the water body and the length of the machine.

Inside the pool, 16-year-old Brazilian phenom Mateus Herdy was served up a chest-high right wedge, the ground shaking gently as he pushed through a bottom turn and went straight at the lip, blowing his fins out on a forehand snap. An electric energy hung in the air, as photographers Aitor Molina and Javi "Pacotwo" Muñoz hurried to get new angles on the groms giving the wave a go in the pool.

"Alright, let's go non-stop for the next round," a man yelled from a small building off the pool's patio.

With a low groan, waves began to pour from the back of the pool, three-foot right wedges, as the pack of five took their turns. Young Zarautz prodigies Iker and Adur Amatriain, 11-year-old Keoni Lasa, and Frisch and Odriozola's sons, Kai and Hans, casually stalled their take-offs and tucked into little barrels, belting top turns, punting airs off the first peak's begging section. By the time the last grom had finished the fifth wave, Mateus was already back at the takeoff spot, dropping into the sixth wave.

Karin, Josema, and Fernando employ more than thirty engineers--civil, mechanical, electrical, thermographic--as well as several physicists, all Basque, groomed at schools nearby in San Sebastian. "The area has a long tradition of mechanical and industrial engineering," Karin said.

For decades, Wavegarden had been developing a wedge-driven design similar to that of Kelly's Wave. The skeletal remains of one of those prototypes stands behind The Cove, drained, the apparatus deteriorating like an old abandoned circus ride. When footage from Kelly's Wave dropped late in 2015, the team turned their attention to another design, with a new focus on wave frequency and reduced energy cost. By October of last year, just in time for the 'CT to roll through town and take it for a spin, Wavegarden had completed the first prototype of The Cove. Not full-scale, and at about one-third the recommended length, but enough to demonstrate the technology's potential.

"This was built just to demonstrate the technology," Josema said. "And to put it through as much rigorous testing as we could, because a wave pool isn't like a ski-lift, where if one breaks, you just use on another one. If the pool breaks, everything's broken. We wanted to make sure we weren't going to be dealing with a lot of those issues. We've learned how to handle water quality issues without chemicals. We've designed special lights so that when the pool is illuminated at night, you can see perfectly when you're surfing."

An investor in a Wavegarden project set to break ground in England spoke about an experience with one of his partners on the project. The man had surfed a bit, back home in the UK, but his business partner hadn't.

"He wouldn't have ever considered paddling out," the man said. "But we got him in the water, and in two hours he was catching waves, standing up, surfing. It took me years, struggling, to get where he got in two hours."

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Inside a room on the pool's deck, Diego Setien sat in front of two computer screens, clicking and dragging on what looked like a playlist. Certain files represented certain wave characteristics.

"It's kind of like being a DJ," Setien said. "It's like queuing up a record."

With the click of a mouse, Setien can send anything from a soft one-foot Diamond Head-like peeler, to a four-foot wedging barrel, and everything in-between. Given a large enough pool, and the right size machine, Fernando supposes they could make a wave like that, but six or eight feet.

"It's definitely the closest thing I could imagine to surfing in the ocean," German pro Leon Glatzer said after his first experience. "I think it'll be incredible for training and for developing technique, for sure. To be able to come and practice like that. I mean, it's a rippable wave."

"I think it's going to amazing for people, everywhere," Pro Zarautz Champ Gony Zubizaretta said. "And it's cool for guys like me to come and train or practice technique. But it will be so amazing to see people have this in places where they'd never be able to surf."

The biggest question, of course, is whether the proliferation of this model is financially feasible from a business standpoint.

"It's not just profitable," Fernando said. "It's wildly profitable. We can build one of these for around 12 or 13 million dollars. It's not unrealistic that people will want to opt for one of these instead of a slightly larger Hollywood mansion. And then as far as cost and whatnot, the energy cost is about ten cents a wave. So, like, nothing."

If Wavegarden's prototype can scale to what they're proposing, we could see a freshwater future much sooner than we anticipated. There's an old saying in the Basque Country: Aurrera begiratzen ez duena, atzean dago. If you're not moving forward, you're losing ground. Wavegarden has officially announced new projects breaking ground in Barcelona, Madrid, Costa del Sol, Edinburgh, Bristol, London, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, New York, Miami, Santiago, Marrakesh, and Tel Aviv.