By Marianna Dudley
Planning consent for a ‘wavegarden’ in Bristol was big news in the city (See: Bristol Post). Perfectly placed between the beaches of Cornwall and Devon to the southwest, and Wales to the west, Bristol is home to a committed surfing community who regularly exodus the city at weekends in search of waves. The Wave: Bristol promises ‘perfect’ waves on their doorstep, breaking on demand in an artificial lake just outside the city. But already the idea has generated plenty of discussion that gets to the heart of what surfing is about and what it means to those who practice it.
Waves of the open ocean. Photo by Marianna Dudley
Does it matter that the wave is generated by machinery, not winds, tides and swells that cross oceans? Artificiality offers some benefits: regularity, predictability, repetition. Surfers are used to poring over swell forecasts and weather charts to anticipate where the best waves will be on any given day. This takes time, but it also breeds an understanding of meteorological information, and how it affects certain waves and beaches. As a result, experienced surfers demonstrate a nuanced knowledge of the geographies of their local breaks, and can transfer their ability to read conditions to new or unfamiliar places. But if there is no motion in the ocean then surfers are at a loss (friends of mine get noticeable twitchy if they haven’t been in the water for a while and spend a lot of time scanning the horizon for a line of swell that never comes). A wavegarden provides waves no matter the weather. This will appeal to many surfers, particularly during those flat spells when they are wave-starved.
I recently visited the Museum of British Surfing and chatted to its founder Peter Robinson about wavegardens. I was fascinated to see in the museum an illustration from the 1930s of a ‘wavepool’ in Wembley. The 1920s and 30s were the golden age of swimming, with outdoor pools, lidos and river swimming clubs providing many communities with opportunities for water-based recreation. A strong belief in the health benefits of swimming and being outdoors was prevalent at this time. Pete told me that these wave pools were not unusual, particularly in Germany, where swimming in ‘natural’ moving water was preferred. ‘Surf-riding’, what we now call body-boarding (catching waves lying down on short boards) was also popular on beaches across England at this time, and the museum has a great number of photographs, boards and even bathing costumes from this period. We don’t have evidence to show that people took their boards into wave pools at this time – but they may have. In any case, there are historical precedents to the modern wavegarden, and re-locating activities previously enjoyed in ‘natural’ environments such as rivers, lakes and the sea to a safer, more regulated environment of a pool was a feature of the modernization of recreation in the 1930s and 40s.
‘Surf-bathing in a London Suburb’, The Illustrated London News 1934. Photo by Marianna Dudley. Source: Museum of British Surfing
Swimming pools allowed swimming to develop from a recreation to a competitive sport. Regular pool sizes, rectangular shapes, lanes and diving boards all allowed swimmers to practice their technique and directly compete against each other. A wavegarden has this potential, as surf journalist Roger Sharp notes in his article for Carve magazine. The waves produced in the test facility in the Basque country are long enough for an experienced surfer to do up to 6 turns per wave. Wave after wave, all day long. By contrast, if you are surfing in the ocean, you catch a wave, surf it for as long as you can (in all likelihood, a few seconds), paddle back out, catch your breath; it all takes time. Meanwhile other surfers in the line up are competing for waves with you. Catching waves in the ocean depends on paddling and positioning. These skills are accrued over time – a lot of time – in the water. The better surfers catch more waves, and have more time on waves to improve their technique. Beginners have to find their place in the hierarchy and wait for waves. And once they are on one, all too often they fall off after a couple of seconds. It is a lot of effort for, often, little reward. Those without access to waves struggle to progress.
The Wavegarden of Eden from CARVE Magazine on Vimeo.
Wavegardens will level the playing field. In a controlled environment, beginners will be able to learn, and enjoy more time actually surfing, while experts and pros will take advantage of the opportunity for repetitive practice and video analysis to work on the technicality of their surfing. But, the ‘indoorisation of outdoor sports’ isn’t for everyone (*though wavegardens are not ‘inside’, they do create an artificial surfing environment). ‘Wild’ swimmers have rejected the chlorinated confines of the indoor pool to return to the open water, in increasing numbers. For them, it is swimming as part of a watery environment and living ecosystem that gives pleasure. Surfers already experience and value that connection with their environment. For many, the idea of surfing taking place any where other than the sea is an anathema.
Crowds watch a surf competition on a French beach (Hossegor). Photo by Marianna Dudley
So is the notion of paying to surf (though at least one exclusive surf resort exists, on Tavarua Island, Fiji). Waves have, traditionally, been viewed as a free product of environmental conditions and a strong surf-environmentalist identity exists and works to promote water and environmental protection: see Surf-Aid and, closer to home, Surfers Against Sewage. Will wavegardens normalize the concept of pay-per-surf? The commercialization of other recreational waterscapes has already taken place. The popularity of angling by the mid-19th century, and decreasing stocks of fish, allowed landowners to charge fees to access good fishing spots, and the government introduced rod licences to control numbers and receive revenue. Anglers now enjoy propriety rights to the riverbank, for which they pay handsome sums. And the perception that other users – canoeists and swimmers, for example – use the river for free contributes to the ongoing conflict that exists for recreation on British rivers. The controlled space of a wavegarden facilitates the commercialization of the sport. The public space of the beach and the sea resists this.
But Bristol already has a wave that is surfed: the Severn Bore. It is not in the sea – though it comes from the sea, as tidal waters push up the river and create the wave – and it is anything but perfect, but it is regular (timetables are published online), and, unlike the wavegarden, it is free. I am researching how a community of surfers has centred on the Bore and am interested to see if and how a wavegarden in Bristol will affect this vibrant branch of Bristol’s local water culture. Will Bore surfers welcome the wavegarden as a shorter and better-behaved cousin to their beloved ‘Sabrina’ (the Roman name for the Severn)? And will the wavegarden encourage more people to seek out the river bore, connecting the static environment of the wavegarden to the dynamic environment of the tidal river? The wavegarden promises long rides per wave, but the Bore can offer a wave that progresses for miles, not metres. But as with surfing elsewhere, the close community of the Bore recognizes the efforts its members go to in order to surf the occasional wave – again, studying conditions and tide timetables, waking in the dark on cold winter mornings, travelling to the destination, where finally, effort is rewarded with an exhilarating surfing experience – one closely tied to place.
Bristol has a thriving water culture, with a lido and an outdoor swimming club at Henleaze (both are membership-based, but with provision for guest access), a triathlon training lake at Bristol Open Water, numerous indoor pools, and the Bore surfing community. It makes sense that a wavegarden should succeed here, and planning consent has been met with interest and excitement. Examples from the past show that innovations like the creation of pools and facilities can alter sports and the cultures that they generate. Wavegardens certainly offer a potential new space in which to contest surfing. But something tells me surfing will never lose its spiritual connection with the ocean. Ocean waves may be temperamental, sporadic and frustrating, but they are also dynamic, challenging and endlessly forming. The experience of sitting in the ocean patiently waiting for the gift of a wave is not one that can be re-created. It is where effort meets patience and energy meets calm. The moment an ocean wave takes you with it is flow incarnate, a gift from nature that draws people to the ocean. Wavegardens are interesting, and will make money, and provide a leisure service. But they can’t match the great Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans – or even the muddy river Severn.
 Maarten van Bottenburg and Lotte Salome, ‘The indoorisation of outdoor sports: an exploration of the rise of lifestyle sports in artificial settings’, Leisure Studies 29:2 (2010), 143-160