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Take a Little Trip: The rich imagination and wave pool art of Phil Roberts

Philip Roberts is always in close orbit to surfing’s greatest inventors. Mentored by water park guru Dick Croul (Wild Rivers) he’s brought the trippy ideas of Tom Lochtefeld to life while acting as the grounding cable for Boogie Board inventor Tom Morey.

Decades ago Roberts got his start in the surf-art world by painting boards for Floridian legend Mike Tabeling.

“They found me airbrushing t-shirts on a sidewalk and walked me over to the factory,” says Roberts. “Mike handed me a twin fin and said ‘let me see what you can do.’ And it just went from there.”

In the late ‘80s, Surfer magazine offered him a project to paint, as they put it, “the future of surfing.” The gig was for an illustrator to bring to life a floating reef concept from inventor Tom Carroll.

Phil Roberts surf farm
Phil’s dream of a surf ranch long before there was an actual WSL Surf Ranch

“After the Surfer Magazine cover the floodgates were open,” says Roberts. “I was asked to do some concept designs for a waterpark in Hawaii. I designed an underwater restaurant that was all plexiglass with a small wave that broke over the restaurant which was a reef. I also had a shark tank and all kinds of fun tricks.”

In 1993 he connected with Tom Lochtefeld and the two met over sandwiches. Roberts started drawing while Tom (the inventor of the Flowrider) rambled on and within two hours the sketches for Lochtefeld’s first waterpark were born.

Those dreamy pioneer days were a wide-open fantasy land. Trippy inventors came rushing to Roberts to set all those ideas to paper. His body of work is immense. So much so that we’ve put together a video of his wave pool drawings viewable at the bottom of the page. Immediately below you will find his creations and collaborations with the accompanying stories.

Al Man Dubai wave pool plan

Al Man Dubai, Early 2000s

“The resort there, on the far wall, is a collection of wave canons and they arc in a 45-degree arc and are computer synchronized to pump out balls of wave energy to create this point break. The pond next to it that looks like Surf Lakes is the reservoir to power the wave canons. The other half of the painting has a big man-made mountain that is an artificial water tank. And this is designed for the Prince of Dubai. He had in this house where he had a one-acre back yard that was full of basketball courts. So Tom and I designed a $10million water park project for him. The water tank was put there to block the view from the outside so the family could get away with wearing bathing suits in a strict country.”

Backwash wave pool design

Backwash Design for Rivers

This is from a Carl Eckstrom phone conversation in 2012 of his observation and experience about a reverse current wave. The swell would be created by an abrupt damning or blockage of a river flow to cause a wave to move upstream on the water’s surface. Another concept was a plow system we did with Tom. It was a cable that is strong enough to pull a plow back and forth along an underwater track. These are the basic plow designs that Kelly and Wavegarden use. They were able to use Tom’s patents when they expired. They were originally applied for in 1993 and after 15 years they are available to the public.

Ring of Fire wave pool

Surfing Ring of Fire

Complete ring with an island in the center with wall paddles on the side and I actually designed that for Kelly and Quiksilver. It was supposed to go in at an Air Force base. And Kelly had purchased the rights from Mike Roberts for the wave paddle concept. But it got challenged by two other inventors. So he dropped it. But the sad thing is that it didn’t work. Because once you send waves through in a ring it creates a current and the other waves can’t break.

Dual Barrel wave cannon

Dual Barrel Wave Swell Propulsion Cannon

Synchronized simultaneous wave swells injected onto the reef as sets. Features additional swell surges via wave cannons and computer synch timing. Special walls compress the swell surge to excel the wave ball onto the reef head. Also features theatre-style seating for best audience-to-surfer sound response and surf zone wind protection.

Wembley wave house wave pool

Wave House Wembley Stadium Shopping Mall

This assignment was to create several views to show how the different wave machines would fit into the space. The challenges were to create an environment that takes you on a vacation but is still architecturally in harmony with the host structure. Other challenges were how to entrap or muffle the high level of sound decibels coming from crashing waves and machine turbines in an enclosed environment. I designed whispy fabric banner clouds for the ceiling to muffle the sound. The ceiling cloth clouds worked as screens for daily animated cloud projects, sunsets or night sky starlights. The extra-large acrylic tube aquarium tank bar I designed showed up in the Radisson, Berlin many years later.

Kona Sea project by Phil Williams

Kona Sea Underwater Habitat

Kona Sea aquarium and kelp farm project with Steve Krieger. Located in the lava rock fields at the end of the Kona Int’l Airport. Pools were to be blasted out of the lava to host artificial kelp farming and lobster farming. Deep ocean saltwater from 7,000 feet rich with nutrients and cold temperatures was to be pumped into the tanks for closer proximity to the sun for speeding up the growth of kelp. I designed the pools to drain off as the water warmed to a lower level like stair steps until the water returned to the ocean. These concept drawings and ideas are solely my own. Materials and technology were not advanced enough at the time of these sketches to build the concepts. Now, 30 years later they are real at a resort in the Maldives.

Sub Canyon wave pool

Think Bigger…

I wanted to paint a wave park like it was Disneyland. Where you make the money is all the things around the food, the condos the ice cream and all that revenue would allow you to make enough money to power the wave. And my job was to make it look fun and romantic. My paintings are what Tom took with him to sell the project to potential customers.

Phil Roberts Beliz wave pool

Kelly Slater Pool in Belize

I designed a resort for a developer in Belize and I pitched having a Kelly Slater Wave Pool but they passed on it. KSWC is fully aware of the work I’ve done. Because of Kelly’s status that was the best pool to push because of his celebrity and it’s basically a branding thing. The Chinese investors were looking at it as an Olympic training pool.

The Surf Stadium

Kelly’s designs were based on Tom Lochtefeld’s original designs and now Tom’s moved way beyond that and he’s super-advanced right now and his stuff will be far superior to what’s out there now.

Phil Roberts Mandalay Bay design

New Wave Pool Designs Look Familiar

Every day I’m seeing something new out there. And a lot of the new designs aren’t really new. We’re just at a point where the technology can produce them. A lot is being missed too. Like using water to make water work for water. We could save energy by exploring the currents and least amount of coefficient drag across the reefs. I think there are ways to put more money into building a better bottom. They keep crushing the bottoms and that’s a waste of money.

The Future of Wave Pools and the Ocean

I enjoy the new computer generation wave pool designs but I wish they would just think bigger. It’s the ocean and it’s huge and it means a lot to us and if people are impacted with The respect for the ocean they’ll treat it better and not trash it. That’s what surfers are about. We all have this relationship with the ocean and the creatures that live there and it really grounds us. Wave pools are a way to share with people in Kansas the amazing world that is the ocean.


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