When the first artificial wave in the U.S., Big Surf, opened in 1969, not many coastal surfers took the Arizona wave seriously.
Lacking size and power, Big Surf was a long way from living up to its name. Still, it was a start, and for decades it seemed like a finish. The idea pretty much lay dormant for years.
Then, in the early ‘90s rumblings were heard that La Jolla surfer Tom Lochtefeld had teamed up with fellow La Jolla surfer and legendary designer Carl Ekstrom.
Together they built a standing wave (something that works like a wave in a river) that would eventually go by the name Flowrider.
I was fortunate to be on hand for the opening of the first Flowrider, along with a crew of California bodyboarders who had crossed into Texas to ride the wave in a small town called New Braunfels.
While not quite surfing, the Flowrider proved hours of fun, especially for those who didn’t mind going over the falls when the wave was ramped up to full velocity.
It must have been over a decade since I got a call from Carl Ekstrom that his friend, Tom Carroll (not the Australian World Surfing Champion, but the California version) wanted to discuss the idea for a wave that broke similar to the ones we all ride in the ocean.
I don’t recall who else was there, but I remember discussing various possibilities with Carroll, Ekstrom, and artist/visionary Michael Cassidy. Carl got everyone’s attention when he explained something called a “wave cannon,” where water is shot out of a pipe like a fire hose before being condensed and making contact with an artificial reef.
This idea gained favor because of the involvement of another brilliant inventor, Tom Morey.
Tom Carroll, who was way ahead of us all, listened attentively before laying down his plans for a wave he wanted to build.
The idea was that a train with a plow attached to it and bordering a large body would pump swell onto an artificial island and create several types of waves.
The concept, the drawings, the people involved — we had everything we needed, minus $100 million, give or take a few million.
Around that time Solana Beach surfer Bruce McFarland took off with American Wave Machines. McFarland, who eventually brought waves to Waco, Texas, has created surf far better than anything we’ve seen in North County all month.
As with all things Slater, Kelly took things to a new level when he unveiled a wave unlike anything anyone had ever seen before in fresh water.
Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch, which features the types of waves that previously only existed in sketches on our high school notebooks, is a dream come true.
As amazing as this wave is, however, there is no doubt that someone in the near future will top it, maybe even bringing Pipeline to a pool near you. It took 50 years to come this far — I can’t wait to see what the next 50 will bring.
While I’m at it, has anyone seen Tom Carroll lately?
If so, tell him I still dream of making his wave-riding concept a reality. If you have $100 million, you’re not using, give us a call?
Above: Wave machine concept by Tom Carroll. Sketch by artist Phil Roberts