making waves

Giving German surfers a break, far from the sea

Surf City Dog Surfing competition
Let surfing dogs ride. Source: DPA

An empty, sandy beach lined with palm trees. A barreling wave crests in the distance, its tubular middle ready for some lucky surfer to glide through, just like in those deodorant commercials. Unfortunately for many surfers, they live nowhere near this wave-riding ideal. European surfers often have to travel across continents to find a spot like this, and they might still be disappointed if the wind, swell and weather don’t play ball. There might also be crowds or aggressive locals to watch out for.

This kind of wave hunter’s dilemma is spawning a multibillion-dollar market for man-made waves. It’s not quite as romantic and purists — probably those with time and money — would say it takes away from the thrill of the chase. But at least it is totally reliable. One of the pioneers of the man-made wave business is Johannes Degenhardt.

In a flooded gravel pit in Langenfeld, a town in North Rhine-Westphalia between the cities of Düsseldorf and Cologne, Mr. Degenhardt, 39, demonstrates what his new wave-maker can do. The wave is created by a device that operates on top of a natural body of water, such as this lake. It resembles an 8-meter-wide plastic pool, which, despite its 43 metric ton weight, floats easily atop this lake.

At the press of a button, 12 pumps start working, pumping 15,000 liters of water per second out of the lake and through the floating wave machine. The water flows down a ramp, hits a special hurdle and then rises to form a 1.6 meter high wave. And in just a few days, surfers clad in neoprene wetsuits will be queuing up at Mr. Degenhardt’s lake to ride that wave. It has taken him and his company, Unit Parktech, a year and a half to build what he describes as the biggest and most powerful artificial, stationary surf wave in the world.

Making waves promises to be big business. Despite the fact that most of them are landlocked, Germans are getting more into surfing. Some 2.4 million of them clambered onto a board at least a few times last year, up 20 percent from 2012, according to a survey by the Allensbach research institute. There’s similar growth in the US and the sport will be included in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo for the first time.

Some 2.4 million Germans clambered onto a surf board last year, up 20 percent from 2012.

The economists Thomas McGregor of Oxford University and Samuel Wills of the University of Sydney estimate that a surf spot can bring an extra $18 million to $22 million to an area. The economists believe that the global value of good waves is as high as $50 billion, if one takes into account revenues generated by restaurants, equipment stores and hotels at surfing spots. And that number is likely to grow with wave pools, because as Mr. Wills points out: “Alongside the indirect effects, you would also have people paying directly for use of the waves.”

“Your next surf spot might be closer than you think,” Unit Parktech says by way of advertising its “plug and play” surf pool with a starting price of €1 million ($1.23 million). He says he has already received several thousand inquiries about the pool in recent months. Potential buyers include local authorities that own lakes, as well as the operators of amusement parks seeking new attractions.

Rival wave-making systems include CityWave, invented by Munich-based engineer Rainer Klimaschewski, one of the forefathers of the artificial wave movement. Mr. Klimaschewski started the now famous, and crowded, surf spot in one of Munich’s parks, the English Garden. CityWave has been around for seven years but until recently didn’t seem to be making much progress. Now its time has come. The CityWave machines cost between €1 million and €2 million and are being installed in the German city of Osnabrück, as well as in Israel and in Moscow. CityWave is also working on the biggest artificial wave system in the world, in Seattle, that will be able to create a wave with a width of 16 meters.

Multiple world surfing champion Kelly Slater recently opened his own wave-generating surf ranch in Lemoore, California, more than 200 miles from the ocean. The World Surf League bought Mr. Slater’s company in 2017 and plans to build six further surf ranches and even hold surfing competitions there.

Spanish engineer and surfer, Josema Odriozola, founded the company Wavegarden which can build entire lagoons to surf on. A sledge shaped like an aircraft wing is pulled through the water by a cable, creating a wave that can break on obstacles that recreate the effect of sandbanks or reefs. The first such lagoon was opened in Wales three years ago and Wavegarden has also installed systems in Texas and in the Spanish city of San Sebastian. Another will debut shortly in Australia. The latest model can send up to 1,000 waves through a pool every hour.

Somewhat intriguing: The US coworking company WeWork bought shares in Wavegarden last year and some have speculated that this a sign that surfing might become a corporate perk in the future. But as Mr. Odriozola concedes, “nothing is comparable to the ocean. A good day in the ocean is simply incredible.”

Then again, as all the wave machine makers are only too well aware, such days are not all that easy to come by, especially for wannabe surfers living in the middle of the European continent. With the man-made waves, satisfaction is guaranteed. But surfing isn’t just about getting up on a piece of styrofoam. Out in the surf, at a beachside break, there’s a well-established etiquette and plenty of unwritten rules for novices to worry about, and learn. More experienced surfers tend to be able to catch more waves, leaving beginners to fight for experience. But on his waves, Mr. Klimaschweski says everyone gets a go, “Beginners and pros alike.”

This article first appeared in Handelsblatt Global’s sister publication, the business weekly WirtschaftsWoche. It was adapted in English for Handelsblatt Global. 

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