Letters to the Editor: A Tidal Wave of Pools?

Words by Mat Arney, images by Red Bull/Trent Mitchell, World Surf League, David Lapetina, Werner Wright-Kotze & film by Kelly Slater Wave Co.

sally fitzgibbons boosting an air at the wadi adventure wave pool in dubai as part of a red bull training session photographed by Trent Mitchell

Ryan Schaul, a listener to the Surf Simply podcast wrote to us recently with his thoughts on the growing number of waves pools. We thought it was such an interesting piece that rather than just answer his questions on the show, we decide to publish his email in full. Let us know what you think by emailing us at podcast@surfsimply.com

“In one of the recent podcasts you discussed what the effects of wave pool ubiquity would be. I think a historical example might help inform our views.

Before the first computer beat a human at chess, some people wondered (and predicted) what would happen to the popularity of chess and/or the excitement surrounding artificial intelligence after such an occasion. One of two things seemed likely:

  1. People would get more enthused about artificial intelligence, or,
  2. People would get less enthused about chess.
chess board and king chess piece

Option 2 is what actually happened (and what continues to be the case today). IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov in a rematch in May of 1997. When it occurred, no one became more enthused about A.I.; they just thought less of the accomplishment, they thought less of chess. It’s worth noting that this sort of occurrence isn’t a one-off. With many advancements, and all of those in A.I. thus far, human hindsight classifies each advancement as less breakthrough and more routine extension of past progress. Put simply, Deep Blue didn’t do any real “thinking” when it beat Kasparov, it just got faster, was able to process more potential permutations, and got better at recognizing patterns. As sort of an aside, I just had the thought last night that when a computer does finally complete the Turing Test (Ray Kurzweil says by 2029), it won’t so much be showing that the computer is finally conscious, but more so that humans never really were. (i.e. consciousness will be shown to be less magic, rather more producible structure with math and definable randomness)

Although not a perfect comparison, I think there are some lessons from this example. Like chess once had, surfing currently enjoys a significant mystique. Part of this comes from the fact that it’s one of the least accessible sports as a beginner. It’s one of the most difficult sports to learn. Repetitions necessary to create muscle memory are extremely hard to come by, and the more beginner-level you are, the less of them you get. You’re likely to be less fit as a beginner and have less wave knowledge, so you’re not in a position to conserve energy by being smarter. And as you know, the weaker you are in all of these areas, the less waves you are able/allowed to catch in a competitive and often crowded break. Essentially, everything is stacked against you as a beginner.

Here’s where I’m going with this. It’s widely understood that it doesn’t take much for a surfer to make his/her day. One good ride can do it. That’s because of the sweet and sour effect inherent in the human condition. Humans adapt incredibly quickly to “new normals.” What was “special” yesterday to a person can be taken for granted shockingly fast the next if it becomes commonplace. In other words, something can’t be “sweet” to you unless you have something else sour to compare it to (such as the absence or rarity of that sweetness). That’s why surfing can be so incredibly rewarding and addicting; there’s just so much damn sour required to get a bit of sweet. Simply getting the right conditions to have good waves be available is rare, not to mention all the personal and local variables that must be dealt with once they are available. It’s certainly worth considering that this is what makes surfing so great. Perhaps it’s not anything objective or intrinsic to the nature of surfing that makes it great; perhaps it’s because of this really uniquely dismal sweet to sour ratio. I won’t go as far to argue that completely, but it’s worth considering just how much it plays in. Certainly there’s evidence to suggest that exercise, the presence of mind required to surf (thus eliminating mental chatter), and the great outdoors are factors as well. But keep in mind, you can get those things in many other activities. The unique thing about surfing is how unlikely you are to get a high number of quality repetitions.

Ubiquitous wave pools dramatically decrease the amount of sour required to get the sweet. And further, just like chess and A.I., one might argue that once wave pools are ubiquitous, the mystique that people place around surfing might also decrease dramatically. Chess is now “known” to not be as creative as people once thought; it’s just a series of potential combinations that, once sufficiently memorized or “computed” thoroughly, an advantage in play is necessarily achieved. Interestingly, the number of activities that are widely recognized as requiring human-only levels of creativity are shrinking very quickly.

surfer riding a wave at surf snowdonia wave pool in wales

So, if wave pools are everywhere, what will be the on-the-ground effects? I think people will surf less in the ocean. Of course, for those that truly understand the sweet and sour components of the human condition, surf travel and adventure and ocean surfing will always be their priority. As always, some people are better than others at managing the human condition and thus while they can step back and realize what is making them happy or sad and almost laugh at their human condition, they understand the processes they must put themselves through to achieve the states of being they desire. But I think most people will do what most people always do; take the easy way out without realizing what they’re doing.

On your podcast, one of you rightly pointed out that there is already an upper limit on the number of people that will paddle out to a particular surf break (because it gets too crowded to the point where less and less people are willing to paddle out). That upper number will come down. Right now, there’s a certain number of people in the water that, given a choice, will choose not to be there. They’re just there now because they don’t have a choice; they need a damn wave and there’s nowhere else to go! When wave pools come on board, many people will won’t put themselves through the trouble. They’ll talk about still wanting to go in the ocean, but what will happen is they’ll attempt to get their fix at the wave pool and then they’ll be done. Until the next time, when they go back to the wave pool. Eventually, they might even just surf less, because it won’t be as rewarding or fun, and they may not even fully understand how this happened to them. The mystique for them will be gone because it won’t be as rewarding; they’re not putting themselves through the sour. And they won’t go back to the ocean as much, either. Once the curtain is pulled back for them, it’s difficult if not impossible to be redrawn. You might already be able to relate to this phenomenon when you’ve lost interest in something else in your life.

I also think people will travel less to surf. They only do so now to avoid the crowds and the hopes of getting some truly great waves. It’s almost a necessary expense, really. But when there’s a wave pool next door, you’re not going to see as many people spending $3k on a surf trip for waves that aren’t guaranteed. The cost/risk/benefit just won’t be there. It won’t be the same experience they’re substituting, but they won’t really understand that. When deciding whether to spend the money on a surf trip, the mental calculation they go through might be a surprisingly slippery slope. As a final point, as people begin to live longer and longer lives I tend to think they’ll become more risk averse (there’s more to lose). This will eventually also push them into the wave pools and out of the ocean.

kelly slater surfing his wave pool in california, photograph by world surf league

In any case, these are just my predictions. I’m not even sure myself. I don’t have an axe to grind; I’m way more creative than I am analytical or inclined toward math. I’ve lived in a van multiple times (by choice) for short stints and enjoy the outdoors as much as anyone. But I also like logic. Even if I’m right, there’s no sense in fighting wave pool creation or adoption. They’re inevitable, as are advancements in other sports, and society at large. It’s understandable if one takes issue with human advancement, but also understand that humans seem destined to push our boundaries. In fact, that’s because this same behavior is inherent in the nature of evolution itself (consider for a moment how life has evolved since the beginning of time). Along the way, people sometimes think we cross imaginary lines. But at any one point it’s difficult to logically argue such point is a bridge too far; it’s just a small logical step continuing along a spectrum of evolution. Evolving ourselves is simply another step. Did we go too far when humans developed simple tools? Domesticating and breeding animals? Vaccinations? Do you like getting an X-ray when you have a broken bone? Which point in our historical progress, exactly, is the goldilocks one? It seems unfortunate that we lose beauty or mystique in many areas of life as we advance, but it just seems to be the way it is. Perhaps the trick is to realize we gain it in other ways.”

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