A brave new world of wave pools and surfing lagoons is here – and The Wave Bristol, which opens to the public this November, looks set to position the UK as one of the great powers within it. The pool is a 200 x 200m manmade lake in Bristol’s rural outskirts; as for the waves, they’ll be supplied by the Basque engineering company Wavegarden, whose new technology is called the Cove.
It’s a radically different mechanism to the one used at Surf Snowdonia. The Cove can generate waves of superior quality and with far greater frequency, but the only version currently in existence is the scaled-down prototype in the Basque Country. The Wave Bristol will have more space to play with, and though the precise effect of this extra space is still to some degree uncertain, it won’t be for much longer – bookings are now open for surfers and would-be surfers of all abilities. Surfdome will be the official retail partner.
Excitement jostles with scepticism in the minds of many surfers; questions come one after another, rapid-fire, two every eight seconds. What will 1000 waves an hour look like in practice, and how many of them can one person expect to catch? Will there be a ticketed queueing system, meat-counter style, or will it be more like the queue at the bar, all sharp elbows and dirty looks? What does this giant machine mean, if anything, for surfing? What does it mean for the natural world that inspired it?
Nick Hounsfield doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but as the founder of The Wave he definitely has a few, and is in a pretty good position to speculate. We spoke on the phone the morning after the penultimate day of the Tahiti Pro, held in the biggest, most majestic surf seen in competition this year: nature at its most formidable, its most transcendental. It seemed somehow appropriate.
“My family are away at the coast so I was able to stay up late watching it,” said Hounsfield. “It was pretty insane.” How can a manmade wave possibly hope to compare? Hounsfield is categorical: it can’t. “It’s about enhancing surfers’ skills, that’s the really exciting bit – but we’d never profess to be trying to replace any wave, let alone Teahupo’o.” Nature is neither the competition nor the yardstick – but it will, he believes, be among the beneficiaries. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Surfdome: When you go down to the Wave Bristol site right now, what do you see?
Nick Hounsfield: It looks a bit like a building site round the edges, but the main lake itself looks like some kind of spaceship. It’s amazing, this incredible sort of pipe-shaped basin. It’s all polished, really white concrete – this glistening structure right in the middle of green woodland and fields. And then the central bit, which houses the Wavegarden technology, looks like something out of a Star Wars movie. It’s actually quite beautiful to look at, even though it’s obviously very engineered and structural. We’re just finishing off the final bit of the construction, going around with a sealant gun – it’s like putting a giant bathroom together – and then we’re ready to fill, so it’s a really exciting phase.
When do you reckon the first wave is going to be ridden?
We’ve got about ten days left of getting the final polishing and sealants done, and then we’re going to start filling. That fill’s going to take about ten days, so once that’s been done Wavegarden will be there to commission their kit. They’ve already done dry commissioning, so they’ve made sure the kit works without any water. Then they do the same with water in the lake. And then it’s really software programming to work out what settings we want to use – the regular settings for people of different abilities. We’ll probably end up with six or seven standard settings.
Talk us through the settings.
The three main factors are: creating a powerful wave, then making sure the bathymetry – the lake bottom – is the right shape, and then making sure that the water is at the right level to enable that shape to work. Think about the difference between a sand bank on low-tide, mid-tide and high-tide – a fluctuation in the water level can change the character of a wave. So there are a few different variables there that need to be played around with and that will define what mixture of waves we want to create. We definitely see that there’ll be a market for a heavy, slabbing, barrelling wave, but is that likely to be our day-to-day? Probably not. That’s probably going to be for special sessions or when we’ve got visiting pros. Because having surfed the prototype – I mean I’ve been surfing for over forty years, and I’ve not made the beast mode yet.
I probably go over the falls every time! It’s a really technical wave.
So can they introduce that mode without changing the bathymetry?
Yeah, it’s purely a matter of how much energy and the speed you put that energy through the water. You basically have to put a bit more energy into the system to make a more critical wave. Within ten seconds they can then change it to an easier barrel or even just a nice open-face wave. So there’s total flexibility, but what you wouldn’t want to do is to have an intermediate, you know, a good but not a great surfer, suddenly having the beast waves thrown on them. We took Skindog [Ben Skinner] and his son a few weeks back, and they were like, “that is a legit wave” – they had a couple of hold-downs, not exactly pinned to the bottom but held down for a decent amount of time.
Given the extra size of the playing field, how do you foresee The Wave Bristol comparing to the prototype in the Basque Country?
I mean, it’s a much longer wave. The wave in the Basque Country is a four or five second experience, and ours will be up to around a 15 second ride – between 13 and 15, until we fire up we won’t know exactly, but it’s in that ballpark. A lot more space, you’re not having to take off in that critical little corner so it’s easier for people to manoeuvre into place, to sit and watch and wait their turn. And because we’ve got greater space [for waves] to dissipate, we’ll also be able to produce more waves in succession without it being too frantic. It’s likely – and again this is down to final testing – but where we’d love to get it to is where it mimics pretty much what you get in the ocean. So you’ll get maybe a 6-8 wave set come through and then a 30 second lull for people to get back into position or paddle back in the rip. You get this really nice rhythm. If you can get into the rhythm of the lake and the water flow, the rip helps people get back out, but also it’s a really energy-efficient way of doing it.
It’s somewhere between 80 and 90 metres long, so a good surfer should be able to get four, five, six, seven turns in – and then 30 seconds later you’re paddling back getting ready for the next one. It’s going to be knackering, put it that way.
In terms of The Wave’s energy consumption?
Definitely. If you can get into the harmonics of the lake, that’s where you get the efficiency of use, lower energy usage and cost and all the rest of it. That first wave is the one that consumes the most energy – it’s a bit like putting a child on a swing. That first push you have to put quite a lot of energy in, but then once the child’s swinging you can push them with your little finger, you only have to put a little bit of energy into the system to keep it going.
Presumably the wave will retain its power for longer, too?
Exactly. The one in Spain, after the first two or three seconds, tapers off in size and power quite quickly. Our standard setting is likely to be a nice, big, open wall that will be reaching 15-20 metres ahead of you, as opposed to the one in Spain where the power pocket is quite small. It should be able to hold its power and shape for a lot longer. It’s somewhere between 80 and 90 metres long, so a good surfer should be able to get four, five, six, seven turns in – and then 30 seconds later you’re paddling back getting ready for the next one. It’s going to be knackering, put it that way. There’s been quite a lot of chat online since we released the tickets, you know, “if it’s going to be like the other technology, it sounds like a waste of money because I’m only going to get 6-8 waves.” We’ve had to call people up and say, “look, don’t book two sessions back-to-back, you’ll be absolutely knackered.” I think the ideal way to do it would be to do an hour session, then maybe an hour or two’s break, and then another hour session.
So you’ll get maybe a 6-8 wave set come through and then a 30 second lull for people to get back into position or paddle back in the rip. You get this really nice rhythm.
There are pretty much unlimited waves then, in that you can catch as many as you can handle?
It’s more waves than anyone should reasonably need. We’ll have a loose queueing system, there will be people marshalling by the side of the lake and also in the water. We’re not so worried about people being really greedy, it’s more about giving people tips and help and trying to make the customer experience as good as possible. The vibe that we’re very keen to create is one where you’re calling other people into waves and cheering people on, a good friendly vibe which is about giving waves to other people rather than trying to hog them for ourselves. We hope that it becomes something that transfers over to the ocean as well. Some days [in the ocean] it can get a bit aggro and a bit selfish, and we don’t want to be associated with that at all.
Why did you choose to work with Surfdome as a retail partner?
I’ve personally had a relationship with Surfdome for quite a few years. I know the founder really well, have got to know Adam [Hall, Surfdome’s Head of Sustainability] really well over the years, and my feeling is that it’s a business – an out-and-out business – that’s having honest conversations and taking a lead to try and influence the industry. And that’s exactly what we’re about, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not ashamed of the fact we’re a business but we believe there’s a real responsibility within that to try and do the right thing, and to have these conversations even if they challenge us. Working with Adam and the rest of the team, there’s a real honesty around it, and to me that’s refreshing to see in business and that’s the kind of people we want to work with. I believe that we can challenge each other to create positive impact in the long term.
You’ve said that environmentalism is at the core of The Wave, but lot of people will look at something like a wave pool that requires such a lot of power and water, and think that there’s an inherent contradiction there.
I think with any kind of venture or organisation or business, there are always going to be contradictions. For us it’s always been about balancing three things: making sure that we’re financially sustainable, that environmentally we’re minimising our impact, and I guess the big angle that we’ve always been pushing is the social impact. If we’re creating an environment which is making people healthier, happier, more productive, if we’re able to talk to them about environmental issues from an honest standpoint – not one where we’re trying to be worthy or preachy, but just going, “look, these are some of the issues that we’ve got as a business and organisation that’s trying to do the right thing.” You guys are exactly the same. Hardcore people would be saying, well you’re just promoting consumerism and that’s terrible and all the rest of it. Well, actually, people are going to consume and if you’ve got a place in the market to be able to show a better way of consuming – all the amazing things that you guys do with your packaging and trying to push environmental messaging. I think we’ve got a place to do something similar. So it’s a balancing act – we’re not perfect and we’re never going to say we’re perfect. Energy consumption-wise, we’re 100% powered by renewables, we’re going to be bringing our own renewable scheme in the future so that we can generate our own power, and where I’d love to get to, in the 7 to 10-year plan, is to take the whole site off-grid.
We’re not ashamed of the fact we’re a business but we believe there’s a real responsibility within that to try and do the right thing, and to have these conversations even if they challenge us
So the intention and expectation is that, paradoxically, you’ll promote interaction with nature, even as you’re taking an activity out of its natural environment?
Absolutely. There’s a great network of people that work in marine and environmental campaigning, and when I was first asked to go along to meetings I was really quite worried what they might think. But all of them said that it’s the perfect classroom to engage with a mass audience about these issues. You’re creating an ocean-like environment and you’ve got the ability to tap into school kids and the general public and to bring that messaging to a place that’s cool and engaging. [Those guys] are really excited about it and I thought they were going to be some of the anti-mob going, “why are you doing that?” But not at all, they really see the importance of environmental education, and it’s great that we can use surfing as a tool for that. Particularly with the Olympics next year, when the audience is going to grow exponentially – if together as a surfing community we can present some really strong views, there’s a real opportunity there.
Who are you working with for your renewable energy?
We’re working with Ecotricity, who are going to be our supplier.
Have you conducted any sort of lifecycle assessment? I suppose it’s hard when you’re not yet operational…
At the moment it’s pretty complicated. We’re doing a full CO2 analysis on the entire construction and then operations of our site, and we’re two or three weeks away from confirmed final numbers on that. And then we’re going to be working out how we can offset against that footprint. Also we have set up a separate foundation where we’re going to be feeding contributions back into the local community as well as the local environment – things like the 18,000 trees and shrubs that we’re planting, for instance. That won’t make a dent in the construction of the lake but it’s a starting point for the building and materials. Then we’ll be bringing in a scheme that allows us to offset any impact our operations might be having, and the whole time just trying to become more efficient – much the same as you guys have done. It’s not a quick, easy piece of work but it’s something that we’re absolutely committed to doing and then reporting on. We just got our application in as a B Corporation, so as part of that we have to do a lot of reporting – public reporting – on what our footprint is, water consumption and all of those things, so we want to be absolutely open and transparent.
Water-consumption-wise, I guess it’s going to use a lot of water, but I’ve got no idea about the scale or how that compares to everyday water use.
Yeah, comparators are quite hard. It’s a good question, it would be useful to get some idea of scale… It’s 25 million litres of water, but it’s a one-time fill, so we fill it up once at the beginning with drinking water. If we pay a bit more up front for high-quality water it means the processing and the operating of the treatment works is much lighter touch – there’s not so much energy consumption. We’re going to lose a lakeful of water every year through evaporation and we’re going to gain a lakeful of water through rainfall – unfortunately not at the same time! We’ll be looking to be able to draw from the ground for top-ups, and we’ve got a back-up basin so we can hold back and store water, and obviously we’ve got a very complicated system to get rid of excess water if we have a season of heavy rainfall. So yeah, we’ve got real experts on that making sure that we’ve got that balance right.
Speaking of experts, you could say a quick word about [Surfers Against Sewage founding member] Chris Hines and his contribution to the project.
Chris was the second person I spoke to about the whole thing. The first person I spoke to was Tim Smith from the Eden Project and he said, “you must speak to Chris Hines about it” – [Chris] was the head of sustainability at the Eden Project at that time. He came on board and he really helped me sit down and a set out a blueprint for how we were going to be as a business. Having set up Surfers Against Sewage, he’s a fierce environmental campaigner, so there was no way he was going to get involved in an organisation that didn’t take it seriously. But he’s also a real pragmatist, he really understands the whole profits-with-purpose model, the balance between social and environmental impact, and actually the first thing we did was sit down and write our sustainability policy for the company – before we’d done anything, before we’d spoken to anyone, so we made sure that anyone engaging with us, anyone investing in us would understand how seriously we took it. Every decision […] is being challenged through that lens, and he’s been absolutely instrumental in making sure that’s been embedded in our thinking and has been consistently applied. The guy’s amazing, yeah, a phenomenal guy.
Could you make bigger waves? Yes, you definitely could, but is the power consumption worthwhile? No, probably not. Do we want waves more frequently? We can’t make them more frequently. Do you want to make them longer? You could make longer waves, but actually the construction cost doesn’t make it worthwhile.
One other worry, given how far wave-pool technology has come in the last five or ten years, is that new technologies will quickly become redundant. What do you envisage happening if another tech comes out and people aren’t interested in surfing the Cove technology anymore?
I guess it depends on the needs of those individuals. The way we saw the original Wavegarden rolling out was that it didn’t supply waves to the people we think would be most interested in engaging with it. The majority of people are probably in that beginner to intermediate bracket. Absolutely there’s a core surf market, regular surfers who would want a high-performance wave, but I don’t think that’s where the opportunity lies. So that, plus a few engineering concerns, was the reason why we ended up not fitting that technology – we waited. The Cove technology ticks all the boxes for what we need to be as a sustainable business going forwards. And yeah, I’m sure there’ll be other clever ways of making waves, but for us this fits our business model really neatly, and on that basis I can’t see us changing from this technology for 10, 15, 20 years. If it does everything that we’ve planned it to then we have no reason for anything else. Could you make bigger waves? Yes, you definitely could, but is the power consumption worthwhile? No, probably not. We don’t have thousands and thousands of expert surfers waiting for a Teahupo’o-style barrel. Do we want waves more frequently? We can’t make them more frequently. Do you want to make them longer? You could make longer waves, but actually the construction cost doesn’t make it worthwhile. So it really does tick all the boxes right now and for the foreseeable future, which is why we’re really happy to commit with Wavegarden as our tech supplier.
People, and maybe surfers in particular, love to catastrophise – some surfers seem to think that wave pools are an existential threat, or that they’re fundamentally going to change the surfing landscape. How do you see things panning out?
I look at it through a few different lenses. One of my other roles is at Surfing England, I’m a director there and also at British Surfing, so if you’re looking at the absolute elite end of things we are going to have a massive advantage as a nation. There’s not a single pro athlete who’s not really excited about being able to use this facility for training, so I think that in itself is a very positive thing. The biggest concern I’m hearing is around numbers – that we’re creating many more surfers who potentially are going to be crowding the beaches. And I think those surfers were going to find the sport anyway. What we have got a role in doing is being responsible, educating people about etiquette, how to ride waves properly, what rips look like, and really showing people how to stay safe and acquire skills before they head for the ocean. Ultimately it’s not like we’re suggesting that all beaches should be closed and everyone has to surf with us – at the end of the day everyone’s got a free choice of what they want to do. I had literally hundreds and hundreds of people emailing or messaging me over the summer saying, “we’re getting to the end of a month’s flat spell, and man, if you were open I’d be booking it for days. I’m so frustrated that I can’t do what I absolutely love.” So I think people are quick to comment when they’ve had a couple of good surfs in the last few days, going “yeah, the ocean’s brilliant, it’s free,” but for other people it’s not free to get to. They’ve got to spend a lot of money and put a lot of gas in the tank to get down the beach, where conditions are not always great, and this is something that will make it more accessible for people and that’s the bit that I’m really excited about.
Presumably you’ve seen Hans and Kai Odriozola [sons of Wavegarden’s founder Josema Odriozola] – they’re both incredible surfers and are already being tipped for fairly big things. Does it scare or unsettle you at all, the idea of legions of wave-pool-reared groms putting everyone else to shame?
No. Personally it doesn’t bother me at all. If we end up with a nation that has really great kids surfing, like you’ll find on the Gold Coast or in other wave-rich nations around the world, that’s something that excites me. I happen to know that, whilst Hans and Kai have obviously had access to Wavegarden, their parents are fully committed to making sure that they’re getting absolutely the majority of their time spent in the ocean. They’re lucky enough to live five minutes from the beach and that’s where they spend 95% of their training time. But yeah, there’s no doubt that [they use it] during flat spells, and also having perfect barrels that as a small kid you can get really confident in – you’ve only got to look at John John, growing up on the North Shore. I’ve got a little son who’s ten, and the thought that in the next six months he’s going to be getting his first barrels and getting confident in that environment really excites me, it doesn’t scare me one bit. I think it’s something we should be embracing and be really proud of.
Surfing’s traditionally a fairly middle-class pursuit, generally speaking. Are there any plans in place to help open it up to a new demographic?
Yeah, 100%. We’ve got the Wave Foundation, and that’s actually going to be running like a bursary scheme, so we’ll be able to tap into communities and groups who wouldn’t normally [have access]… because there is a cost involved, obviously, in coming and using The Wave. It wraps up really neatly as well with this UK Sport funding that’s become available for British Surfing. That funding is called the Aspiration Fund, and was put in place and awarded to British Surfing to support the athletes who are qualifying for the Olympics. But as part of that they also have to deliver against some social-impact objectives, so part of that funding would be used to engage with those harder-to-reach groups and be able to bring them not just to the beach but also to The Wave. And in cities rather than coastal communities – I think there’s a surfer in all of us, really, and it’s just about tapping into and allowing that to come out.