While Lemoore lags, what are wave pool comps doing to step up their game?

This month the World Surf League published its 2020 tour schedule. Much to everyone’s surprise Kelly’s Wave will return as a CT event, the Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold Freshwater Pro. Among online surf fans, it’s the least popular stop on tour. “It’s repetitive, dreary, boring, and incapable of capturing anyone’s imagination,” range the comments scattered from SurfingWorld to Surfer and many digital platforms in between.

But even with the WSL’s insistence that the event continue (ensuring future backlash and even some conspiracy theories), is this the final nail-of-boring in the wave pool competition coffin? No. Not at all.

The most famous wave pool surf contest ever is still that Arizona event that saw Rick Kane take the top prize and win a plane ticket to the North Shore, spelling out an entire movie that became a cult classic. Real-life first-gen pro comps in Allentown, Irvine and Japan surfaced in the neon haze of the ‘80s but quickly evaporated from competitive memory.

There are a lot of events that are working in wave pools, and the best competitions are the ones adjusted to suit this sandless arena.

Examples of success include the recent Rip Curl GromSearch USA final in Waco Texas. All the surfers got equal waves in the famous wedges, (even over-involved surf parents could yell instructions from the observation wall.) At the same venue, the predictably-loose Stab High event pits the world’s best aerialists against each other in a high-octane romp for both the front row fans and the pay-per-view set.

But the pools really come into their own where access and consistency are critical issues to the success of an event, especially in places like Britain where tidal extremes, limited beach-use days and flat surf frustrate event directors. The UKPSA has run events at Surf Snowdonia in the past, awarding prize money to the core domestic pro circuit.

“Obviously in this country, it’s nice to schedule something in and not worry about the forecast,” says Biff Lancaster of the UKPSA. “We don’t have a 10-day waiting period like the WSL. Because we do one or two-day events tides play a huge factor so we have to plan in advance.”

Last year Welsh adaptive surfer Llwelyn Williams organized an event that attracted surfers from across the globe. His idea was to bring the world’s best adaptive surfers together at Snowdonia Adventure Parc. One key attraction besides the consistency of the waves was the ease of mobility facilitated with ramps and consistent terrain.

“I was at the US Open Adaptive Surfing Championships last year and asked the guys to write down their names to see if they would come over to Wales for a comp,” said Llywelyn Williams. “Over 40 of the competitors put their names down! Mono Stewart said it was amazing and though they all had different disabilities, they still all had access. So pools are a no-brainer for adaptive events.”

The Wave in Bristol says their Wavegarden Cove tech allows them to adjust waves for each heat and even randomize the waves that get pushed out for competitors. Nick Hounsfield confirmed the pool will host upcoming events, but didn’t make any official announcements.

“Our site is fully accessible for adaptive athletes/competitors and viewing public,” said Hounsfield. “We will be delivering surfing competitions for athletes at every level and for all abilities. It’s core to our vision. We have competitions in the planning.”

The world’s other full-size Cove in Melbourne confirmed that competitions will be a regular feature on the calendar. Founder Andrew Ross said events will run, ranging from round-robin Amateur Surf League events to Victorian state rounds and boardrider club events all facilitated with the state surfing body, Surfing Victoria. Urbnsurf also plans to add professional competitions and are exploring new, more entertaining formats to help avoid Freshwater Pro syndrome.

“We actually held our first competition in the lagoon a few weeks back, where we pitted the six best surfers of the day against each other in a winner-takes-all format,” said Ross. “Each surfer caught 10 waves, being five turns-waves and five barrels. The crowd on the shoreline judged the winner based on the best ride/maneuver.”

While digital assets from the event are forthcoming, we can’t say for sure if the Urbnsurf events mixed things up enough to hold our ever-decreasing attention spans.

“The contest was super intense, and was all over in 20 minutes with the winner taking the event out in a nail-biter,” said Ross. “He secured the win on his last wave by pulling in deep on The Beast (Urbnsurf wave setting), negotiating the foamball, and then punting a full roter into the flats off the end section.”

And while Ross’ description sounds eerily like Medina’s win at both the 2018 and 2019 Freshwater Pro events, once you factor in the element of surprise with randomized wave settings, sudden-death elimination and the shrinkage of heat times, wave pool contests are exciting again.