The Inevitable Return Of Surf Competition To Wave Pools

9J4A3670Dicky Kane. Photo: @nickpumphreyphoto

Lagoon Dimensions: 300m x 113m
Wave speed: 6-7 meters per second
Wave length: 150m

That is actual information from an actual press release that we just received regarding an actual professional surf contest. Suffice to say, the presser wasn’t about the Billabong Pro Tahiti — it was about Red Bull’s Unleashed event to be held at the Surf Snowdonia wave pool in Wales. So yeah, not your typical Thursday morning inbox ping. The release went on to state:

Formula 1 style leaderboard qualifying narrow a 24 surfer field down to 16 seeds, using their highest single wave scores. A series of head to head clashes will then go down, themed on medieval jousting tournaments, which, set in the beautiful Welsh countryside, with its hundreds of castles and rich folklore will be an echo of sporting combat from another time. Each pairing of surfers will go wave for wave against each other in best of five, matchplay-style clashes to decide who advances.

I’m feeling pretty mature this morning so I won’t pen this post as a flagrant attack on that emboldened part. I’m not here to make fun of sparrows and knights and armor and sword fights and surmise that they’ll serve the expected “stadium audience” of 2500 turkey legs without any utensils a la the American Dream of Medieval Times. I don’t even feel like talking about the event. I’d rather talk about the idea of the event.

The world is changing everyday and surfing is changing with it. The sport is wildly exclusive — you have to live near a beach and be moderately wealthy and not be afraid of sharks and be healthy-ish and have a dad that doesn’t think surfing will make you grow your hair long, smoke weed and walk out on your scholarship at Brown in order to complete yoga teacher training in Costa Rica. But regardless of surfing’s ridiculous demands, the sport is surging in popularity. The world is changing, surfing is changing and wave pools are going to change at the least the latter of the two.

The Red Bull Unleashed — Welsh castles aside — could be a a big tick on surfing’s timeline. We could be grabbing our 5’8″s and jousting poles and stumbling into a new era. Because even if this particular event is a marvelous flop, the days of wave pools hosting elite professional surf contests are coming. And they are coming to change our sport.

So could this the beginning of the end? Or the end of the beginning? Let’s try to answer that question by considering two possible evolutionary extremes.

A) With the front door unlocked and open to the general public, surfing will morph into something entirely different. The maneuvers, the culture, all of it will be different. It will become something less …Lost’s The Decline of Surfing Civilization and something more Olympian. Something serious, something that forgets how incredibly vain it is to ride a wave on a piece of foam or probably carbon fiber by then. It will make lots of people lots of money and lose every stigma of Spicolism. It’ll be another industrialized American sport and Joe Turpel will become John Madden.

B) Surfing will go one foot in, one foot out on the wave pool thing. Maybe — maybe — the WSL will have one pool event per year. The sport will still be goofy, secluded, immature and hard to relate to. At best, it will be broadcasted on the 9 AM Saturday slot on ABC2 and the world’s most profitable businesses make an conscious choice to keep ignoring it.

Most likely, the sport will take the A-and-a-half path. Things will change, but not too drastically. And even if things do take a dramatic turn, if things go the first way and one day the sport is owned by pale and serious Minnesotans, if the Red Bull Unleashed is the clumsy catalyst to an era of chlorine-crusted skin and Olympic gold, the ocean will always be there.

So if it ever does go that way, I’ll get high, steal your fucking turkey leg, go pack a closeout and get chased by a shark because that, to me, is surfing. —Brendan Buckley