As an east coast surfer, flat spells are inevitable. When high pressure systems move over the coast the Atlantic tends to go to sleep for days or even weeks at a time. During one of those cold, wave starved stints my friends and I took a trip to a water park we had heard about online that had a flow rider about an hour from our house. In an effort to try and cure our surfing withdrawal we paid the expensive park admission and attempted to “surf” the flow rider. We quickly learned that the movements required to ride this wave were nothing like the movements we use when surfing. As guys with elastic waist band board shorts and long sleeve rash guards put us to shame, we left the park humbled, disappointed, and feeling more surf starved then when we got there.
When John Luff of American Wave Machines invited Chris and I to come up to Nashua, New Hampshire and test ride one of their new wave designs we were reluctant because of our experience with the flow rider in the past. We saw a photo of John tucked into a barrel on instagram claiming to be riding a real surfboard with FCS fins. That sparked our interests just enough and we made the six hour drive to New Hampshire.
Early the next morning we met John and a crew from American Wave Machines along with Todd Holland and the Powell brothers in the lobby of the hotel to gear up and head over to the wave housed at the Sky Venture Facility. At first glance the wave pool looked pretty similar to a traditional flowrider.
It wasn’t until the water was turned on that we really could see the difference between the two. As the water flowed out of the pumps the water level of the pool began to rise, the lights on the side of the pool became submerged and a wave began to form. Within seconds Todd Holland grabbed a 4’11 short board which from the bottom looked like a completely normal surfboard and began to rip the waist high wave to bits. All the aggression we were use to seeing Todd surf with came out on that little wave and we instantly knew that this was not the flow rider we had ridden in the past. After a couple waves we all started to get the hang of it and our surf styles began to show as we slashed and pumped across the three foot wall of water. Helmets were recommended because the bottom of the pool is not soft. Similar to riding a half pipe, once you learn how to fall its easy to avoid injury but theres always the risk of hitting your head (especially going over the falls in the barrel) and with a helmet you have much less to worry about.
This wave can be changed to a number of different settings. The first setting we rode was referred to as the “training wave” by engineer Clement. The next was “the river wave” and it was similar to the training wave just bigger and a bit more challenging. We were told that this wave was the favorite by river surfers in Germany. Riding epoxy boards with fins on those two waves felt a lot more like real surfing compared to a flow rider and was super fun to ride but there were still a few differences that held us back from feeling 100% comfortable riding them.
After spending some time on the two river surfing like waves, the AWM crew began to set up the wave that Todd Holland told us felt a lot more like surfing a wave in the ocean. We found Todd’s statement to be true after feeling right at home on our very first wave. The way the water flows across the fiberglass moldings creates a standing wall of water that pulls you back toward the trough of the wave. To ride the wave you need to be constantly pumping down the line the same way you would be on a wave sucking up across a reef. You can tell that the movements on this wave are similar to an ocean wave by the way each surfers style comes out when riding it. Just like surfing there are different ways to get down the line. You can keep moving by pumping down the mid face of the wave or by doing bottom turn to top turn combos. After about a minute on the wave your legs really start to burn, similar to the feeling after riding a long wave at a point break.
The most impressive thing about this wave as it relates to surfing is the barrel. The way the water rolls across the molds creates a barrel with a foam ball and little pocket to ride. After spending some time riding the barrel we all started to figure out that what ever you did on the wave prior to stalling for the barrel has an effect on its shape and movements. This causes each barrel to act differently even though the wave is not moving. Some barrels let you get deep, others don’t allow for more than a head dip. Some let you stay in for a while and others never let you out. To me, this was the coolest part of this wave. It stays in place but is still always changing. This allowed us to ride the wave for 3 days straight without ever getting bored of it. The last day we started riding around 10:00am and caught our last waves at midnight.
Before this experience I’ll admit I was a bit of an artificial wave skeptic. Had someone told that a standing wave could replicate some of the same movements used in surfing, it would be hard to believe. Nothing confined to a small pool will ever come close to fully replicating the movements and feelings of riding a wave in the ocean but as far as anything else I’ve ever ridden, this design does a pretty good job matching some of them. If anything its a great training device for the physical aspects of surfing. Riding this wave will make your legs stronger, thats a fact. Im not certain that riding this wave will heighten your technical skills although I do think spending time in the barrel will help you feel more comfortable when its time to make small adjustments in the barrel of a real wave. Whether or not this particular wave will change the sport of surfing, I don’t know but I do believe its a step in the right direction and a seemingly efficient and affordable alternative for what it creates. At the end of the day, this wave is fun to ride. You get psyched when you make it out of a good barrel or you do a turn that feels good. I left each session riding this wave feeling stoked, which is the same feeling I spend so much of my time and money chasing waves around the world to get. Its the reason anyone that surfs is so addicted and the fact that this wave replicates even just that aspect of surfing alone makes it a homerun in my eyes.