Are you familiar with the tale of the pint-sized Brazilian pro surfer Adriano ‘Suzie’ De Souza? Please, allow me to enlighten you!
SMALL BRAZILIAN MAN VERSUS MACHINE
Suzie grew up in the early 90s in a favela on the outskirts of the city of São Paulo. He shared a bed with several siblings in a shanty house made from mud brick and corrugated iron. Although he lived reasonably close to the beach, Suzie had no idea it was there. Daily life in the favela was a battle for survival—against poverty, against hunger, against drug and gun crime, and against depression. Suzie’s own mother suffered so acutely from the illness she once set their house on fire and walked out into the street, leaving her fourteen-month-old child still inside. He was rescued by a neighbour.
As tough as life in the favela could be, one guy who never seemed down was Suzie’s older brother Angelo. Eleven years his senior, Ange worked his butt off during the week to provide for the family, only to disappear into darkness every Saturday morning with a strange and sleek looking object under his arm. He’d return Sunday evenings, sun drenched, salty and stoked to the eyeballs. Curious to know what Ange was getting up to, little Suzie followed big bro and his crew all the way out of the favela and down to the beach one morning, and though Ange was initially bummed to discover his kid brother tagging along, he ended up pushing the little dude onto a couple of waves anyway. The rush transformed Suzie instantly. By the time he got home that night, he knew he was going to surf for the rest of his life.
A couple of months later, Ange bought Suzie his first surfboard for seven dollars—a lot of money, but the grommet dedicated himself to shredding on that thing every available moment. What he lacked in size and talent Suzie made up for with grit and determination, and he got real good, real quick. Soon he had his first sponsors. He began travelling out of the favela to surf contests and, after winning absolutely everything, he began leaving Brazil entirely. At just sixteen, Suzie found himself standing on a victory dais in Narrabeen, Australia, being crowned the World Junior Champion, the youngest surfer to ever achieve such a feat. He made the decision to turn pro and finished 20th in his first full year on the elite Championship Tour. From there, he focused all of his energy into winning the World Title.
Though he was only 5’6” Suzie developed a reputation as a fierce competitor, someone willing to scrap like a lunatic to assure victory. It wasn’t always pretty. Pundits and purists alike derided his style and aggression. Conveniently overlooking his incredible speed and rail game, Suzie somehow became an unfashionable surfer, particularly in the eyes of the English-speaking surf media. This added fuel to a growing anti-Brazilian sentiment that was beginning to polarise the Championship Tour.
For the next nine years, Suzie continued to battle the haters and inspire his countrymen while chasing his ultimate dream, and in doing so he paved the way for a movement that would become known as The Brazilian Storm (today they are the most dominant surfing nation on earth). It was a source of immense pride for Suzie, but with every Brazilian kid who made the elite ranks, there also a realisation that time was beginning to work against him. When a nineteen-year old super prodigy named Gabriel Medina overtook Suzie to become Brazil’s first ever surfing world champ in 2014, Suzie sensed his now or never moment. The following year, he pulled off a remarkable come-from-behind run at the crown to win the season ending Pipeline Masters, as well as his first World Championship. It was an incredible performance and a win that even the most cynical surf fan could not deny–a kid from the favela, who’d started out on a seven dollar surfboard, was now the champion of the world. Suzie’s was a story that all of surfing could revel in.
Except that it wasn’t.
You see, the very day after Suzie’s monumental triumph, eleven-time World Champ and former Baywatch star, Kelly Slater, dropped the first minutes of footage from his incredible top secret artificial wave-making machine onto the internet. KABOOM! The collective attention of every surfer on earth was wrenched from the majesty of Pipeline to a stinky brown lagoon in the middle of mainland California. GOAT Slater had crafted a miracle–a perfect head-high barrel that reeled off for an ungodly distance. Not a single human who’d ever stepped foot on a surfboard could take their eyes off it.
Meanwhile, back in Hawaii, Suzie woke up the morning after his greatest of days as the least talked about World Champ in the history of pro surfing. That is the titanic power of a wave pool.
THE AGE OF THE GOAT MACHINE COMETH
To be fair, it’s not Kelly Slater’s fault Suzie’s World Title had the life sucked out of it by his marvellous machine. It certainly didn’t diminish Suzie’s win in any way either. But there was something inherently dystopian about a story of human triumph against all odds being instantly upstaged by an invention that cost tens of millions of dollars to design, build and run, and that ultimately created something you could enjoy for free. Certainly, a wave pool was not something a poor little kid from a favela would have a chance to ride in any foreseeable future.
And yet—and yet! The control! The fantasy? The fun! of man made waves has been a part of surf culture and folklore since white people appropriated (see: stole) the ancient act of wave riding from the Hawaiians and other Polynesians just a couple of hundred years ago. (Why is it never enough to just enjoy the elements as they are? Why does Whitey always need to play master over everything? Sigh.)
The truth of the matter is that perfect surf, and what I’m talking about here is truly perfect surf—waves that break in the same place over and over and over again, with just the right amount of swell, favourable winds, and any other number of completely random natural elements (tide, sand, currents etc… etc… etc…) all combining to create waves you will never forget for the rest of your life—is extremely fucking rare! For those of us who are not professional surfers, scoring perfect surf is a once or twice a year happening, at best. Mostly, we take whatever dribble and crud our local serves up to us on a daily basis… not that anyone is complaining. At the risk of sounding like a crystal-gazing Byron Bay resident, being in the ocean is its own reward. Things like sharing waves with mates, blasting your brother’s face with the spray from a big turn, witnessing a dolphin shove his eight-foot dolphin dick into another dolphin, getting stung on the eyes by a bluebottle, and so on and so forth… these and a billion other things all contribute to an overall feeling of stoke that’s completely unique to surfing and which have nothing to do with perfect surf.
Now consider this: even the worst wave on the worst beach on the worst day of the year is a miracle. You see, it starts its journey millions of miles away… on the surface of the sun. Solar energy travels out into space and eventually collides into this orb we call earth. And because the planet doesn’t heat evenly, hot spots and cold spots form throughout our atmosphere. Where the less dense hot air rises, thicker colder air rushes in underneath, thus creating wind. The wind causes ripples on the surface of the water and those ripples bunch together to form waves. The waves push onward until the ocean floor rises to meet the surface, compressing the energy and causing the wave to stand and then break. And this is where surfers come in.
If you think about it, we’re riding the last few seconds of a solar force that started on the surface of the sun and is just about to dissipate upon the shoreline. And what do we do with it? We whack it, shred it and get fully pitted, and then tell all our mates we were ripping, dude! How cosmic is that?!
And yet… and yet! It’s not enough. The perfect wave still sits at the top of everyone’s surfing experience because, ultimately, that’s what we desire most. A moment that makes us feel like we are in the exact right place at the exact right time. It’s why fabricating the experience has only ever existed within the realm of pure fantasy… until the GOAT pool came along. Thus, all ye enter here, the golden age of the wave machine.
ORGIES, BLOW AND PROTOTYPES
Wave pools have been around longer than Ron Jeremy’s dong, and according to Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopaedia of Surfing, the first version of man-made waves appeared in Europe in the 1920s and 30s. High rolling aristocrats would doff their caps and bonnets and frolick in fake rollers created by giant paddles before retreating to their mansions to engage in sordid sex acts with barnyard animals.
Around 500 versions of wave pools were built between the 60s and the 2000s, and all of them were dogshit in terms of wave quality. In 1985 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, thunder-thigh Aussie World Champ Tom Carroll won the first professional surf event held in a tub—by all accounts, a contest more famous for the amount of sizz that got snorted at the after party than for the meagre waves on offer. Still, people with obscene amounts of money continued to flush their cash down the surf tank plughole in the pursuit of perfection. In the 90s, a new form of man-made wave momentarily stole the spotlight. Called the Flowrider, it offered an eight-foot tall stand-up barrel, but it pushed water at high speed into a ramp and offered a surfing experience that was more like standing on slippery rocks under a waterfall than flying at high speed through endless tunnels. Like Budweiser’s ‘Whaaaassuuuuuuup!’ commercials, the initial novelty wore thin in a matter of minutes.
Then in the noughties—a breakthrough. Wave pool technology made a huge leap when the eccentric surfing brothers Monty and Greg Webber began driving a fishing trawler along the banks of the Clarence River in Northern NSW. What they observed in the boat wake were perfect cylinders that ran for miles along the exposed low tide sandbanks. A new dawn of artificial wave engineering followed, as Greg Webber explored the dynamics of swell creation and formation. Within a couple of years, he’d released footage of the first downscaled wave tank with what appeared to be perfect ankle high tubes. It was a revelation, and he was sure he could upscale this thing into the world’s first legitimate surf arena with genuine power and overhead kegs. The challenge, of course, was finding someone to pay for it.
Meanwhile, a collective energy around not just the conception, but also the construction, of wave pools began to reach fever pitch. Soon the first legitimate prototypes began to appear. Although still underwhelming (producing surf that was small and weak), these pools at least offered a half decent wave riding experience. Still, all eyes were on Webber. He’d made plenty of noise in the media, had showcased the potential of his design with a convincing model and rumours were flying that big money backers were ready to hit the green light. But when GOAT Slater dropped his pool bomb on little Suzie’s World Title, it also simultaneously extinguished any remaining patience the surf world had for Webber’s design. At the point, if the goal of the pool race was to get into orbit, Slater had already landed on Mars.
ANDO NO LIKEY CHLORINE
Since then, dirt has broken on three different wave pool constructions in Australia alone, all with different science and technology behind them. The economic feasibility of artificial surf is starting to look less like a flight of fancy and more like the next A380.
The recently opened URBNSURF wave pool just near Tullamarine Airport has been booked out solid since it opened to the public in January this year. It can create eight wave sets every two minutes on an average setting (and more or less at the push of a button, depending on what you’re after). It offers eighteen waves of varying size and quality, including one called The Beast which is a genuinely awesome, super square drainer. The overall set up is much shorter and punchier than the GOAT pool, and the infrastructure being built around it includes bars, fine dining, surf shops and live music.
In comparison, the GOAT pool—or Surf Ranch, as it has come to be known—offers one perfect 700-metre ride every five minutes, though it is situated in a town that literally reeks of shit (a side effect of fertiliser from the surrounding farmlands). Kelly’s experiment was always meant to be a prototype, but it has already been sold to the World Surf League who have hosted two CT events at the site, complete with ticket sales and live music, the goal being to introduce surf fans to the idea of a competitive ‘surf arena’ experience. But the response so far has been lacklustre to say the least, particularly online where keyboard jockeys have shot down the atmosphere of the event as lifeless and the surf performances of the best in the world as boring.
2012 World Champion Joel Parkinson is a surfer famous for his smooth style and supernatural understanding of ocean movement. He’s one of those rare people who is always in perfect position in the line-up and on the wave face, regardless of conditions. He’s also surfed in four different wave pools, including URBNSURF and the GOAT pool. ‘The race is on, that’s for sure, the race to turn these tanks into arenas is right the fuck on,’ he says. ‘If people want to keep throwing their money at these things, that’s fine, and I’ll always put my hand up to try them out. As far as what exists right now, they (the different pool designs) all have their strengths and weaknesses. The URBNSURF model makes far more waves and looks to have a better business model, while the Kelly wave is a better shape, even though you have to wait way longer to get one. But if you ask me, regardless of how good they get and the fact that they’re great fun, it’s not surfing.’
Parko is not alone in his sentiments.
The battle for surfing’s soul is, and always has been, as constant as the tides. Nat Young, an Australian World Champ in 1966 and 1970, was one of the first professional surfers to turn his back on contests, leaving the booming Sydney surf scene for the pristine rolling green pointbreaks of northern New South Wales to reconnect with surfing and life in a more spiritual way.
The classic surf film, Morning of the Earth, captures beautifully this country soul movement as it was happening. Enlightenment was happening all over the globe, and thanks to a deep sense of connection with nature, wave riders everywhere were leading a revolutionary new way of thinking that had nothing to do with careers, profits, success or capitalism. As one of, if not the most influential surfers of the time, Nat lamented his role in surfing’s path to competitiveness and corporatisation when he said ‘When they asked us “What is surfing?” I wish I said that it’s a spiritual activity, and not just a sport, ‘cause that’s what put us on the wrong track.’
Since then, everyone from the World Surf League, to surf media, to the global surf brands that started in a back shed and went on to earn millions, have all been accused of selling out and betraying the essence of what surfing is truly about. And to many, including the lithe freesurfing genius Craig Anderson, wave pools represent the worst of the lot.
‘It doesn’t feel right. It feels wrong. And it looks wrong too,’ explains Ando, a man who’ll drive forty-eight-hours to surf heaving slabs in the South Australian desert all by himself. Ando had his first dabble with a wave pool earlier this year, leaving him with a foul taste in his mouth—and that’s not just because people were pissing in the pool while they surfed.
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‘Ethically, I don’t understand why you’d spend all that money making something you already get for free,’ he says. ‘I understand it gives people in landlocked areas a place to have a surf, I know it makes it easier for people to get that feeling of riding a wave for the first time.’
‘I know they’re great fun and all that stuff, but to me, surfing in a chlorinated goldfish bowl surrounded by walls and flashing lights and people and noise is the exact opposite of the surfing experience.’
‘It’s only my opinion, but to me, surfing is already in a bizarre place and those things are taking it in an even stranger direction. I’ll be making it my mission to never surf one again.’
ALL HAIL SUZIE!
Comparing surfing in pools with surfing in the ocean is a conversation that will keep raging, and there are legitimate arguments for and against the effects these contraptions will have on the culture and spirit of surfing—not least of all, their effects on the environment.
But contrary to Ando’s experience, I believe there are elements of true surfing to be found in these artificial surfing petri dishes. Things like having a hell time with ya mates, laughing at wipeouts, spraying ya bro in the face and maybe even seeing a dolphin stick his eight-foot dick in another dolphin… if someone ever puts a wave machine in at Sea World. Seriously though, they are incredibly fun, and for those of us who don’t have the luxury of surfing for a living, maybe that’s all surfing needs to be. Ultimately, as long as these pools keep popping up, surfers are going to ride them. Unless of course you’re from a favela. In that case, it’ll be just you and the ocean for a long time to come. Worked out fine for Suzie.
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