Bringing Perfect Waves to the Masses

A surfer on a five-foot wave, crouched and grabbing the board’s edge, emerged from behind the curl of the water to onlookers’ cheers.

Who did he have to thank for the perfect swell? Tom Lochtefeld, who stood at the water’s edge — a hundred miles from the ocean.

At a shuttered water park in the desert landscape of Coachella Valley in Southern California, Lochtefeld has transformed a pool into a surf spot. For decades, inventors like Lochtefeld have struggled to mimic the ocean’s swells. In recent years, commercial projects and proof-of-concept pools have made good on the dream.

Now, there’s a global expansion race, driven by the demand of surfers’ to ride on specifically designed waves and by landlocked newbies who want to try the sport but on gentler, more controlled waves.

But while surfing that day, he realized that he could create a wave by shooting water over a curved surface. Lochtefeld and friends — assisted by a hydraulics lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography — built a machine that sculpts thousands of gallons of water a minute into a stationary wave that approximates surfing.

FlowRider was born and hundreds of the machines were sold. Customers of a larger version, FlowBarrel, include the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. But those waves are not ridden on a surfboard. Instead, users jump on a smaller board that’s more like a skimboard.

For Lochtefeld, waves closer to the real thing beckoned. He wanted more people to experience surfing. To finance what became an obsession, Lochtefeld in 2014 sold the FlowRider business, and, three years later, his beachfront home in San Diego.

“I get a vision and stay very focused for a long time,” Lochtefeld, 68, said. Breaking from his measured cadence, he added that his wife of 38 years has been “extremely patient.”

At the closed water park, amid colorful water slides and a parched lazy river, Lochtefeld’s pool will be expanded for longer rides, from seven seconds currently to up to 15 seconds. It’s the centerpiece of a planned resort, Palm Springs Surf Club, that is expected to open next year, and one of four surf parks in development in Coachella Valley.

Developers are banking on proximity to coastal surf markets. They also hope the coronavirus crisis, which has slowed development in some cases, eventually gives way to pent-up surf tourism demand.

The waves at Lochtefeld’s park are created with a combination of supercomputing — some 10 trillion calculations a second — metal chambers and pulses of air. Competitors take a different tack, such as using submerged hulls zooming across tracks or synchronized, wave-generating panels.

With the pool as proof of concept, Lochtefeld’s company, SurfLoch, is under contract to create waves at eight other developments, including in Spain and Australia. The company recently finished a private surf park in Connecticut.

The surf park business turns on volume: The more waves in a park, tailored to both beginners and experts, the more paying surfers.

Surfers have debated the merits of the artificial wave boom. Would surf lineups become packed with hordes of park-trained surfers? And are surf parks a soulless commodification of what nature provides for free?

Critics also point to the environmental impact of the vast parks. Operators say they’re taking the environment seriously, including in some cases using renewable energy to power operations and employing measures to save water and not deplete sources.

In a bid for sustainability, Lochtefeld is experimenting with photovoltaics — a solar energy source — and other technology. Lochtefeld said he’s also working on new wave shapes, amid “infinite permutations” now that he’s honed the technology.

For me, an average surfer, Lochtefeld’s pool felt like ocean surfing: the weightless drop, and balancing on a kinetic, ephemeral force. Lochtefeld even created waves with variability, and that unfurl from right to left, and vice versa. But it felt surreal when mechanical rumbling signaled coming waves, instead of a distant bump on the horizon.

Whether welcomed or feared, a long-promised surge in surf parks seems close.

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