Most sports evolve at a reassuringly sedate pace – a rule tweak here, a tactical innovation there – but not the sport of surfing, which, thanks to some mind-boggling technological advances in recent years is increasingly starting to feel like something out of a science fiction movie. Even Scotland, it seems, is in line to get a piece of the sci-fi action. In 2014, a company called Tartan Leisure Ltd announced that they were planning to install an artificial surfing lake, Wavegarden Scotland, in a disused quarry at Ratho, just outside Edinburgh. Earlier this month they released a video of “the Cove” – the kind of system they hope to operate there – and it’s enough to make even the most hard-bitten, salt-encrusted “real-waves-break-in-the-sea” cynics (yes, even this one) fall in love with the concept.
The first few shots show a posse of today’s top pro surfers – including Gabriel Medina, Filipe Toledo, Matt Wilkinson and Josh Kerr – sliding effortlessly through perfect, turquoise barrels at a prototype Cove in Spain, then letting rip with every kind of trick they can think of. All of which is fine, but those guys could make almost any kind of wave look good. As far as your average surfer is concerned it’s the geeky details that matter.
Geeky detail number one, then, is that the Cove system is capable of cranking out a wave every eight seconds. That matters because it means more waves to go around, and if there are more waves to go around then the cost per wave to Joe Public when the facility is eventually built is likely to be less prohibitive than it might otherwise have been. (Just imagine falling on the first wave of your first session at the newly-opened Edinburgh Wavegarden and realising that your mistake had cost you – say – a tenner. Nobody wants to have to surf under that kind of pressure.)
Geeky detail number two: as the voiceover on the video puts it “our sophisticated software permits wave size and shape to be modified in an instant to produce a wide variety of different wave types.” In theory, then, a surfer keen to work on their tube-riding could ride only hollow, barrelling waves, but they could share a session with somebody who was keen to practice cutbacks on slower, mushier waves – multiple surfers could enjoy very different kinds of surfing experiences at the same time. Under these conditions, the potential for rapid leaps in performance is obvious. As Alejo Muniz, another of the pros in the film, observes: “[the Cove] can get you to another level.”
Artificial wave pools are by no means a new concept. In 1985, some of the best surfers in the world gathered in Allentown, Pennsylvania for the inaugural World Professional Inland Surfing Championships, held at the Wildwater Kingdom water park. The contest drew spectators from as far away as Florida, but ultimately the waves on offer didn’t deliver anything like the power of the open ocean, and there was something a little bit sad – comical even – about the sight of big-wave legends like Hawaii’s Derek Ho and Australia’s Tom Carroll, the contest’s eventual winner, flailing around in knee-high dribble in a chlorinated pool while lifeguards stood diligently to attention at the water’s edge, presumably in case somebody stubbed a toe. In a retrospective article for Surfer magazine, veteran surf scribe Matt Warshaw described the waves as “tissue weak”.
“A mile or two behind the pool,” he continued, “good Amish men with rolled-up sleeves and full beards were making furniture, ploughing, threshing, raising barns, and in general behaving in a way so completely opposite of the breathtaking silliness before me that the contrast could be seen from outer space.”
Judging by the new promo video, the Cove system is capable of serving up waves that are in a different league altogether from those at Wildwater Kingdom (which is still going strong, by the way, in spite of proving a less than ideal competitive surfing venue.) They may not be all that much bigger – the largest waves in the film seem to be perhaps a foot or two overhead – but they’re hollower, faster and more powerful, not to mention easily customisable. In short, the Cove doesn’t just promise the perfect wave – it promises your perfect wave. Whether the Ratho scheme comes to fruition or not remains to be seen, and if it does it may well result in real-world surf spots all around the country becoming suddenly more crowded as pool-trained surfers seek to transfer their skills to the sea. For now, though, it’s enough just to revel in the possibilities.