Wave of the future: An interview with Greg Webber
Greg Webber is part of the famous Webber clan, six surfing brothers who's influence has been felt within the surfing world and also far beyond it. Their collective resume counts the disciplines of design, music, philosophy, videography and many other areas still. For the last decade Greg has been working on his wave pool design and part of the process involves casting his imagination decades forward and understanding how wave pools will revolutionise surfing.
I recently spoke to Greg about how his pools will work and what the results will be. Prepare yourself for a new vision of the future.
Swellnet: Your name has been closely related to wavepools but all I see at the moment is Kelly Slater wavepools, what stage are you up to? Greg Webber: We're ready to build one. That's what stage we are up to. As for Kelly, he's got a design that's similar looking to ours but it's how you create the waves that count. We've just got our US patent granted, as well as patents for China, Japan and Australia, and hopefully all the other countries we've applied for will follow on from the US, which they usually do.
The circular pool with an island isn't that new, so the patent side really relates to the fine details of the wave making method. I guess it's up to you guys to check on whether Kelly has his IP side sorted for his design. It's not for me to say.
SN: I'm guessing that you are aware of the status of Kelly's design? GW: Yep, but can't say. Sorry mate.
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SN: How far from market are you? GW: We're ready right now. And it could be less than two years before the first one is built. Although we've got all manner of investors and developers and brands keen to build they all want to see a pool built before they start spending the big dollars, which is understandable. Even just a small one that makes one and a half metre waves would do.
Fortunately we have a guy who is keen to build one somewhere in Queensland, but not as a business, just for he and his mates. True! I'm not saying he has committed yet, but we've talked and he basically said, "How much will it cost to make two metre waves?" I told him $10 million and he didn't panic. I'm going to take him onto the river to do some wake surfing and see if that swings it.
SN: Would you consider this first one a test run? GW: Sure. For everyone else it will be, but we already know it will work. I've been making these wakes since 2000, and what's been done at the uni in Tassie [Australian Maritime College in Launceston] has been all about honing the thing to get the certainty there. It's like making something work perfectly, then moving one element from side to side and up and down and watching how it all changes. This is how we jumped from one wave per hull to two waves. We did some massive shifts in the opposite direction and boom! Two perfect waves.
These guys down there aren't idiots. They've tested some of the most amazing craft ever built. But above all of that, we'll build some adjustability into the first one so that the first customer will feel totally comfortable. We know we don't need it but it will be a mental thing.
SN: Once the first one is built will it be a stepping stone to a pay-to-use business model? GW: Yeah, it will be and it's going to be pretty cheap per wave. Pools will succeed due to the pool revenue and retail and other incomes combined with it. So there'll be a balancing act with a need to make sure a couple of thousand people a day can get stoked. I'm thinking about $2 for a 20 second ride or $3 for 30 seconds. But really, who knows? If a developer wants to sell properties around a bigger pool, then he might let all the locals at that surf estate surf for free in order to add value to the properties that he's trying to sell. Who knows how it will be used?
SN: What sort of energy will it require? GW: Well it's about 20kw for a 1 metre wave, 90 for a 1.5m wave, and just over 200 for a 2 metre wave. When the wave size doubles the power needed to make that wave goes up by 11 and a bit. That's if you are highly efficient. Because when you double the height of these wake waves, you double height, you double the width and you double the crest length. That's a lot more water, and it's going faster as well. That's 2 times 2 times 2, which is 8, and then you multiply that figure by the square root of 2, which is 1.4 and a bit, which gives you 11 and a bit.
The very fact that you can get 2000 or more surfers a day through the complex with really low running costs means that the returns are going to be pretty amazing. We've been downplaying the figures 'cos they just don't seem realistic. Same as wave heights, we can make 3 metre waves as well, but it's actually worse for us to mention that because it makes the entire concept seem unbelievable. It's better for us to make a smaller pool first, that makes 1.5 metre waves, and then go from there.
It's going to be a business that works all by itself, let alone when you've got developments attached to it whether they're retail or residential. That's why some big money - global players - are looking at it. It's going to work way better than golf course estates because the demographic is going to be way broader. It's so easy to learn on a perfect green faced wave that people will be doing small turns within a day. These pools will create their own customers. These big players just need to see one pool cranking out perfect barrels and there'll be a chain reaction.
SN: You've mentioned wave pools as a branding exercise, can you elaborate? GW: Sure. Surfing sells because it's a lifestyle not just because it's an action sport, and what makes it a lifestyle is what it does to you when you become a surfer - you change a bit. You become addicted to the whole experience and want more of it. So far, the biggest surf clothing companies have dominated purely because they have surf history, so when someone like Nike comes along with no surf history it's harder for them to become cool in the surfing market. You can't fake history so they can buy something with roots, like Hurley for $200 million, or whatever it was, or they can buy the future of what surfing will be - and that future will be creating waves.
When you create perfect surfing locations then you have created perfect surf retail locations. Surf retail will have to follow. So whoever dominates pool building will dominate retail. It will get very competitive.
The branding side will come not from selling the past or talking up the future, but purely from providing the moment. The future is selling people the moment, and other than sex, surfing probably gives the next best 'moments'. The moments you have when you're riding a wave, those moments are to do with being present, and they are the best therapy you can ever get. You cant think of anything else at all when you're in the moment of surfing.
These things are going to put perspective on branding exercises. I don't give a damn about who makes money out of it. I'm much happier to see a future that will have a vast number getting stoked as often as possible. It will shift us away from materialism, ironically, because experience is the future, not Facebook. Experiencing and doing stuff will negate the need to have this overt connection with everyone else on the planet.
Imagine you've never surfed and you're in a pool of a certain brand on a beautifully designed beginners board of the same brand, and you stand up for the first time in your life. Within minutes, on a gentle but faultless green-faced wave you're doing your first turns, with your mates on the edge hooting. You're in that pool of a certain brand and the logo of that company will be in front of your face on that board during that entire experience. And then the exact same thing will happen again with your first tube ride. These are powerful moments.
The board is your link to the wave, and so it becomes an emotional thing. It's more tangible than the wave pool itself. You can hold a board and even love the thing when there's a good match between the two of you. So when the pool brand name is linked to the board, then all that association goes with you when you leave the pool, with your board under you arm, or in the back of your car or even at home in your room. It's personal.
SN: You're expecting profound changes I imagine? GW: For sure. Surfing in the pools will be totally different to how it is at the beaches. There will be no hassling anymore. Imagine what it's like for 90% of surfers who very rarely get the best set waves at their local break when it gets really good. What am I talking about? They never get the best set waves when it's cranking 'cos the top 10% get all the set waves and have enough time to paddle back out and get the very next set. This happens from dawn to dusk in the urban surfing areas the world over, where the vast majority of surfers live.
In the pools there might be hundreds of people but because you are paying your $2 to $3 it's your wave and nobody else's. If there are ten waves in the pool, then ten surfers ride for 30 seconds, and then the next ten, till 4 and half minutes later you get your next 30 second ride. And in one hour you'll get 12 of them.
This is why it's crap to say surfing is for free. Yeah it's free for a tiny minority to dominate. It's a free and crowded hassle, which I'm OK with, cos it's human to compete for your spot in the hierarchy. I've done that too and still do, having learned at Bondi and Angourie, but for the vast majority this will feel way more relaxing. It's not free money wise, obviously, but it will be stress free. Now there is a choice, that's all.
SN: What about equipment? Can you see changes happening there? GW: For sure. There'll be no need to have all the high volume boards like mals and SUPs. Beyond that, experimentation will go nuts and surfers will be able to try amazing new concepts without even having to buy them. Again, if the surf pool owner is linked to a world class designer and surfboard brand, or they buy their own designer and make him theirs, then the pool name is enhanced by the famous surfboard shaper by association. It will really add to their brand image.
Imagine it: (1) stand up for the first time, (2) feel the wave under you feet, (3) get tubed, (4) ride some amazing shapes that blow you away. Imagine riding all the unusual stuff that you would never risk buying for yourself. Let alone the idea of making your own board on site, which is also quite doable. Do it with the head designer who guides you with the shaping program, then watch it get shaped and UV cure glassed, so it can be sanded by the arvo for you to ride all within 6 hours of bending curves on the shaping program. Geez, you could even put a mask on and take the grooves out of the machined blank so that you've at least touched it yourself!
This is all fun and the pool owners will have to compete to bring in customers so all sorts of new stuff will happen. And of course other sports will be added over time. Imagine circular spiraling skate ramps that are created on outer rings outside the surfing pool. Or motor cross tracks on another ring outside that, and cart racing, even cycling and athletic tracks make sense. Probably not horse racing though! But you never know. One thing for sure is that you'd want to be able to alternate between directions or you'd go nuts.
SN: You've got an all-encompassing view: from design of the wave pools, to the boards we'll use and then how it will be sold. GW: I hope I have. I worked out the basic method in december 2004 so the last seven years of my life have been thinking about the consequences of it all happening, while my surf engineer mates have worked for nothing and the uni on grant moneys. Selling it requires having it make sense on the big scale, and proving it can not only work, but work well and make money. So I've had to think about all of the consequences.
Even competing will change. Imagine holding an international event with identical pools in ten countries around the world. Seeing that the waves are identical, you could have each surfer ride their wave at exact moments, in different pools, all scheduled and timed so that the top ranked surfer from China for example could ride his wave, and then have the number one surfer from India follow on only a few seconds later.
This would mean an entire event could be run at a high speed rate, one ride after the other, in way less time, all over the world. You'd have audiences at all of those pools around the world as well as an online worldwide audience at the same time. It'd be nuts! And the judging would start to make sense cos the random nature of the ocean would be gone. Wave shape and ride length would be identical so the medium can be standardised. Even makes the Olympics possible.
Random is nice when freesurfing with no crowds, but it has solely had more to do with surfing results than skill ever has. Surfers win heats because the other surfer loses the heat through not getting a good enough second ride. Skill is 30% while wave type is 70%. Skill will still win out over a long enough tour but from heat to heat waves decide results.
In wavepools that gamble is over, and the stress of scrambling and hoping for the best wave of the heat is also over. If Kelly had had all of his 11 world titles in wavepools he wouldn't have just won all 11 titles, he would have won every heat! I hope wavepools actually take the contests away from nature, it's the opposite of what surfing is about anyway. Then there could just be freesurfing performances at the best breaks in the world, but no need for a winner. Way nicer.
SN: Both yourself and Kelly are at the vanguard of wave pool design, do you consider yourself in any way like him. GW. Geez, not really. Not as people, he's way more dedicated and driven than I am. I'm fucking lazy compared to him. I love designing but not shaping. At 22 I went to uni so that I didn't have to shape boards anymore. That's how much I didn't want to shape. I actually wanted to make artificial reefs and wavepools but I chose the wrong uni for oceanography and had to change to Sydney Uni.
But I still didn't have the patience to wade through the basic science degree, so I dropped out and went back to shaping. I'm too impatient. I remember asking a third year student about these striations and patterns on an aerial photograph of the ocean somewhere, and he said, "Don't bother asking about that stuff now, you'll get to it in third year." I was shattered. I wanted to make stuff right now. I think Kelly would have just kept trying. But then again, surfing is his work not wading through a whole semester of statistics, which was what I was told to go back to.
Overall though, I guess we're both pretty experimental. And maybe seeing the future too. He's imagined turns that have never been made and I've imagined boards that had never been made, so we're a bit similar in that way. He probably does a better job of hiding his ego too. But as for the pools, he has done me a massive favour by giving credibility to the design in a way I could never have done. I've always wanted to shape boards for him, so maybe if we can work on the pools together then I can make him some boards at last!