It was before 8 a.m. at NLand Surf Park just outside of Austin, Texas, and wispy clouds of steam rose from the warm surface of the water, condensing in the still-cool spring air. Without a breath of wind, the water mirrored the slate-gray sky and the chain-link-wrapped pier pilings that cut through the center of the pool.
Suddenly, loudspeakers surrounding the pool crackled to life with the rhythmic drum-and-clap intro to Johnny Cash's moody classic "God's Gonna Cut You Down." Just as Cash's deep, haunting drawl came through the sound system, another noise rose above it — a high-pitched whir like the sound of a spacecraft from a sci-fi movie getting ready to push its engines past light speed. Under the pier, steel cables and wheels began to move at a blurring pace.
Out of flat water, a solitary lump of liquid about the size of a basketball began to take shape on the surface near the end of the pool. Over the course of 20 or so yards, it grew taller and spread wider, only beginning to take the familiar shape of an ocean wave in the last few feet as it reached a takeoff zone marked by banners on the pier.
In most wave pools, the first wave of the day is always the best because of the absence of turbulence from prior waves, and by the time this first pulse of the morning reached visiting Hawaiian pro surfer Torrey Meister, it had become an absolutely flawless shoulder-high left-hander. It looked more like a computer-generated image of a wave than the real thing, which, I guess, isn't too far from the truth. Meister hopped to his feet, bottom turned and threw a tight, arcing turn at the lip. With wide eyes, he stared down the line at the surreal wall of pristine glass that kept peeling ahead, completely section-less. The wave continued breaking in uniformity down the length of the 1,000-foot-long pool, never changing size, shape or speed until it finally fizzled in the last 20 or so yards from the shallows, on the opposite end.
"Riding that first wave was so weird because there's no beach, no other waves and you have no idea where the thing is gonna come from," said Meister. "You're just sitting in flat water and then all of a sudden a wave appears. It's such a trip."
Watching a wave materialize in a pool was just one in a series of bizarre moments that we'd experienced in the previous 24 hours, along with hauling board bags past rubbernecking cowboys at the Austin airport, driving past sprawling cattle ranches and BBQ joints on the way to the artificial surf spot and eventually being greeted at the back entrance to the wave park by a graying old-timer who chewed a toothpick as he leaned out the window and asked, "Y'all here to surf or what?"
Meister, fellow Hawaiian pro Albee Layer and I had come to ride the man-made waves at NLand Surf Park not because of the quality of the surf (as hypnotic as they may be, they aren't the best man-made waves in the world, nor do they stack up against any world-class naturally occurring waves on a good swell), but because of where these waves are located. On the outskirts of Austin, roughly 150 miles as the crow flies from any naturally occurring beach, we were surfing undeniably fun, albeit challenging, waves.
Even if you've spent your entire life surfing ocean waves, their artificial counterparts at NLand take some getting used to. First off, you're surfing toward a pier covered in chain link, which feels vaguely threatening until you realize that a deep underwater trench prevents you from ever actually reaching it. Second, the energy of the wave pushes out toward the side of the pool as much as it does toward the end, meaning you need to work harder to maintain down-the-line speed or you get quickly swept into the whitewater. For the same reason, you want to avoid the kind of committed, full-wrap cutbacks that reverse your momentum. If it sounds difficult, that's because it is. But it's also incredibly fun once you accept that you're not in the ocean and different rules apply.
By the time we finished our morning session and got out of the water, the park had just opened to the public and was filling up with people: some born-and-bred Texas locals; others from Australia's Gold Coast; Santa Barbara, California; and even as far as Tel Aviv, Israel. They'd all come for the same reason: to experience something completely novel — a rippable wave in the last place you'd expect to find one. But with recent advancements in wave-pool technology, and the growing potential for artificial-wave proliferation around the globe, NLand may not be a novelty for long. If artificial-wave quality continues to improve, it's possible that, in the future, the most consistent high-performance waves in the world will be hundreds of miles from any coastline, built adjacent to large population centers.
The biggest question regarding artificial waves is no longer whether or not quality surf can exist away from the beach; it's how surfing may transform once it's no longer tethered to a coastline, and whether or not inland surf communities will rise to sustain these technological breakthroughs.
Meister, Layer and I were exhausted by the time we stepped out of the water and onto the thick plastic lining that serves as the de facto beach at NLand. The artificial waves at the Reef — the high-performance wave that breaks along the pier — last about 30 seconds, which is enough to make your legs feel like they're pumping battery acid by the time you lay into your last turn. The wave is essentially created by a giant plow being yanked from one side of the pool to the other, and in order to keep the water from becoming too turbulent, the plow waits 90 seconds between the end of one ride and the beginning of the next, meaning that it produces about 30 waves per hour. Split between three surfers, that was more than plenty — at least as satisfying as an above-average session at my local California beachbreaks.
This particular method of wave generation wasn't dreamt up by a surf-stoked Texan, but was imported from northern Spain's Basque Country, where industrial engineer José Manuel Odriozola and his wife, Karin Frisch, a sports economist, founded Wavegarden in 2005. Odriozola had worked in the automotive industry before he and Frisch got together and started creating skate parks. As surfers themselves, it was only a matter of time before they had the light-bulb moment to sink their creative energy into artificial-wave development.
"My wife and I saw that there were man-made facilities for snowboarding and skating, but there wasn't really anything for surfing," said Odriozola. "I thought it would be fun, as an engineer, to understand what a wave is and how it works so that maybe we could solve this problem and build a good artificial wave. What I didn't know was how long and difficult that process would be."
They spent about five years tinkering with prototypes before creating their first surfable wave in 2011, which got them plenty of international attention when videos were released showing Mick Fanning, Gabriel Medina and other surf stars carving up the waist-high runners. Shortly after those first videos emerged, developers came knocking to see if Wavegarden could scale the wave up for projects in Wales and Texas.
The Wales facility, called Surf Snowdonia, came online in mid-2015, while NLand opened its doors in late 2016. Both wave parks, however, experienced significant setbacks, with Snowdonia closing for a short time due to a tear in the plastic liner that keeps the water in place, as well as mechanical issues with its wave-generating machinery. NLand, after being open just over three weeks, shut down for six months due to their own liner problems.
"That's the thing with any emerging technology," says NLand spokesman Chris Jones. "You're going to see some hiccups whether you're talking about software or a surf park. There are going to be multiple iterations as you learn and improve the tech."
While the tech on display at NLand is undeniably impressive, it isn't Wavegarden's most cutting-edge artificial wave. In late April, Wavegarden released a video featuring surfers riding a new prototype, called the Cove, at their Basque headquarters. The wave was similarly sized to the NLand design, but the Cove offered a yawning barrel off the drop and the ability to produce up to 1,000 waves per hour. Wavegarden is starting construction on commercial Cove facilities shortly and the company claims that the first park featuring the Cove will open its doors in 2018. "The first facilities will be developed in Europe, Australia and North Africa, followed by the USA and Latin America," said Odriozola. "We cannot specify which one is going to open first, but we will announce it very soon."
According to Odriozola, the Cove uses a system of blades that can move the water more efficiently than previous designs, bringing the cost per wave way down while improving the quality. Wavegarden feels that in order to create the best user experience for wave-park patrons, their tech needs to produce quality waves at a high enough frequency to sustain a large number of surfers at a given time. But not every artificial-wave company has the same strategy.
The Kelly Slater Wave Company blew minds in late 2015 when they released their first clip of Slater getting obscenely long tubes at his prototype facility in Lemoore, California, but Slater and his team have been extremely tight-lipped about exactly how their technology works and how it compares to their competitors'. I recently asked a representative from KS Wave Co. about their tech and how frequently they can produce waves compared to Wavegarden's systems. They said, "We respect and admire the emerging systems that seem capable of producing surfable waves in rapid-fire succession. This is not our vision for KSWC. Our waves are large and muscular and last nearly a minute. These waves generate enormous energy that needs to be dissipated in order to create the perfect experience for every rider. We have invested heavily in creating the systems that dissipate wave energy so that the frequency of our waves does not create a sub-standard experience."
It would be hard to argue that Slater's pool doesn't produce the best artificial waves in the world, churning out shoulder-high, grinding barrels for the world's best surfers in every video clip they release. But unless you're Mick Fanning, Steph Gilmore or another World Surf League (WSL) standout, it's still unclear when, if ever, you'll be able to experience one of Slater's man-made barrels yourself. Hope came in March of this year, however, when KS Wave Co. proposed a plan to build a new facility on an 80-acre parcel in Florida's Palm Beach Park of Commerce. According to the proposal laid out during a Palm Beach Board of County Commissioners zoning meeting, KS Wave Co. would build a complex to serve as a training facility for WSL athletes, potentially host WSL events and receive 83,000 guests per year. A representative later told me that as long as they're granted the necessary permits, they expect to open the Florida location in 2019.
While KS Wave Co. and Wavegarden are getting the lion's share of attention for their tech, they aren't the only companies taking aim at the artificial-wave market. American Wave Machines is a San Diego–based company that got its start building standing waves in water parks and resort hotels, but in recent years they've widened their focus to include wave pools. The scale model of their latest design, called Perfect Swell, flips the typical wave-pool system on its head, with a wider pool that allows for multiple peaks to be generated at the same time, resembling beachbreak surf. With a few taps to a touchscreen control panel, however, the same pool can produce a tapering left, right or even a wedging barrel created by two merging "swells" in the middle of the pool. According to American Wave Machines representative Willy McFarland, when you dial the machine for size, they will be able to create a peak that reaches just over 7 feet from lip to trough.
While Perfect Swell is only a scale model at the moment, construction is already underway on a full-sized version, which is on track to be open to the public by next summer. And where will this new artificial wave be making its debut? At the Barefoot Ski Ranch in Waco, Texas, of course.
By 10 a.m., the mist had long cleared and the Texan sun was beating mercilessly upon the grassy field surrounding the pool. We sought shade under a huge white awning where an instructor had a group of greenhorn Texan surfers in the making practicing pop-ups on soft-tops. A pack of five shortboarders waded into the pool and paddled into the designated formation at the Reef: two surfers on the left, two more at the right and one in the middle in case a surfers falls before the midpoint of the pool (which happens almost every time with non-pros). Another group of soft-toppers paddled into position farther from the pier, where gentle, Waikiki-style crumblers peeled off the outside corner of the wave at the Reef. The setup was mirrored on the other side of the pier, which allowed for at least 20 surfers in the pool at one time.
At first, Austin may seem like a strange place to build a wave pool. But in the new era of artificial waves, developers are looking beyond established surf centers for potential new customers. According to Doug Coors, CEO of NLand and member of the Colorado-based beer dynasty of the same name, Austin ticked all the boxes for an artificial-wave park.
"We needed a place that had a good, long season where the temperature allowed people to be outdoors and in the water, so the southern U.S. made a lot of sense," said Coors. "We also wanted a place where there was already an active outdoor culture, a place where land was fairly inexpensive and a place where it was fairly business friendly, with decent water laws and access to water. Austin is all of those things, as well as one of the fastest-growing cities in America, so there's no shortage of potential surfers."
But there is no precedent for successful surf parks in landlocked parts of America. Building a wave pool far from the ocean takes a leap of faith, as you aren't near any preexisting population of surfers. So the hope for Coors and co. is that such a park can become a destination for traveling surfers, a catalyst for creating a local surf population or, ideally, both.
As we toweled off under the awning, the loudspeakers continued blaring a wide spectrum of country music, ranging from old, bluesy melodies to modern Southern arena rock. Meister hadn't even gotten his shorts on before he managed to produce a cowboy hat from under his board bag and fit it snugly onto his head. Layer also seemed right at home in this strangely country surf environment, singing along to the playlist.
"In Hawaii, we kind of have a lot in common with redneck culture," Layer later told me with a laugh. "Everyone is into big trucks, country music and good food — just tons of barbecued meat, like brisket and that kind of thing. So in some ways Texas reminds me of home."
While the Hawaiians were having no trouble getting on board with the whole country-wave-pool thing, I wondered what actual born-and-bred Texans thought about the addition of an artificial-surf spot to their local community.
In a session that followed ours, I'd overheard one surfer in the lineup yelling to his friend between rides with an unmistakable Texan accent. Later on, I asked him about the vintage twin-fin he'd been riding, which he said he bought from a guy who found it in his grandma's garage in Port Aransas, about 200 miles away on Texas' Gulf Coast. The new owner of the board was a 28-year-old Austin native named Jake Brown.
Unlike most of the NLand attendees that day, Brown wasn't surfing artificial waves for the first time. He knew his way around a surfboard thanks to his uncles, who grew up near the Texas coast and made a point of taking Brown on storm chases around Galveston. He'd traveled abroad to places like Costa Rica as well, but lost touch with surfing as he got older and the four-hour drive to the coast started clashing with his work schedule. When NLand first opened its doors in 2016, he said he knew he was going to be a regular.
"Sure, it's a little expensive [a one-hour session at the Reef costs $90 per person], but it's a blast once you get it figured out," said Brown as we watched a right peel toward us from the other end of the pool. "And for someone like me, if nothing else you know you can come here a couple times before a surf trip just to get rid of the cobwebs and make sure you'll be surfing alright."
According to Coors, there are a lot of transplants in Austin from the Texas coast, as well as from California, many of whom see wave pools as a way to reconnect with their surfing roots or stay in surfing shape between trips. It was a refrain that was repeated by native Texan pro surfer Morgan Faulkner, who journeyed from his Port Aransas home to give the artificial wave at NLand a try.
"There are a lot of non-surfers in Texas who are curious enough to give [artificial waves] a go, and then there are a lot of people who used to surf that are trying to get back into it because of wave pools," said Faulkner. "Surfers who moved to Austin for work can't make it down to the coast too often, so it's a really cool thing for them, for sure."
Coors would later admit that park attendance has been lower than they'd hoped since their reopening, but he's optimistic that NLand will build momentum both within the local community and with traveling surfers.
"The hope is that we can kind of create our own surf culture out here," said Coors. "If we get enough local support in Austin, I could see these parks eventually being placed in every city in the U.S. If we need to rely on tourism, we'd probably be more focused on growing this location than opening new ones. Our direction depends on whether or not we can attract local people who don't necessarily have a surfing background but want to try the sport. That's one thing wave pools will do in places like this: give access to people who have never had a chance to surf before."
For our group of visitors, at least, it was hard to take our eyes off the man-made peelers that shot back and forth across the pool, which surprised us all. In photos and videos, the waves at NLand tend to look less than spectacular — a little bit smaller and softer than what most surfers would call a great wave. But there's something otherworldly about hearing the machinery whir to life, watching an amorphous lump of water turn into a rideable wave and then pumping down the line in a setting so completely removed from the ocean.
At a certain point, after watching a few dozen waves roll by, Meister, Layer and I had to drag ourselves out of the shade to walk back to the ticket booth. It was never even a question that we were going to surf it again. While it's too soon to tell if NLand is a precursor to a landlocked surfing boom or an overly ambitious experiment, one thing is clear: Surfing artificial waves is incredibly fun. And maybe that's the best indicator of inland surfing's potential future.
[This feature originally appeared in the 58.6 Issue of SURFER, on newsstands and available for download now.]