Here’s why paddling in a wave pool can be more difficult than in Mother Ocean

It looks easy, bob around in the deep end until you hear a loud noise and a wave lunges up. It’s all yours. Unlike the ocean, in a surf park there’s no hassling, triangulating a lineup, random timing of sets or duck diving pesky windswell just to make it out the back.

While Kelly’s has the ski to ferry you back to the top of the lineup, the working person’s pools of the world like BSR Surf Resort or the Wavegarden foil system at Snowdonia can create quite an intense current. This means a good amount of paddling, sometimes more than in the ocean.

Deep in Texas, we found Steven Ward, extrovert, dedicated BSR season pass holder and former employee at NLand surf park in Austin. Steve was quick to myth-bust one of our podcasts comments when we suggested that wave pool-only surfers of the future would resemble thick-legged skaters more than the broad-shouldered Laird Hamiltons of the sea. Steve reached out to share with us why paddle power matters in a wave pool. He also shared tips to maximize your wave count during that next wave pool session.

Most people think it’s easy to paddle in a pool. But Cheyne Magnusson learned something going from pool-to-ocean last year. What was that about?
I called him after his first ocean surf and wanted to know what the one thing that he got better at. To my surprise, he said that his paddling had gotten way better. At BSR there is a lot of paddling when it comes to fighting to keep yourself in the exact right spot for the takeoff. The actual catching of the wave is super easy if you’re in that spot, but with the water moving around so much, kind of bouncing off the wall and moving you out of position, you really have to work to stay in the right spot. Plus think of an ocean session you surfed where you caught the most waves ever and for most of us that might be 20 waves – but in a span of three hours. At BSR you basically compress all that surfing into just one hour and that can be exhausting.

Why is it so hard to lineup in a wave pool, like at BSR as compared to other wave pools?
We all know how much I’ve been to BSR, but I also worked at NLand for a short time. Both are very difficult to keep yourself in the right spot in order to catch your wave. NLand had that giant “foil” and once it went by, the water would continue to move in that direction. So while you waited for it to come back, you were just battling to stay in your spot. BSR is kind of the same.

Skip to the 1:30 mark to see the current at BSR and how a little knowledge can go a long way to help you stay in position.

Why is the current so stiff at BSR and how can people adjust to it?
The time between the last wave of the 3-wave-set and the first wave of the next set is around 40 seconds. People are so amped to paddle over and get in line that they end up right in the middle of the current next to the wall fighting to stay in the take-off spot.

Think of it this way, you’re catching waves off a jetty and you really want to be the inside guy, so you end up in front of the jetty. Think of how much that water is moving and how you really just paddle to stay in one spot, so that when your wave stands up behind you, it’s yours. So you paddle a lot to stay in basically in the same spot, constantly looking at the wall to make sure you’re at “chamber 6” and 6 feet off the wall (ready for your next wave.) Do that 20 times in an hour and you’re smoked, along with the fact that you flew in from halfway across the country, saved all your money, ate too much BBQ the night before plus you’re so tensed up and amped that it could power a small village and now everything you have used in the ocean is out the window. Plus, your friends are yelling, people on the beach are yelling, the Surfline cam is live and your friends back home are watching and, oh yeah, Kai Lenny, or Bethany Hamilton, or Mason Ho, or whoever is in your session are watching and yelling as well, and no pressure and damn I just missed another wave and it felt like I lit 10 dollars on fire.

perfect swell at bsr
The force required to push out a barrel like this also creates current, busting the myth that a wave pool session involves little-to-no-paddle power. Photo by Rob Henson

Do ocean surfers have an advantage at a wave pool like BSR?
Ocean surfers will have an advantage when it comes to riding the wave. I believe that their reaction to what’s happening will be faster and sharper. Now, if you take Brian Filmore who after one year of surfing only in a wave pool and somebody else who has only surfed the ocean, Brian will run circles around them. Not only will he know the wave, but the progression is staggering. He will be able to look at the wave differently and see where certain things happen for each wave, no matter which wave pool. At BSR, of course, he wins this question all day.

A bunch of buddies from Huntington Beach came out about a month ago. I told them all a thousand times how to catch the wave and every other detail. We paddled out for the first session and when the machine fired up, it was total freaking madness -yelling, wide-eyed, tensed, cussing, you name it! They all went back to their base-knowledge of the ocean and nothing around them matched up. These were grown-ass adults losing their minds and for sure they will all die in the first 5 minutes of the zombie apocalypse. So does one or the other have an advantage? I guess it just depends on the situation and as we progress with all these wave pools, maybe we’ll get a true answer someday.

For a POV session at BSR follow follow Naradah Tisdel through the lineup in this clip.

Can you give our readers some advice about surfing a wave pool for the first time, particularly at BSR?

1. Learn to look at the wave differently: When watching videos online and before you have your first sesh, don’t do what you normally do and watch how much spray a person is throwing, or how long they are in the barrel. Look at which person is catching all their waves? Where are they lined up? How hard do they have to work from one spot to another? Where do they go after they kick out? It’s hard to do this, but if you can it will help a lot.

2. Try not to schedule several sessions in a row: Your best move is an hour sesh, with at least an hour off before the next one. So many times I talk to people who have done 3 or 4 hours in a row on their first visit and by the start of hour 3, they can barely move. By the next day, they’re a train wreck. I’m sure the thought is, “I’m gonna kill it and catch so many waves… Yewww!!!” After the first sesh and you catch maybe 3-to-4 waves, you’ll be super pissed and need time to calm down and now you’ll look at the wave differently. This is also a good time to relax, save energy, eat, and hydrate. Part of this as well is to come as early as you can. If your first session is at noon and they open at 9, be there at 9 and just soak up as much info as you can.

It isn’t cheap to get there and neither are the sessions, so you want to maximize your hard-earned money as best you can. Remember, a lot of what you’ve always done surfing is now out the window. When my friends came out, we had two private sessions and they each surfed about five sessions over two days. They were all doing really well about 2/3 of the way through. But most said they still didn’t think they had it wired at the end

The surf at BSR Surf Resort is powered by American Wave Machines PerfectSwell technology

3. Leave your ego at home: The only people I have seen that just show up, paddle out and kill it, are the current and former pros. Early at the beginning of the first season, I was walking in and Kai Lenny was unloading a stack of boards in the parking lot. He ended up being in a couple of sessions with me and WQS standout Jordy Collins. Some random local talent were in those same sessions with us and they were running their mouths, trying to dictate an order the lineup, and ultimately floundering like I knew they would. I paddled over to Jordy and said: “Do these guys even know that one of the greatest watermen of all time is out here with them?” I paddled back over to Kai (nicest person ever by the way) and said: “Have you even gone on a wave yet?” He said no, not yet. “Dude do me a favor and take my spot next and shut these fools up please.” He asked if I was sure and I said yes. After his wave, they had to refill half the pool and those dudes finally dropped their ego.

If you’re the superstar back at your home break, that means nothing at the wave pool. What this means is that if some random employee or some other person that has surfed this pool a few times, who you might think is a kook and they are trying to help you with any part of surfing there, then you need to listen. You’re probably way better at surfing than this person, but I promise you that they know way more about every aspect of this wave then you do. I’ve watched guys all day long that look like they could bench 225, and then watch as they miss wave after wave after wave forty times in a row. Somebody will eventually try to give them some advice, if they listen it will usually help, if they have an ego and they don’t, then they have a terrible time and basically just burned a 100 bucks.

Steven Ward at BSR Surf Resort
Advice giver Steven Ward at BSR Surf Resort. Photo by Rob Henson