QUARTZ | 12-20-2013
By: Todd Woody at Quartz
Bruce McFarland’s San Diego office is just a skateboard ride from some of California’s prime surf spots. And right now, McFarland is gazing at the perfect wave—a glassy, barreling wall of water. But it’s breaking inside his building, and McFarland, an engineer and surfer, is controlling the wave with an iPad.
Bringing surfing to the landlocked masses could be the biggest change to hit the sport since Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku taught Californians how to ride the waves a century ago. American Wave Machines is just one of half a dozen companies developing artificial wave technology, including a Los Angeles startup founded by 11-time surfing world champion Kelly Slater.
With a mix of hope and hype, the $7 billion surf industry is embracing wave parks as way to grow a flat-lining business. Kids in Kansas and Qatar could become real surfers, not just boardshorts-wearing wannabes. Pro surfing executives, meanwhile, are pushing surf parks as predictable, television-friendly venues to stage competitions as they lobby to make surfing an Olympic sport. “Surf parks will create an entire new generation of aspirational surfers,” says Jess Ponting, director of the Center for Surf Research at San Diego State University. “These new surfers will not just buy for fashion but for equipment as well, and not just in the US but in Russia, China and Europe.
Surfing has always been as much a way of life as a sport, the exclusive domain of a coastal wave tribe with its own rites and rituals. (Disclosure: I’m one of them.) Now with dozens of surf parks under development worldwide, surfing is about to get Disneyfied—buy a ticket, stand in line, and go for a ride.
In the ocean, no two waves are alike. Each one is formed by constantly changing conditions—winds, tides, swell, sandbars. Even if you’re lucky enough to live on the coast near surf breaks, there’s no guarantee there will be rideable waves on any given hour or day. That unpredictability can make honing one’s surfing skills a time-consuming process, demanding a commitment bordering on obsession.