Column

Joe Surf: From pitching machine to wave pool

I was lucky enough to score tickets to Game 7 of the World Series back on Nov. 1, and after watching Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish get knocked around for the first two innings, it got me thinking.

Since it seemed like Darvish was throwing the ball right down the middle for the Astros hitters to tee off on, I was thinking why not just use a pitching machine? Just set the machine at about 95-mph and let it go, right down the middle and watch the hitters crush the ball. See which team can hit the most home runs.

By now you’re thinking, “What happened to the surfing column?” Well, hear me out.

If it sounds ridiculous that a sport like baseball would use a pitching machine that would eliminate so much variance in the conditions in a high-level event like the World Series, it’s because it is ridiculous.

And it’s the same reasoning that makes me believe using a wave pool in world class surfing contests is just as ridiculous.

Kelly Slater has been in the news lately with his wave pool in the Central California farming town of Lemoore — the Kelly Slater Surf Ranch. Just recently, Slater posed for pictures with Palm Beach, Fla. city officials after it was announced that Slater will build a wave pool in Palm Beach County, about 100 miles from Slater’s home town of Cocoa Beach.

Slater has some competition, though. Wavegarden has three wave pools up and running and several others in the works all over the world. And with the Olympics set to host surfing for the first time in 2020, the surfing craze around the world hasn’t even scratched the surface yet.

The wave pool phenomena is a good thing in many ways. It allows people in landlocked areas to experience the stoke of riding a wave, and it also might — just might — help thin out ever-growing and crowded lineups all around the world.

After all, if there’s a wave pool in Riverside, maybe Riverside locals will just stay home to surf instead of paddling out at the pier.

And of course it’s great for training and coaching purposes, something former world champ Peter Townend, a Huntington resident now coaching the Chinese national team, recognizes. He recently took his very inexperienced Chinese team to the Wavegarden headquarters in the Basque Country of northern Spain to practice on the wave pool there.

Townend is no stranger to the wave pool idea — he helped Disney develop a wave pool at “Typhoon Lagoon” in Orlando, Fla., way back in the 1980s.

So yeah, there are plenty of good things about the development of the wave pool. Wave pools are great for coaching and training and for those who live too far from a surf-able wave.

And I suppose low-level competitions at some of these landlocked pools would be fine, but please, please do not use a wave pool for high-level competition. While the waves are perfect, they are exactly the same every time.

There is no current, no surge, no wind, no sharks. The tide isn’t rising or falling, and there are never days when the ocean just decides to go flat. To use a baseball analogy, there are no curveballs, sliders, changeups or knuckleballs. No fastballs at your head.

It’s like a pitching machine grooving that fastball right down the middle every time, and the hitters are too good for that. Likewise, the top-level surfers will shred Slater’s 5-foot perfect barrel over and over again. Sure, not everybody can do it, but we need a curveball or two to fully appreciate the world’s best when they are in the water.

That’s why I cringed a little when Slater was joined by the World Surf League and many of its top surfers for a “secret” contest back in September to promote the wave pool to surf industry insiders. The WSL, not so incidentally, previously bought a majority share of Kelly’s pool.

Gabriel Medina won the men’s division and Carissa Moore won the women’s division, but to me, it’s more like winning a home run hitting contest. Something they do before the “real” game. Surfing at its best includes Mother Nature, something I think Slater certainly recognizes.

But don’t be surprised if sometime soon one of those wave pools will have grandstands, souvenir stands and surf-themed restroom doors (Duke … Gidget?).

But hopefully something as high level as the WSL’s World Championship Tour will continue to have its contests on the Northshore, in South Africa, Brazil, Fiji, Tahiti, Australia, France, Portugal, Hawaii and California.

And after all, when Mother Nature hosts a contest, admission is free.

JOE HAAKENSON is a Huntington Beach-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at joe@juvecreative.com.

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