Surf Trip 1984: Fear and loathing in an Ohio wave pool

“The Wave” is not in Bristol or anywhere in the UK. It’s in Ohio, like Ohio USA. Or, at least it was. In 1984 Surfing Magazine sent Bill Sharp and 1976 world champ Peter Townend to Geauga Lake amusement park in Aurora near Cleveland to perform a “surfing exhibition” at a newly minted attraction called The Wave.

Peter PT Townend sent WavePoolMag a blurry jpg with the quip “It’s come a long way in wave pool development since I went to Ohio 35 years ago! ha!ha!”

PT should know. He’s been a guest speaker at Surf Park Summit and coaches the Chinese surf team who train at the Xing Feng wave pool.

The Surfing Mag article, written by Sharp, recounts the explosively novel concept at the time of surfing chlorinated waves. Sharp describes it as “a swimming pool with a thyroid condition” – the park’s logo depicted an anthropomorphic wave ready to devour swimmers.

“At the very least it would be unusual. Secure in the knowledge that Coors Light was now available there, I signed on. Fear and loathing in Cleveland. I smelled a story.”

“It was my duty, my obligation to society to tag along and be a journalistic participant in this little caper…” Sharp quips sarcastically before stoke settles in. “When the first wave came surging through were off and riding… The takeoff was a bit mushy, but there was plenty of room for maneuvers and down-the-line speed pumping.”

The Wave was roughly 400 feet long and held 2,000,000 gallons of water. It worked the same way Big Surf in Arizona and other pools of the day functioned. Water is pumped into giant tanks above the pool line. Then that water is released all at once pushing out a wave. And yes, this is the same way a toilet works. Surprisingly, in some areas it worked really well.

“About halfway down the chute, the pool opens out,” added Sharp. “When the wave hits this ‘inside section’ it fully pitches, eagerly awaiting a vicious lip-slam or, if you’re in just the right spot, a tuberide. Well, maybe more like a little cover-up, but c’mon, this was Ohio.”

Vintage Geauga Lake amusement park wave pool known as The Wave. Image Wikicommons

The Geauga Lake amusement park originally launched its first ride in 1889, adding the famous Big Dipper later in 1925. As it evolved it changed ownership, expanding to absorb nearby Sea World and rebranding as a Six Flags attraction. When they launched the wave pool, they invited Sharp and PT out for a promotional trip hoping the duo would send a flood of surfers back to Ohio. It didn’t work.

Sharp’s inner conflict of being caught between the eras of ’70s soul and ’80s commercialism stung. He pontificated how this new kind of surfing could serve their needs as both core surfers and as partying entrepreneurs.

“It was like we just discovered some amazing perfect new spot – we could move to Cleveland and be locals and not tell anyone,” wrote Sharp. “It would be our secret and we could surf uncrowded nifty little waves all the time. Or we could have this huge ASP (now WSL) tour championship in the wave pool with groupies and bleachers and the Top Sixteen and the Ohio State Buckeye cheerleaders and private hot tubs for everyone involved.”

2009 image of abandoned gates to the Geauga Lake amusement park . Image Wikicommons

The two went on to perform a surfing exhibition that weekend and partied in the luxury of the nearby Sheraton (which was included in their press junket). But Sharp soon realized what brokers of wave pools of the day knew, that surfers don’t pay as well as families spending a day out at an amusement park.

“In reality, the millions that Geauga Lake spent on The Wave mean that the only way to recoup the investment is to pack ’em in for swimming and wading – allowing surfing for anything beyond an occasional exhibition is really out of the question from a safety and profitability standpoint.”

It wouldn’t be until the 2010s that the world looked at the act of wave pool surfing through a lens of profitability. At the forefront of these neo-ventures are the folks in Bristol set to open “The Wave” next month.

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