INTERVIEW: Building England's First Wave Pool

Jason Lock

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Updated 46d ago

After almost a decade, England's first inland wave pool will officially open its doors. The Wave: Bristol is set to launch in November and will utilise the Wavegarden's Cove technology, capable of generating up to 1,000 waves per hour.

Any sort of inland wave tech for Bristol has been on the table since 2010, when Nick Hounsfield first voiced plans to bring surfing to the city. From then, it's been nine years of dedicated, hard work, rounds of investment, millions of pounds poured into realising a vision.

Looking for some time in the water? UK forecasts are HERE

And in a few months time, that will finally be a reality. The 1,000 waves per hour moniker is a fun quote, sure, it likely won't run to that capacity, but what's really interesting is the range of waves that will be on offer here. There's a slab, a proper slab, dubbed beast mode, a thick-lipped, heavy wave that you'll have to book well in advance so the pool is ready. There's a Porthleven-style barrel too, along with a top-to-bottom mellow wave like Saunton Sands and of course the beginner and intermediate waves for those getting to grips with foam under foot.

“It's been a rollercoaster,” says Nick when we check in to catch up about the venue. That's an apt description given Nick pitched to around 230 investors, the majority of which were thrilled but then caveated it with something else, 'the timing's not right', or a whole load of 'come back to us when you're building a second one'. There's been a change in technology thrown in the mix as well, from Wavegarden to Wave Loch back to Wavegarden, when their Cove tech emerged.

“This is like taking a slice of the ocean and putting it in Bristol,” explains Nick about the feeling of surfing something like this. Anyway, we spoke about the difficulties of getting The Wave to where it is now (investment being the hardest), the types of waves people can expect to surf, raising the hype for England's Olympic hopefuls and offering a surfing experience, miles from the nearest beach. This isn't just England's first wave pool - it could well be the world's first facility to use The Cove technology, if doors open before the site in Melbourne.

Oh and London? Don't feel too jealous, you've got one coming in the next few years.

This has been in development for some time now, let's run through the timeline of The Wave.
NH: 2010 was when I first started to put together some thoughts about creating a health destination, my background is in health care, where people could exercise and eat good food – break down the social barriers that are going on in Bristol, and that idea came at a fortuitous time, right as the first Wave garden tech was released in 2011.

That then became the centre piece of the vision. Being a surfer for 40 odd years, I had a massive vested interest in trying to create a wave inland. It was a real bringing together of waves and passions. I met the Wave Garden back then and we said yes, let's do this, let's build one of these in Bristol.

Back then, I thought it was going to take two years and £2 million. Then there was the change in technology, planning permission – the first application was approved in 2014, it took that long to get the land sorted and various deals in place, get the funding together. This then had to be revisited by 2016, ready for The Cove tech. Had to get the funding deals done, the construction drawings ready. Then the last 10 months have been a huge acceleration, we've had to do the archeology and enabling works, getting the site ready to build on. Then the proper construction started really end of December or start of January this year. It took eight months to build the main lake and the clubhouse.

The Wave founder, Nick Hounsfield.

The Wave founder, Nick Hounsfield.

© 2019 - Javi Munoz.

That's a feat of engineering, when you put it in scope of the past 9 years...
Yeah, it really is. A year going from technical drawing to having a final design solution that's ready to build. It feels short in the grand scheme of things [laughs].

You mentioned a change in tech, too. Wave Garden was going to be used, then Wave Loch, then back to Wavegarden, what were the reasons for changing?
Yep, that's right. We were originally going to fit the lagoon technology, as they call it, the hydro foil under the pier structure like Surf Snowdonia. And then when we saw the engineering frailties and single points of failure... you know, we went through the due diligence process and both us and our investors decided it was just risky.

We then went back out to the market to see what other tech was in development. We came across Tom Lochtefeld, the grandfather of wave making tech. He had his new system that he wanted to bring to fruition. We wanted to work with him. It's principally the same as the American Wave Systems machine, it's a pneumatic system. But we were struggling to get a full scale prototype built to prove to our investors that the technology worked.

One day, got a call from Wave Garden and they said, 'we've taken on all your concerns from before and we've developed brand new technology, which addresses all your concerns'. Two days later I went out with the investors, saw it, cried [laughs] because it was that 'this is exactly what we need' moment.

The investor who had never surfed before in his life, we got him in the water, within 45 mins to an hour he was racing down the line on a, quite mellow, shoulder-to-head high wave. Yelling, 'where do I sign, let's get this built!' A real pivotal moment when we thought, this is happening. Let's get it.

Sir Ben Skinner, Euro longboard royalty, here, tucking into the test facility in the Basque Country.

Sir Ben Skinner, Euro longboard royalty, here, tucking into the test facility in the Basque Country.

© 2019 - Javi Munoz.

A lot of people are going to be unsure of the differences between Surf Snowdonia and The Wave, The Wave is Wave Garden's brand new state-of-the-art technology. For those who don't know, how would you describe the differences between the two?
If just looking at it from a surfing perspective, it's many more waves per hour being produced. There's been a bit of anxiety from people booking about value for money with waves, are there going to be enough.What the previous technology did was not deliver enough waves.

It's this strange thing where people are putting a currency per wave and I just don't think that's the way to look at this. It should be around the actual experience. Because there's so many waves, people aren't going to be able to catch every single wave we produce for them. I've surfed Wave Garden 20 odd times, waves pass you by because you can't get back to the start again. In terms of an experience and volume of waves, it far exceeds any other technology out there at the moment. But The Cove tech, what we're using in Bristol, is much more ocean-like than Slater's wave in the way it behaves.

The main thing is the authenticity of the wave. Say for example, Slater's wave, you're next to a central pier, it's pushing you away it doesn't feel like the ocean – but it's an incredibly fun wave. But The Cove tech, what we're using in Bristol, is much more ocean-like in the way it behaves.

If you were to close your eyes, it absolutely feels like the real thing. One of the comments with the previous tech was it take a few sessions to get to grips with how it works, it doesn't behave like an ocean wave. Once you've got it dialled, it's good. But you often have to spend £40-50 to get 6-8 waves which do not feel like the ocean. Here though, it absolutely feels like the ocean. Just like the real thing.

Close to the action.

Close to the action.

There's this interesting mindset coming out of artificial waves about value for money. It's the new age of affordability, never do you think about that when driving to the beach. But would you pay £50 odd for guaranteed back-to-back barrels? The answer's always yes, you're paying for an experience. And to have that in Bristol?
Yeah, that's it. Or spending £3k to go to Indo, it's all relative I guess.

And there's more implications here for Olympics here. This could be a training facility that could raise our Olympic hopes. Is there scope for this at The Wave?
Yes, absolutely. I know there's scope for it because it's already in the plans. I am one of the directors of British Surfing and Surfing England, there's conflict of interest there – I've got the place for the training but the high performance and elite athlete side is so important for the way that the sport is moving.

Are they going to get the benefits of it before Japan? Timing's a little bit tight. We're very much looking at this winter onwards to be able to invite a larger, wider pool of the top UK athletes to use this place as a training facility. Getting people comfortable in waves we can create, having this waves, at the press of a button, any time of the day, getting pro coaches to help the athletes tweak their performance.

Where I think it could be interesting is where we have a go to set of manoeuvres you go to. You can see the waves in the ocean setting up and you can think to yourself, 'I know what I need to do here, I've done it 1,000 times at The Wave in Bristol, I know I can punt an air that will get me a 7 or 8 point score', that repetition is key.

This is where we'll see our athletes who usually got 5-6 point rides, go up into the 9s. British surfers do well getting mid-table scores but this could be a game changer, regularly decent waves at a press of the button, two to three hours, back-to-back, that's where we could excel building towards Paris and LA.

Couple of weeks ago we took Lukas Skinner [UK wonder grom and son of longboard champ Ben Skinner] out to the test facility in Spain, put him in a heaving, slabby wave. He went over the falls, popped up and said, that's a legit wave. Two, three waves later, a couple of tips from the side and he started making this really tricky drop and in the end, he was flying through deep, throaty barrels and boosting on an air section. When that wave turns up in competition, he'll know exactly what to do. For him, he said it was some of the best waves he's ever had in his life. I'm excited about the direction here.

And while he's doing that, we'll have other kids in the water, learning to surf, watching Lukas do his thing and he'll be inspiring them, pushing them to want to do better. Really building that grass-roots.

Lukas Skinner.

Lukas Skinner.

© 2019 - Javi Munoz.

This has been an almost 10-year process, what's been some of the most difficult moments to get this from idea to reality?
Trickiest thing, is the frustration of the tech not being quite ready for what we wanted to achieve in the early days. And then the absolute eureka moment when we saw The Cove, the product to fill our aspirations and the aspirations for people who have never surfed before. To deliver that to a mass market, is incredible.

Without a doubt, the hardest, was the investment raising process. The tech wasn't robust nor proven enough. It really made that process tough. It took two and a bit years, speaking to 230 or more investors, each one a dragon's den environment, getting a good old toasting every time [laughs]. Every single person saying this is amazing, the tech looks great but we won't back it yet. Come back to us when you want to build the second one. Take some risks with us! It took two and a bit years, speaking to 230 or more investors, each one a dragon's den environment, getting a good old toasting every time

Every night, coming back to my wife and she would ask, 'how'd the meeting go?' And I'll be like, 'brilliant, they loved it!' Then five or so days later, hearing back from them, they loved it but they're not going to back it. Doing that, every day for two years, that was brutal but we got there.

When the world's best small wave surfer endorses the tech, it's time to take a deeper look.

Let's talk about some of the fun things. When we're talking about types of waves this facility can produce, it's a full spectrum. So what frequency are we talking about here and what types of waves?
Fundamentally, it's like taking a slice out of the ocean.

You've got three different sand banks working. You've got the outer sand bank, or a reef-type wave, where the wave will break further out in deeper water at a bigger height, it's what we're calling a reef wave.

That main advanced wave, we're able to adapt the shape and characteristics of that wave, so we'll end up with a few presets. We can have an open-walled wave, similar to Saunton Sands, easier to surf, lined up, not seriously critical but a nice open wall you can carve off and do some manoeuvres. A really critical, draining wave – somewhere between Porthleven and not quite Teahupoo, but a proper heavy barrel

Then you can ramp it up. We've got an easier barrel mode, which will create a second section barrel, so you can take off, get in the barrel, followed by some open face. It keeps going up to what they're calling the slab and beast mode. A really critical, draining wave – somewhere between Porthleven and not quite Teahupoo, but a proper heavy barrel. Skinner and his son were surprised by how critical that wave was.

We know we're not going to be running that every day, really, it's going to be the day-to-day wave and have to host special sessions for those who want to take a swing at more challenging barrels.

You've then got a reform on the inner reef, which then gives us an intermediate wave, which will be wait to chest high, more a Malibu type wave, something you can cruise on a fun board, an open faced wave you can go down the line on.

Then the wave on the inner section becomes like Waikiki, your crumbly white water with a bit of green face on it, which will be great for beginners to learn on. Maybe some turning but it's your classic white water learner wave.

So within each side of the lake, you can have around 40 people, surfing different waves at different ability levels. Quite close proximity but a safe and manageable distance apart. Much the same as good beaches in Cornwall, head high waves out the back, chest high on the reform and then the white water learners.

Could you run through how that tech works?
Yeah, it's a succession of what they call modules. A series of individual components, each one creates a pulse of energy. It's like a paddle system that creates that energy. We stacked up 40 of them in an array, so we're introducing that pulse at various moments across the wave. The wave is generated then when it starts to trip up and run down the reef, we're adding another pulse of energy every metre or so. You're getting consistent power all the way along the wave until it dies out.

Those 40 modules run for about 80 metres across the lake and that creates enough power and force for the wave to not only peel over the expert, or reef wave, but also creates power for the intermediate and beginner waves too. That's the principle. The great thing about this system is that all the working parts are out of the water, so if anything breaks or needs maintaining, we can do so while the waves continue to work. We can actually lose up to 30 per cent of those modules and there will still be a wave good enough to surf.

If anything broke, it's kind of off the shelf mechanical parts we can get from a multitude of UK suppliers – not like a foil system where if that breaks, you need to shut down. So any down time is reduced from days to just hours – and even then it's unlikely you'll notice it.

So for people coming along to The Wave, you've got a deal with Softech and FCS too as well right?
Yeah, we spoke with some surf schools and the boards were well used and respected. FCS is a natural partner, too.

Perfect, thanks Nick. Tickets are now on sale for The Wave: Bristol and you can buy them HERE.