Top 10 wave pool stories of 2021

What happened in 2021? Well, COVID stuck around, Squid Games entered our TV sets and #FreeBritney became a movement. Not a whole lot can surprise us anymore, not even Flysoulja’s “Island Boy” going viral. By comparison wave pools, once regarded with the same awe as unicorns and Pokemon, have become part of the “new normal.”

We wanted to take a few moments and highlight 10 stories that helped map this emerging frontier circa 2021. What made our list? New pools (of course), enviro duplicity, developer know-how for the masses, more COVID, a pool travel boom and much more. Dig in. Enjoy.

Main image by Alex Kilauano

#1 Three New Pools – Are You Amazed or Underwhelmed?

Amuro Tsuzuki backside bottom turn at Surf Stadium Japan in preparation for surfing’s Olympic debut.

Three new pools opened this year which, given the prediction of “100 wave tubs in the next 10 years” doesn’t sound like a lot. However, knowing that eight projects could be cutting ribbons in 2022, with 20 the year after that and, well, we can grasp just how exponential this wave pool snowball is.

Surf Stadium Japan, Praia Da Grama and Alaia Bay all welcomed surfers and learners this year. Each park has a different business model and setup, from Da Grama’s exclusive yoga vibe to Alaia Bay’s makeover of Switzerland’s outdoor sporting market, as people choose surfing in the Alps over staid endeavors like skiing. Surf Stadium Japan, like other tanks, dodged rolling COVID precautions and opened this summer to a surf rabid demographic hungry for clear PerfectSwell A-Frames.

#2 Surf Lakes Vies for Public Launch

The most visually captivating wave technology in the world went bigger, faster, louder than its brethren in the wave pool space. And the media pounced. The world grew fascinated with this giant plunger sending out waves in 360 degrees. It made sense. If you’re going to expel the energy to create a wave, why not design it to break in five different areas? 

But the staggering scale of Surf Lakes is both its greatest attraction and biggest deterrent. To counter, the company launched Surf Lakes Standard, a scaled-down tank with a smaller footprint. Soon after, the company opened the PR floodgates with licensing announcements for America, China, Hawaii, and other locations. But while the ink was drying on the contracts the company is fast at work securing the details needed to ensure that surfers around the world will be able to surf their Yeppoon test facility. The prospect of surfing the wave pool made famous in so many clips is positively intoxicating.

#3 The Wave Pool Backlash

No one expected it. I mean, what can be wrong with creating a surf spot for people to enjoy? Plenty it turns out. Creating waves takes energy, water and literally tons of concrete – all limited earthly resources circa 2021. Surfrider Europe stated their opposition to ALL wave pools (The US and OZ chapters have not.) The statement tapped a growing sentiment that wave pools are unnecessary on a suffering planet lined with 372,000 miles of coastline, much of it surf-able.

Articles in Stab, Surfer and WavePoolMag addressed (to varying levels of depth) the tax a tank puts on the earth while BeachGrit accused Kelly Slater of greenwashing at the Surf Ranch. Chaos ensued. Like much of today’s online shouting matches, few commentators read the articles they were commenting on. Much of the debate smacked of coastalism (coastal elitism.)

In research, WavePoolMag found that wave tanks use less water than golf courses and less energy than your local Home Depot. A wave pool is actually pretty close to an ice-skating rink carbon footprint wise.

Surfers tend to have higher enviro standards than golfers and hockey players. And this extends to the development and use of wave pools. The Wave in Bristol is powered by wind energy and Kelly’s pays premium utility rates for solar. Urbnsurf used recycled concrete and Adventure Parc Snowdonia repurposed an abandoned mine. Contrary to these examples is something like the bootleg Surf Ranch in China which, like most of the country, runs on fossil fuels. Not green. If a wave pool project is an environmental offender then surfers, at least in places with established surf cultures, will sniff it out pretty quick. 

#4 How Innovative Businesses Like Surf Parks Stay Afloat in Times of COVID

Border closures, vaccine shortages, hesitancies and reimposed lockdowns are all playing their part in hobbling tourism recoveries. Wave pool managers must strike a delicate balance between having enough workers on-site and complying with changing health directives. But can a business plan be applied to a situation as intangible as an ever-mutating virus? In practice, probably not. But it’s plain to see the need to adapt is paramount.

We spoke to surf parks in America, Europe and Australia to find out how businesses navigated another COVID year. The pools in Australia and the UK learned to be flexible and maximize those opportunities when they could fully open. For better or worse, Texas was only closed two weeks in March but had to dig out from an avalanche of rebooking.

Silver-lining finder and founder of The Wave in Bristol, Nick Hounsfield told us it hasn’t been all bad though.

“The pandemic has made people reassess what is important to them and we have seen a pent-up demand for people to be able to get outside in nature and in the water following the lockdowns – there has been a real increase in appreciation and understanding of the importance of blue and green spaces for our mental and physical wellbeing.

#5 It’s Never Been Easier to Access the Knowledge Needed to Build a Wave Pool

Andrew Ross of Aventuur
Andrew Ross of Aventuur gives advice on how to build a wave pool. It may sound simple, but these kind of details were once only known to a few in the surf park inner circle

In addition to Surf Park Summit coming back online, the people who’ve built wave pools were rather friendly and open this year. Meet Andrew Ross. He’s on the elite A-Team of wavemakers, having brought Melbourne to life and launching his new company Aventuur which specializes in wave pool development projects. In this feature from April, we compiled a Top 5 list of ingredients for a successful surf park project. Action items include Market Analysis, Feasibility Reviews, Water & Power Access, Light & Noise Limits and Wave Pool Design. Of course, there are heaps more pieces to the puzzle, but this chat was a great starting point for anyone interested in how to get a wave pool project off the ground.

#6 Trend: Wave Pool Sessions For the Sole Purpose of Training

Erin Brooks, the wonder grom and standout at the latest Stab High Ladybirds event, has been slowly climbing the technical ladder in aerial surfing for a few years now. Her training has taken her to new heights in the ocean where she’s getting the attention of air-focused free surfers like Nathan Fletcher and Dion Agius.

“The fact that Erin Brooks is so young and throwing air-revs like that – and that one, just landing in the explosion and then somehow riding out of it. It’s mind-blowing,” said Dion Agius during Stab High Central America”

We spoke with Erin to get a glimpse of her surf life in this relatively brief time here on earth.

“The wave pools are really good for working on turns and fundamentals but I mostly go there to work on aerial maneuvers. I’ve been working on increasing my landing rate on aerials I‘ve done before along with trying to learn one new aerial maneuver each time we go to the pool. Learning new maneuvers is fun and challenging. “

#7 Northern Europe is Stoked Because Alaia Bay is not the North Sea

Alaia Bay
Alaia Bay offers great waves (relatively) close to Germany, Holland and Denmark

Dedicated Northern Euros make the rounds to find surf along the North Sea. It’s not great. But 5-second interval wind chop will do, as will river waves (see next item) and the odd trip to France. Finn Springborn is a German surfer living in Denmark. During his annual pilgrimage to Les Landes, he drove all night with a slight detour to Alaia Bay for a few sessions. Of note is that many will follow his migration.

With 10 wave pools scheduled to open in Northern Europe in the next few years, the whole surf dynamic will shift dramatically. We asked Finn if a wave pool would help improve the level of surfing in Denmark?

It will probably help the majority of the crowd to improve their surfing. This is good because it can be hard to improve in the conditions we have here most of the time.”

#8 Northern Europe is Stoked Because Rapid Wave Pools are not the North Sea

artist mock up of munic surf scene
River surfing in Germany goes back a few million years

What the North Shore of Oahu is to surfing, Bavaria is to rapid wave surfing. To understand the state of rapid, river and stationary wave surfing (three terms that loosely describe the same thing) we need to understand the sport’s roots. For traveling waves, developers do their best to transport the ocean experience into a tank with human-made waves. For wave pools modeled after river rapids, the line between natural and not-natural gets blurred. Some setups are “enhanced” with submerged objects and diverted waterflows. Currently, there are 10 top-tier naturally occurring rapid waves in Europe. However, there are 15 human-made rapid wave pools in roughly the same space. This means there are more human-made surf spots than naturally occurring ones. That’s kind of a big deal.

#9 Surfboards are Evolving for Wave Pools

best wave pool surfboard

To counter the demanding concrete environment of wave pools, Firewire is launching AWT, a tougher build of surfboard. On the shaping front pool boards are evolving as well. Designs tend to be shorter in length with more rocker, as well as curve in the template to fit into the tight pockets common in tank waves. But it’s not as simple as that.

Waves in each of the world’s wave pools vary a great deal from one to the other. Kelly’s is a powerful Kirra-esque keg, Waco is a freaky peak and NLand/Snowdonia is an open-faced boat wake. The Cove and Surf Lakes? You could ride a different board for each of the different settings or peaks.

The best surfboards for wave pools are ones tailored to the specific type of wave you’ll be surfing. That said, we are discovering a few standard design principles that work when altering board designs for wave pools.

#10 Despite COVID, Wave Pool Surf Travel is Becoming a Thing

covid surf trip to a wave pool

Today, many surf tour operators believe there’s going to be a market for people wanting to head to wave pools for a surf holiday. Why? With various technologies and exotic locations in the mix, the novelty of surfing a new pool, in a new locale, combined with the virtual certainty of ‘perfect waves’, is likely to drive aficionados to travel the globe, ticking various pools off the bucket list – in much the same way that surfers have always done with regular surf trips, both domestically and internationally.