I Surfed a Perfect Man-Made Wave in the Heart of Texas
A decades-long swell of wave-generating technologies is finally catching a break.
The author carves human-engineered waves at NLand, a newly-opened, human-engineered surf pool. Image: Katharina Poblotzki
It's a triple-digit summer day, my board is waxed, and I'm bracing to catch a fast-approaching swell of human-engineered surf.
The story of how I found myself here, in hopes of riding a perfect wave in a muddy lake among the rolling cow patties of Central Texas, is a straightforward one. Being a life-long, if mediocre, surfer, the notion of being able to ride a meticulously engineered, made to-order wave has always been a tantalizing fantasy, one that seemed more like a science-fiction fever dream than an actual possibility.
Or, so I thought.
In May, North America's largest and first truly surfable wave pool officially opened on the outskirts of Austin, after a brief false-start in 2016 (when a lagoon leak flooded neighboring property). I knew what I had to do. I booked a direct flight from LaGuardia to Bergstrom for the following weekend.
The story of how this wave-generating technology evolved and ended up in rural Texas and helmed by an American beer scion is a more complicated one.
In the late 2000s, deep in the Basque mountains of Northern Spain, a group of freewheeling engineers led by real-life couple Josema Odriozola and Karin Frisch set out to replicate one of Mother Nature's most baffling conceptions: powerful waves that break smoothly and predictably enough to dance on. Isolated and hidden from the public at a remote location, the team mixed a DIY ethos with engineering nous. Known as Wavegarden, their early tinkering, made possible with early support from local investors and the Spanish and Basque governments, would go largely unnoticed; a handful of surf-obsessed friends semi-secretly experimenting with wave dynamics and mechanical engineering to make their delusional dreams come true.
They dug a long, narrow lagoon and filled it with water from a nearby river. The first attempt involved a tractor, a rope, and a jury-rigged foil. Dragged through the water, a wake formed no more than a few feet high, breaking predictably along the shallow sections of the lagoon bed. And so began the creation story of the world's first surfable wave powered by foil.
In 2011, Wavegarden unveiled its made-to-order wave technology to the world, and the internet immediately fell in love. The first human-engineered wave that could be a real substitute for the ocean—a total game changer. While previous wave-generating technologies had often relied on the timely release of a deluge of water, Wavegarden utilized a ski lift pulley system, a hydrodynamic blade, and carefully-designed bathymetry, a mechanically simpler and far more energy-efficient approach to designing waves.
For much of the proto history of terraforming surf pools, attempts at generating rideable waves could never quite seem to catch a break. In 1985, when the Association of Surfing Professionals hosted its first and only competition in a wave pool in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the dismal quality of the surf cemented wave pools as a running joke for the next several decades.
But with massive foils and other innovations in designer wave tech, that is quickly changing. Last year, legendary professional surfer Kelly Slater dropped a video that redefined again what a wave pool could do. Slater and a team of collaborators created a seemingly endless and perfect barreling wave using a system similar to Wavegarden tech, with some clever tweaks to the shape of the foil and bottom contours of the lake. And Slater isn't the only new kid out on the modern wave pool pipeline. After a decades-long swell of trial and error, the surge to build a commercially-viable man-made surf paradise has finally arrived.
Which brings me back to that scorching hot day at NLand Surf Park, the newly-opened, human-engineered surf pool outside of Austin that is powered by Wavegarden tech. I'd come to NLand to see what the terraformed future of surfing is all about, and now the first made-to-order wave of a 60-minute session is closing in.
Hang with me, here.
NLand Surf Park is North America's first modern wave pool. After a faltering start, it officially re-opened their doors in May 2017. Odriozola, the co-founder of Wavegarden, predicted in 2011 that a full-size surf park using Wavegarden technology would need between $5 million and $6 million in financial backing, though industry experts suggest it's closer to $20 million. The economic viability of such might seem questionable, unless you have a backer like Doug Coors, heir to the Coors beer fortune and current NLand CEO.
But technology aside, given the enormous energy required to generate waves of this size and power, long-term financial sustainability remains the biggest question mark for the future of terraformed surf parks.
Throughout summer, guests are given a traditional Texas welcome–heat. It was 103°F when a friend and I walked through the gates. Surf wax dripped from our boards. The Sun-baked asphalt burned our feet.
The park is enormous, and surprisingly barren. The wave foil runs under a central channel that doubles as a viewing deck, striking a gash through the fresh, albeit murky water. Contrary to early renderings, shade is scarce. Golf carts putter around the lagoon, shuttling those happy to avoid the trek to the other side. The whole thing had a bit of a Jurassic Park vibe to it.
"We are doing the closest thing to a Waikiki wave," said Odriozola, referring to the beach in Hawaii known for its gentle-rolling waves that are perfect for beginners.
The whole thing had a bit of a Jurassic Park vibe to it.
There's no sand in sight, no salt crusting around my eyes, and no buoyancy. The residual currents make sitting in the water feel like I'm drifting untethered in a boat harbor. Every 2 minutes and 10 seconds, like clockwork, the electric motor starts to hum and the foil begins pushing water down the lagoon. The chain-link fence between me and the central channel, the very fence I have to hold to remain in position as the wave approaches, feels foreign and unnerving. But once the wave arrives, I paddle and stand and these oddities are forgotten.
At a place like NLand, an hour-long session will probably give you access to only six or seven waves. That makes wiping out particularly traumatic (that's me in the foreground). Flub a made-to-order wave and then watch it be ridden down the line by another surfer and maybe you, too, will feel the sting of shame and regret, feelings normally saved for big wave days when fear gets the better of you. Bummer.
Between the semi-arid landscape, fleshy-colored polyethylene shores, an army of attentive staff, and brightly colored humans toting ungainly foam boards, NLand feels like a theme park dedicated to bringing about a world where humans terraform for pleasure's sake. Dolphins coming soon? I hope.
The wave foil is a large hydrodynamic blade. It's shaped like a diamond and dragged up and down the lagoon, generating waves in both directions. Ion Eizaguirre, director of surf operations at NLand, told me the design of the wave foil was done in-house.
"The first surfable wave with a wave foil was created by Wavegarden," Eizaguirre added.
This got me wondering: Who first thought to use a wave foil in a pool?
A Google Patent search suggests Australian entrepreneur Greg Webber won the idea-game with his US patent filed in 2005 for a circular wave pool with a "wave-generating shaped surface" (i.e., a wave foil). Wavegarden filed a European patent in early 2008 for their wave pool design, and seven months later, Kelly Slater filed a US patent for his similar idea. In each patent, the shape and size of the wave foil is not disclosed, perhaps because it's unpatentable or maybe to keep the design secret.
However, in an economy where product realization rules, Wavegarden appears to have won the day.
I could do multiple maneuvers per wave, maybe six or seven. At my local break in New York, I'm lucky to do a couple. But there's something funny about this wave. The water seems to move differently underfoot. I spoke to an NLand surf guard who said it's much more like wake surfing than ocean surfing. It made me feel a little less ashamed of my floundering.
Campbell Watson is an atmospheric scientist for IBM Research and The Weather Company. When not riding perfect artificial waves, he can be found surfing crappy natural waves in and around New York City, where he lives.
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