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FOUR SEASONS: FAKE PLASTIC WAVES

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 14 January 2012

ON THE ALMOST perpetually sunny island of Tenerife, situated just inland from the clubbers’ paradise of Playa de Las Americas, is Siam Park – home to the world’s biggest artificial wave. Under normal circumstances the park attendants keep the waves in what they call “the Wave Palace” at around the 5ft mark, but if they push the right buttons and pull the right levers they can create breakers up to 10ft high. These swells come lurching out from behind an exotic, temple-like structure at one end of the pool (why the park is Thai-themed is anyone’s guess) and peel perfectly for a good hundred metres or so, breaking either from right to left or left to right, depending on the preference of the King Neptune wannabes in the control room. The water is warm, the air is warm, and the waves allow for at least three solid bottom turn/top turn combos every time. It sounds like surfer heaven, only it isn’t, and here’s why.

For a start, you have to pay to get in – a not inconsiderable E32 a pop. That gets you access to all the other rides in the park as well, mind you, including the Mekong Rapids and the mighty Tower of Power, but still – if you’re a surfer, chances are you won’t be here for the waterslides. Then there’s the issue of crowding. The video of the Wave Palace on the Siam Park website shows a good couple of hundred people all trying to body-surf the waves at the same time. Chances of getting a wave to yourself? Precisely zip. Oh, and did I mention you’re not allowed to bring a surfboard to the park during normal opening hours? The only way you get to surf these waves is if you’re prepared to cough-up big bucks for an after-hours session.

That’s what the folks at surf clothing label Volcom did recently for some of the junior members of their pro team, filming the results and posting them online. Watching these talented little grommets taking it in turns to pick off dream-like head-high waves will induce serious fits of jealousy in most surfers at first, but after a while another emotion will likely take over: boredom.

True, it’s possible to fiddle with the size of the waves in the Wave Palace, and also to change how they break, but there are only so many possible permutations. The Volcom film lasts for a little under four minutes, but whether you’re a surfer or not, chances are you’ll start to lose interest at around about the half-way mark. Why? Because the whole point of surfing is to take something random and chaotic – the sea – and try to make some sort of sense out of it. Watching people surf the same wave over again is about as exciting as watching anglers pull koi carp out of an ornamental pond. Yes, it still takes a degree of skill, but it soon becomes a bit predictable. Eleven-time surfing world champ Kelly Slater is currently working on a wave pool of his own. It’ll be interesting to see how much unpredictability he manages to build into the design.

The irony of the Wave Palace is that it’s little more than a stone’s throw from some very good real-life surf breaks. La Izquierda or Spanish Left in Las Americas is a classic, although usually very crowded, and further south, towards Los Christianos, there’s a lovely little reef that I once lost a chunk of surfboard to back when I was less risk-averse. The waves at these places aren’t perfect all the time but that’s all part of the fun. Suffering through the flat days and the small days and the wind’s-blowing-the-wrong-way days makes those rare perfect sessions even sweeter.

One man who made predicting perfect days a whole lot easier was Ken Collins, founder of the groundbreaking Surfline forecasting service, who died of a heart attack just after Christmas at the age of 59. It seems hard to imagine now, but before Collins came along, surfers had no real way of knowing when the next swell was going to hit. If they heard there were waves at their local beach they’d simply drop everything and go. Now, of course, it’s possible to find out what the waves are going to do a couple of days in advance, sometimes more. So thanks for helping us organise our lives better Ken. Who knows? One day a surfer might even become president. No wait – that’s happened already.

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