Be Kind Rewind: America’s first surfing wave pool

How marketing dollars from the Clairol Hair company launched America’s first wave pool and culture, and why Big Surf is still a viable spo option today…

Waikiki Beach at Big Surf in Arizona launched the wave pool revolution 50 years ago. Well, kind of. The world’s first look at wave pool surfing, while scoring high on the novelty scale, mistimed the surfing of the day.

Designed and built during the longboard era, Big Surf didn’t open its doors until the shortboard revolution and the whole Morning Of The Earth movement. It turned out that hippies don’t like wave pools. So, Big Surf earned its rep in the early days as a local novelty, instead of a global surfing destination.

What the waves lack in high-performance quality, the pool makes up for as a pop-culture landmark. The wave pool has hosted jet ski competitions, raves and even Clairol Hair Color promotions. The fictional character Rick Kane learned to surf here in the 1980s cult classic “The North Shore”.

But now, 50 years later, the Waikiki Beach wave pool at Big Surf is becoming an option once again.

Plenty of surfers are taking advantage of the $350 season pass which grants them access to evening surf sessions. There’s a whole crew seasoning during the 9-10am and 5-6pm Monday through Saturday “surfing only” slots.

Some of these surfers are part of the original crew who sessioned here in the seventies. Others, are part of the current ride anything movement.

Ride Anything Movement Comes to Arizona

Intrepid novelty wave chaser and vlogger Ben Gravy had a pirate session here recently with partner in crime Jamie O’Brien. However, in Gravy’s clip, he laments the pool’s anti-surf party.

“We landed in Tempe at Arizona at Big Surf,” said Gravy. “You get a colored wrist band and the rules are really, really strict. There’s absolutely no horseplay allowed.”

But under the influence of Jamie O’Brien, New Jersey’s favorite surf vlogger went on a rule-breaking spree.

Ben Gravy’s bomb drop that got them booted out of Big Surf. Image: Ben Gravy

“So we went out and there and did party waves and management was getting frustrated that we weren’t waiting. So we caught three or four waves in a row and the management was getting pretty pissed.”

The two were finally booted out after bomb dropping off the side ledge. Gravey’s post even features footage of an angry Big Surf manager ejecting the dynamic duo.

Gravy gave the pool his lowest mark of the episode, ranking it at number 5 in his America’s Top 5 Wave Pools post.

First Generation of Arizona Surfers

But the wave still stokes a crew of core area wave pool surfers (old and new) who hold season passes. The local Phoenix PBS station produced an in-depth documentary on the culture that blossomed around the desert’s premier wave during the Nixon era.

“Big Surf was pretty cool; it was like an ocean in the desert,” George Weisz told the Arizona Stories TV series. “Some people had bikinis back then and sometimes they’d get washed off. And that was a big thing. You also had to watch out for where the children were because the water was not always blue around the kids.”

Dave Manning told Arizona Stories that he would spend entire summers at Big Surf. “Every weekend you had late night dance nights and then the days were all sun and surf,” recalled Manning. “You had all these diverse characters from all over the valley who had this camaraderie and brotherhood. We really truly developed a culture around the waves. The culture was genuine. Even though the waves were artificial.”

As desert wave pool projects blossom (two in California and others rumored in Arizona), maybe the “desert plus wave pool” equation is more potent than we realize. And perhaps, Big Surf was just too far ahead of its time.

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