Surf Snowdonia: The Welsh Wavegarden

Words by Mat Arney, images by Mat Arney & film by Luke Pilbeam/Surf Snowdonia



Multiple Welsh and British Women’s champion Jo Dennison hitting the lip of an advanced wave whilst “at work” at Surf Snowdonia.

Much has been written regarding Surf Snowdonia (the first wavegarden artificial wave lagoon open to the general public) both in the run-up to and following the Welsh wavegarden’s opening at the start of August.

It was big news in the mainstream media in the UK, being as it is a multi-million pound, first-of-its-kind, development that has transformed a derelict former industrial site on the edge of a national park. The surf world, however, has greeted Surf Snowdonia with either guarded acceptance, skepticism, or armchair attacks. Surf Simply sent Mat Arney to North Wales with a camera, a notepad, and an open mind so that we can share an honest report on this latest development in the world of surfing.

 

a surfer bottom turning on a right hand wave at the surf snowdonia wave garden in wales

A surfer bottom turning on a head-high right-hander at Surf Snowdonia.

If you happen to turn off the main road in Dolgarrog into the entrance to Surf Snowdonia at just the right moment, you’ll see a pretty perfect, head high right-hander dead in front of you. If you live near an average surf spot then it’s like pulling into the beach car park on really good day, except that you’re not at the beach but instead at a former aluminium smelting and rolling plant on the edge of a mountainous national park. On first impressions, the wave garden lagoon at Surf Snowdonia looks really fun.

Opened to the general public on August 1st this year, Surf Snowdonia offers the longest man-made waves in the world, peeling for up to 150 metres and offering rides of around twenty seconds. The lagoon itself is 300 metres long, and is divided down the centre by a pier under which the technology that generates the waves runs. A wave is generated on either side of the pier every 70-90 seconds – a right and left that break back towards the pier – and waves run in both directions along the length of the lagoon as the machinery runs backwards and forwards. As the advanced wave that is initially generated closest to the pier propagates out towards the edge of the lagoon it reforms into a smaller intermediate wave that zips along the shoreline, and when the advanced wave finally closes out the whitewater continues on and is ridden by beginners (up to six in each surf school group), allowing up to eight surfers to surf each wave on one side of the pier (sixteen in total on both sides) without interfering with each other’s rides. If that all sounds a bit clinical, it’s because it is; it’s a man made wave, after all. You arrive at your allotted time and park your car, pay your money, put your wetsuit on in a changing room and leave your clothes in a locker before spending an hour surfing a wave every 3 minutes, alternating rights and lefts as you go up and down the length of the lagoon. The wavegarden technology offers an incredibly similar experience as far as the physical acts of paddling for a wave, catching one and surfing it go, but that is about the limit of it and the team behind Surf Snowdonia are open about that. They’re not looking to replace surfing in the ocean.

left hand intermediate and advanced waves breaking at the surf snowdonia wavegarden lagoon in wales

A left hand intermediate wave (left side) and advanced wave (right side) peel down the lagoon at Surf Snowdonia in North Wales.

“I think it’s quite comparable with climbing.” Stated Phil Nelson, Surf Snowdonia’s Business Development Director when I sat down with him in the café overlooking the lagoon to discuss Surf Snowdonia’s journey to date, “When climbing walls were first introduced in the late eighties and early nineties, there was some resistance from members of the traditional climbing community. We’ve seen something like that with the surfing world; everybody seems to have an opinion about what we’ve done here, which is natural and to be expected, but what a lot of our detractors need to understand is that what we’re not trying to do is replace the ocean, by any stretch of the imagination. We’re just trying to provide a great venue where people can come and learn, or come to practice, or come to participate in or watch a competition.   Lots of people will just come here to enjoy the spectacle of it.” We look around us at the range of people sat around us, chatting over coffee or watching the spectacle of surfing every minute and a half or so out of the floor-to-ceiling windows that run the length of the 50 meter long café; Phil estimates that at least 60% of them won’t be surfing today. Many of them are families who have come along so that the kids can try a surfing lesson, others are the partners of surfers waiting patiently whilst they surf their allotted session, and a fair few look as though they’ve just stopped in to check out what all the fuss is about. For many of them it’s probably the first time that they’ve seen “live” surfing at such close range.

Nelson’s comparison between artificial wave technology and climbing walls isn’t only limited to the reaction that they received from some members of their sports’ communities, he also believes that they provide a similar opportunity for people to try something that they may not otherwise ever get the chance to do.

“There never traditionally used to be competitions in climbing until climbing walls came along, and then a whole sport developed out of it. It became a way for kids to get involved, or for people to test their fitness. You now get some climbers who only climb on climbing walls. You can make the same comparison with skiing and dry ski slopes, which allow people to train in the summer or have access to skiing when they might not have otherwise been able to afford to visit the mountains. Then indoor ski slopes came along and yes, they’re very expensive similar to this, but again it opens it up to people. What we’re doing here isn’t taking anything away from surfing, we’re just offering an alternative route in for some people.”

All Rick Kane jokes aside, there will no doubt be some people who get their first taste of riding a wave in an artificial wave lagoon such as Surf Snowdonia and who go on to be committed surfers, whether or not they ever ride a man-made wave again. There will also be competitive surfers who use the facility for training, as it offers an unrivalled opportunity for repeating maneuvers and drills; there aren’t many places where you can ride a wave and have a coach track you with a camera, review the wave within 30 seconds of kicking out before immediately returning to put their advice into practice.

a surfer holding a soft blue beginners board waiting to enter the water to ride a wave at surf snowdonia

A surfer waiting on the shoreline for the next intermediate wave, in front of a backdrop of Welsh countryside.

The wavegarden at Surf Snowdonia is the first of it’s kind, and as it is fine-tuned by the wavegarden team and the engineers at Surf Snowdonia the lessons learned will be carried through to the wavegarden project currently getting started in Austin, Texas and the six other facilities currently being developed. Another twenty-two projects across five continents are also financially committed, so it would seem that this is here to stay and that, like it or loathe it, people are going to continue surfing man-made waves and that the waves are probably going to keep getting better.

Surf Snowdonia is leading the charge though, and it would seem that they’ve tried their best to cover all bases and do the right thing at each turn. Situated right next door to a small hydroelectric power station that provides electricity for 20,000 Welsh households each year, the water that fills the lagoon is rainwater that is the by-product of this green electricity generation. Rainwater from reservoirs in the Snowdonia mountains is piped down to the hydroelectric power station and then undergoes UV disinfection before being used in the lagoon. The water is a brownish colour because UV disinfection and a two stage filter is used to clean it rather than chemicals, which means that the lagoon can empty directly into the river Conwy. The site of the lagoon was, for 100 years, an aluminium rolling and casting works until it closed in 2007. The site was cleared and cleaned, with 25,000 cubic metres of onsite material being crushed and reused by Surf Snowdonia (over 85% of the stone required for construction) and 400 tonnes of steel, cast iron and copper also being recycled into the buildings on site. It’s directly created over 60 jobs since opening and is helping to regenerate the local economy and cementing Snowdonia as the “adventure capital” of the UK.

an intermediate wave peels along close to the shoreline at surf snowdonia

Beginner surfers ride the whitewater nearest the pier whilst the intermediate wave reforms and peels along the shoreline.

One night in November 1925 two dams failed, causing a flood that swamped Dolgarrog. Sixteen people died that night although the death toll would have been far higher had many villagers not been at a local theatre watching a film, and the disaster caused the British parliament to pass the Reservoirs (Safety Provisions) Act in 1930. In the words of one local man, “Ninety years ago a wave nearly destroyed our village. Now it looks as though a wave is going to save it.”

The wave itself is produced by some incredible technology, and it doesn’t differ from its predecessor in the Basque Country in size alone. Wavegarden have spent the past ten years researching and testing their designs, and are using a different drive system at Surf Snowdonia to the one at their test facility in the Basque Country.

“Wavegarden are responsible for all of the concept and design here,” Andrew (Mac) McGowan, Surf Snowdonia’s Chief Engineer, told me, “They’re responsible for the shape of the lagoon, the depth of the reefs, the length and angle of the dissipative shores and everything to do with the piers and the foil that produces the wave. They’ve partnered with a company called Leitner to develop the drive mechanisms though. Leitner are world renowned for producing the mechanisms used to drive cable cars and ski lifts, so this has been an opportunity for them to diversify their best technology into a different environment.” Producing a wave once every minute and a half for over ten hours (not including the daily period for routine inspection and maintenance) requires the foiled plough that gets pushed along beneath the pier to produce the wave to be shuttle back and forth at least 300 times per day. Every day.

“When it starts up there’s 30 tons of machinery pushing against 33,000 to 40,000 cubic metres (about 40 million litres) of water. It’s like trying to move a brick wall every ninety seconds”

Mac points this feat of engineering out, just as I reconsider asking him about the break down at the end of August that forced them to shut down the wave for ten days whilst they awaited a spare part to effect a repair. The engineers at Surf Snowdonia undertake daily checks and preventative maintenance, and it was during one of these checks that a problem with a component part was spotted. It’s probably worth considering that the ocean rarely produces a run of consistent head high surf for three weeks straight at the majority of surf spots. I’m not sure that many of the people who crowed about the breakdown across various digital platforms did consider that, though?

Surf Snowdonia is the first of its kind and is bound to have a few teething problems, which is why the team from Wavegarden have been holed up in North Wales this summer fine tuning their latest project and making adjustments to factors such as the amount of water in the lagoon to make the wave bigger and longer. Sure, it’s not barreling properly as promised – but that can’t be far off. What it is, however, is fun.

If all of this isn’t what surfing represents to you, though, then don’t worry about it. Just ignore it. You don’t have to try what they’re offering. Maybe simply appreciate it for the feat of engineering and post-industrial regeneration that it is, and then let people who want to go and ride a wave there do so and forget about them whilst you enjoy surfing wherever and however you please. If you are curious though, and keen to head to North Wales to experience a man made wave amidst the mountains, then go for it. I’d suggest also packing a pair of hiking boots (and if you’re so inclined a rack of climbing gear and a fly rod and reel) because the wavegarden is one of so many things to do in this beautiful part of the world – there are mountains to hike, beautiful rivers to canoe or fish, quarries to climb and, just fifty miles away, beaches with (occasional) real waves. Enjoy Surf Snowdonia for what it is, which is an hour of regular and rippable shoulder to head high waves with a fair amount of novelty value and high potential as a conversation starter. This is different, and different need not mean “bad”.


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