In general, the news was welcomed by many in the surfing tribe because it would elevate the sport into prominence. There was, however, some apprehension about how the sport was to be organized.
Some thought that it would be held inland, in an enclosure similar to a skate park. That meant that the waves would be artificially generated, programmed by an algorithm. And that felt wrong, at least among those who were concerned.
Luckily, however, the Olympic Committee has ruled that the surfing competition was going to be held on the ocean, off the coast of Chiba Island. And so, everyone was relieved.
And yet that incident ignited a debate that has been simmering ever since the earliest wave pool technologies were rolled out for the surfing public to try out. Being able to artificially generate surfing waves in a controlled setting meant that one can order a wave according to their chosen specifications. How will this impact ocean surfing?
What is Park Surfing?
Modern surfing was and continues to be shaped by technology. The earliest modern surfboard was a result of the widespread materials and technology development right after World War II. With new materials and raw sources, surfboards were constantly improved until it evolved into the streamlined designs of today.
So it’s no surprise that the technology has advanced enough to the point that waves can now be created and controlled. These wave pool technologies have given birth to a new sport called park surfing.
Whereas our select tribe of surfers paddle across oceans waiting for the perfect wave, in park surfing one only has to go to a surf park and pay for the kind of wave that one would like to surf on. It’s like a version of a ski park or a Disneyland for wannabe bros.
It’s a more democratized version of the sport, fueled by consumerist demand. Sounds wonderful?
Benefits of Park Surfing
There are, arguably, some benefits to this form of surfing. Given how carbon-intensive our surfing travels are - particularly, if we travel by plane - a surf park is definitely more eco-friendly because we don’t have to use airplane fuel which contributes a lot of carbon emissions to the atmosphere.
It also lightens up the tourist traffic in our natural surfing spots. Surf tourism hasn’t always been beneficial for these areas. Some areas are no longer pristine because of too much foot traffic spoiling the environment. As park surfing becomes a popular and convenient way of surfing, it will draw these recreational surfers, allowing beaches and coasts to recover their pristine quality.
Performance-wise, park surfing offers more opportunities to improve one’s skill in surfing. Surfing in the ocean is basically a waiting game for a perfect wave to ride on for 30 seconds. That’s not enough time to level up your skill, particularly, if you’re aiming to become a pro.
But if you can order your waves frequently and with the exact specs, you can practice your barrel rolls to your heart’s content until you’ve polished your skill.
It’s also safer since it’s a controlled environment. Well, relatively safer. That’s because the waves can still get you if they are big enough. But since it’s a park, there will be a lot of well-trained lifeguards to look out for you.
One definitely positive point: no sharks to mistake you for prey or toxic jellyfish to sting you.
On a hot day, a quarter of a million gallons of water can evaporate from the park. That’s a large volume of water to replenish. In a time when climate change is creating droughts in our farmlands and affecting our food supply, all that water does seem like a major waste.
— Derek Dodds, Wave Tribe Founder
And yet, because the technology is relatively new, not every environmental impact has been fully addressed.
Like golf courses, surfing parks need a lot of water just to produce surfing waves.
For a surf park like NLand in Austin, which opened in 2016, generating enough quantity of waves to satisfy their customers is always the goal. The ideal number, according to them, is 24 waves an hour.
But there’s a catch.
Generating these waves require a lot of energy. For example, the energy it takes to create a 30-second wave is equivalent to 10 V6 engines running for the same amount of time.
That’s a lot of energy being used. And if the park relies on energy for a coal-fired power plant, that means a massive amount of carbon will be released into the atmosphere.
Luckily though, NLand is exploring the use of solar power to generate energy for its needs.
Another concern is the potential waste of water. On a hot day, a quarter of a million gallons of water can evaporate from the park. That’s a large volume of water to replenish. In a time when climate change is creating droughts in our farmlands and affecting our food supply, all that water does seem like a major waste.
One can rely on recycled and treated water, of course. But even then, that recycled water can be put to better use for other more important concerns.
The Battle for the Soul of Surfing
Challenges, notwithstanding, park surfers are positive that this can all be overcome. I have no doubt it will. But if there is one thing that keeps me from fully embracing this direction, it’s that it takes you away from the ocean.
What I love about surfing is that it allows me to touch base with the rawness and unpredictability of the ocean. Out there, it’s only me and my board, at the mercy of the elements. It’s only my skill that allows me to navigate the unpredictable fury of the waves. When I am able to master it so that I am able to ride it to shore, it gives me an intense feeling of accomplishment because I was able to push my comfort zone further and survive it.
In park surfing, the experience will most definitely be different. The patience one learns from waiting for the perfect wave; the instinct one hones from reading the winds and currents; all these will be replaced by the certainty of waiting lines, park tickets, and the inevitability of routine moves taught by park surf coaches.
Will this be the death of our ocean-faring tribe? Nope, I don’t think so. Surfing has been around for a long time and it will continue to do so, becoming resilient in the face of new technology.
At the very least, it will weed out the wanna-be surfers from our line-ups. We’ll have the oceans finally to ourselves. We’ll be reclaiming the wilderness.
So maybe, it won’t really be the wave of the future. But it can certainly co-exist with ocean surfing. They need not be necessarily antagonistic. I, for one, look forward to trying it out sometime. Who knows what the experience will bring?