Guide to all the world’s wave pool technology
As we’ve seen in recent years there is more than one way to artificially generate waves. Compressed air, levers and paddles, giant plungers and, of course, a submerged block pulled along a track, all produce surf. Mix in 10 times the computing data used to launch the Hubble Telescope, and you have capable wave pool technology.
Before we kick off on this guide, it’s worth noting that wave pool technology and the actual operating surf park, are two different beasts. A group like American Wave Machines creates the technology, while a separate entity like BSR Surf Resort utilizes that tech to operate a surf park business. The only exception is The Kelly Slater Wave Company (and possibly Surf Lakes) who both created the technology and opened it up for the paying public.
And in small, room-sized test pools around the world, engineers are creating new systems. Tom Lochtefeld, Webber Wave Pools, Swell MFG, Surf Poel, Cheyne Magnussen’s new tech and others are wonderful. But all have yet to reveal a full-sized prototype. Standing wave technology (as opposed to a traveling wave across a body of water) is not included in this article. That’s a whole other beast.
There are also several technologies out there floating in the ether. They are waiting to be transformed into a physical surf-able wave pool. These waves exist only in manic sketches and the musings of sleepless nights. But they will emerge, and break one day.
But for now, we’ll cover Murphys Waves, Wavegarden Lagoon, Kelly Slater Wave Co, Wavegarden Cove, American Wave Machines PerfectSwell, Surf Lakes and the China machine.
If wave pool technology were a tree, at the trunk would be Murphys wave. The Scottish company is responsible for wave pool locations in Florida, United Arab Emirates, The Canary Islands and Malaysia.
“The dynamic waves are produced using our advanced hydraulic wave system,” the company says on their website. “And can be modified to suit most water parks or surf only. The Olympic Surf System features a unique reef which has been designed to produce barrelling break left or right surf waves up to 4M high.”
Murphys system works when a tank fills with water above the pool, then drops the water, either in sequence or all at once, to displace water and push out a wave. That wave moves out from the narrow end of the pool into a wide bay, expanding and weakening as it travels. Murphy’s waves systems create lefts, rights and split peaks.
While the quality isn’t the same as the newer tech, Murphys is the OG of surf-able wave pools. Many fun sessions have gone down at Murphys powered pools like Typhoon Lagoon, Siam Park and Wadi Adventure in Dubai. The latter spot created possibly the most famous wave pool clip pre-Kelly Slater era, Dion Agius’ Electric Blue Heaven.
Advantages: This is currently the most prolific surfing wave pool in the world. If you’ve surfed in a wave pool the past decade or two, it’s most likely been a Murphys wave.
Disadvantages: Soft waves. These pools were built for waders and toddlers wearing arm floats. The surfing aspect, while there, is not the main attraction.
The first of the surf-specific wave pools. This is the beast that launched the revolution. Developed deep in the Basque Country of Spain, the world woke to the Lagoon in 2010. With the prototype an hour drive from Hossegor, Wavegarden’s launch benefited greatly from traveling CT pros who made the small waves look do-able.
After the first prototype, a plastic-lined pond about the size of your corner 7-Eleven, the company built another in a larger pond. This one showed us the full potential and included a pier running down the center of the wave pool. The first full-scale Lagoon went up at Surf Snowdonia in 2015. Another one opened in Austin Texas shortly afterward.
The system works like the Kelly’s wave system and the China wave pool. A submerged foil is pulled along a straight track down the center of a body of water. The hull pushes out a large wake that breaks along either side of a central pier.
“The patented technology of the Wavegarden Lagoon consists of a state-of-the-art hydrodynamic wavefoil, powered by a gearless drive system similar to a ski lift’s, and working in combination with a revolutionary lagoon bathymetry,” says Wavegarden. “In-house-developed dissipative shores reduce backwash and currents to enable a higher wave frequency. The wavefoil moves at a speed between 4.5m and 7.5m (14.7ft-24.6ft) per second along the central channel under the pier, displacing water to form a glassy swell.”
Once the swell is pushed out it interacts with the shallows of the lagoon to form the wave we see today.
While the wave pushed out is soft by many standards, there is a secondary, smaller “back wave” that has a more top-to-bottom shape. But it’s too small to surf. (Some speculate that Kelly’s design eliminated the front wave and is solely this harder-breaking-back wave). But while the world frothed for the first public surf park, Wavegarden was busy developing a new design to overcoming the wave-to-customer ratio. (But more on The Cove later.)
Advantages: Excellent beginner waves and soft intermediate lengthy ride.
Disadvantages: Only one wave every 90 seconds or so, limiting the pool’s capacity.
The most famous of the current wave pool technologies, Kelly’s wave is a basic plow system running along a track. While most artificial wave generation tech built pools to suit their technology, Kelly’s outfit adapted an abandoned waterski park in Lemoore California for their needs.
The current system works by way of a large engine running down a track lined with tires (to quiet the noise a bit). Attached to the engine is a super secret hull that when pulled along the track pushes out the famous wave. The hull is unidirectional, meaning pull it one way to create lefts, pull it the other to create rights. The hull’s size, shape and material are secret. But Kelly did confess that while boat hulls are designed to move easily through water, his foil has all the opposite design characteristics. Makes us visualize something like a big, square block.
Because the technology was placed in a very long, narrow waterski reservoir, the wave itself is long. Had the Lemoore lake been shorter, the famous wave would have been shorter too. The World Surf League purchased Kelly’s wave and has plans to build them throughout the world.
Advantages: 45-second rides and the best wave pool tubes on the planet. Top-notch amenities at the Surf Ranch include lockers, quality foods, a hot tub and all the little things that make a visit special.
Disadvantages: Only one wave generated every couple of minutes. Peak season park rental is $55,000 which works out to $450 per wave.
Wavegarden soon learned the limitations of their Lagoon design. To address these issues they invented The Cove, a system tapping the energy efficiency of wave refraction.
A large, inverted diamond-shaped facility pushes out waves by either compressed air or paddles (industry secret, we actually don’t know). While the engineering specifics are closely-guarded, Wavegarden goes on record to say that the wave-generating system is controlled by “sophisticated software.”
The software settings at the Cove generate everything from slabs to easy beginner rollers. Wavegarden states that “at the push of a button, the size, shape, power and frequency of the waves can be adjusted to suit all user groups.”
They boast further that the software can transform conditions in an instant. Knee-high dribblers can be replaced with Cove slabs capable of hitting a max height of 2.4 meters (7 feet, 10 inches.)
The right and left Reefs at the end of the pool are expert zones. When the machine spits out waves a right and a left peel away from adjacent walls toward a central pier. The Cove footage we see is all from the small Wavegarden test pool in Spain. In the largest pools (yet to be built), the waves from this Reef section will peel for a much greater distance.
The corresponding Bays are the area designed for beginners and newbies. These waves are the remnants of the Reef waves. And it’s these sections of the Wavegarden Cove that offer the sloping open-face reforms that make perfecting beginner surf skills easier.
The Cove wave pools come in small, medium and large options, depending on the size and expense of the project. For scale, the Wavegarden clips we see are done at their R&D facility which is the one half the width and one-third the length of the full-size pool.
The wave’s length is determined by the number of modules (extensions added out from the wave generator) to each pool,” the company added. “To extend the length of ride additional modules can be installed. Even in small facilities, the wave-riding experience can last around 10-15 seconds.”
Wavegarden adds that the extensions can be customized to match whatever shape the project demands. Thus, the Cove design can fit into square spaces or round spaces.
For comparison, American Wave Machines’ PerfectSwell tech at BSR Surf Resort offers 10-second rides. Kelly’s wave pool hits the 45-second mark. So it’s easy to extrapolate that a full-size Cove will near a 20-25 second ride.
Advantages: Has solved the waves-per-hour issue that’s plagued Kelly’s and the Lagoon. Has wide-variety of waves on offer.
Disadvantages: Have yet to see a full-size facility. The R&D facility with the small rights films great, but it’s all pro surfers shot by a professional production crew.
The beast powering Waco’s famous ramps works through a series of air pistons mounted within a central wall. The compressed air fires in sophisticated sequence to displace water to create a wave. With the plethora of adjustments one can make in programming the wave, this system appears to be the most versatile on the market. It also allows wave makers to get creative.
Sebastian Zietz, Cheyne Magnusson and others have all customized waves at the BSR Surf Ranch with this American Wave Machines tech. This year alone we saw Sebastian Zietz launch his “Everyman Air” section as well as the bizarre side-wedge called the Freak Peak.
The PerfectSwell system dishes three-wave sets that come 1:10 apart from each other. The engineer alternates between lefts and rights throughout the sessions which offer beginner, intermediate and advanced wave settings. During private sessions, surfers can request specific settings.
“These waves are comparable to the cove section at Rincon or the famed bowls of Velzyland on the North Shore,” says the park. “Recommended boards are high-performance shortboards or bodyboards – longboards are a bit too large and slow to keep up with these screamers.”
Like most wave pool systems, surfers will ride toward the machine that drives the waves (or wall housing the air jets in this case). However, an option mentioned on their website says surf park operators can upgrade to something called Infinite Ocean.
“PerfectSwell technology is scalable and can be customized to fit most geographical bounds. With Infinite Ocean, wave pools can be constructed without walls or boundaries and have a natural, organic shape and beach area,” the company says.
Advantages: Small footprint waves with a wide variety of adjustments and options.
Disadvantages: Rides are short. Current public model at BSR offers rides in the 8-10 second range.
While Kelly’s Wave,
The Surf Lakes model is powered by compressed air. The air moves a lever that pushes down on the plunger to send waves out in concentric circles. During last October’s demo, the steam punk system failed when the central push arm, or conrod, broke. The company replaced the piece and as of this writing are in the middle of testing it again.
As the wave is pressed out from the center it meets either a point, the Slab, Occy’s peak or the beach break. Earlier in October, the company released a YouTube clip explaining how they were busy shaping the bottom contours of the new facility to create this variety of waves.
“We have 8 breaks, so when we run 6 waves per set, this gives 48 rides per set, so running 50 sets per hour gives 2400 rides, plus learner breaks and
Waves can reach 2.4 meters in height at the test facility. Full commercial facilities will produce larger waves. By building such a large wave pool, Surf Lakes says they will be able to accommodate 240 surfers at a time.
Advantages: Large number of waves per hour and the only system in the world so far where surfers aren’t facing the wave generator when they are up and riding. The most natural wave pool to date.
Disadvantages: Mechanical issues to date along with steep costs to produce.
The wave, located in Anyang, Henan Province, debuted at the end of January this year. Shrouded in mystery with scant pieces of information, online forums lit up with speculation about the wave. What we’ve learned since is that the pool is reputed to be a $4million dollar project. This price is pretty low when compared to Surf Lakes and Wavegarden tech which starts pricing in the tens of millions.
The China wave pool has a strong industrial port vibe, mostly due to the huge, lumbering foil with plenty of machine track and support beams. It’s not aesthetically pleasing. Due to the all the extraneous machinery it looks like it should pump out a bigger wave. But it doesn’t. Perhaps they’ve yet to turn the wave generator up too full.
The gargantuan hull-along-a-track system spits out a left and a right simultaneously, like at Snowdonia. Has the China wave pool been powered up to full yet? We don’t know. Details are scarce and they are not promoting the design looking for investors.
While no tech details have been released about the wave pool, we learned from a clip hosted by Hubsurfs TV that the pool is ideal for longboarding.
Advantages: The most consistent wave in mainland China. China’s national surf team will train here.
Disadvantages: Lots of machinery used to generate a rather small wave.
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