A Tale of Two Pools
Wavepool news doesn't sell like it used to.
Back in 2014 the mere mention of the word would ignite a comment thread longer than a Proclaimers song.
But these days..?
I get sent press releases on the reg and more often than not pass them off. Seems other editors do too, save for Bryan Dickerson over at Wave Pool Mag who has a bit of an interest in nocean news. His site includes a graphic representation of the Earth with each new pool or proposal marked with a red circle, the effect not unlike a growing nuclear warhead count.
Recent news, however, has got me wondering about a coming clash, and also about the viability of one of the OG pool concepts versus the more dynamic upstarts.
Last week, subscribers to regional media on the Sunshine Coast would have read about the latest wavepool development at the foot of the Glass House Mountains. Digging through council DA's, Sunshine Coast News reported that Surf Parks Australia have employed development consultants, Project Urban, to build a wavepool using American Wave Machine technology - i.e the same tech as Waco, Texas.
If this news is a surprise to people, it can be explained by, firstly, rereading my opening stanza, and secondly, noting the previous story on the development was published on December 24th while you and I were full of Christmas spirit, and lastly, understanding that American Wave Machines are notorious press-dodgers.
An example of this is their recent Japanese pool which evaded all manner of fanfare despite being noteworthy on many levels. It was built on a site measuring less than 1 hectare - approx. 75m wide x 150m long, see image below - in only 13 months, and it's strategically positioned to act as an Olympic training pool.
Despite all this, there was no prior news - not even in Wave Pool Mag - before the pool was opened, displaying both the dynamism and stealth of American Wave Machines.
It also explains the stonewalling I received when enquiring about the Sunshine Coast development.
What I do know is that their Sunshine Coast site is on 13.5 hectares of land to the northwest of the Bruce Highway, Johnston Street intersection. Earlier this century, the land had been approved for a theme park that never went ahead. It's now being used for agriculture. For those unfamiliar, the Bruce Highway is the main thoroughfare from Brissy to the Sunny Coast so it has exceptional exposure.
In fact, a quick look at the American Wave Machines Instagram feed shows this may be a favourable layout. Their recently announced (after it was approved, more stealth) wavepool at New Smyrna Beach, Florida, is almost identical in layout, sitting adjacent to a highway overpass junction.
They even have matching nutritional offerings: at New Smyrna it's adjacent to a Burger King, while on the Sunny Coast there's a choice of Maccas or Bubba's Diner.
Not that wavepool punters will have to sup from a greasy spoon. Like most ventures, the pool will value add with its own eatery. In this case a "paddock to plate" restaurant, which for me conjures images of horse manure and fly-blown sheep but might work for some people.
The pool itself is 315m long and 92m wide, making it larger than the whole site for the Japanese pool and roughly twice the size of the pool in Texas.
Yet the American Wave Machines development is dwarfed in size and cost by the Kelly Slater Wave Company (KSWC) proposal for Coolum. First floated in 2019, the ambitious project ostensibly creates its own master-planned suburb, including:
- 700 metre long wave
- 20,000 seat stadium
- 6-star surf-lodge
- hotel and apartments
- Indigenous cultural experience centre
- residential development
- paddock to plate cuisine (again!) and other food and beverage experiences;
- vast green public spaces and public waterways; and
- an environmental experience centre
All set on 529 hectares of fertile flood plain.
When Kelly Slater unveiled his Lemoore wave back in 2015, most pundits expected numerous tubs to be dug and quickly, yet six years later it remains the lone lagoon.
At issue is financial viability. When KSWC engineers got the wave rate down from fifteen minutes to six it was considered quite the feat but when new players such as Surf Lakes are boasting of 200 waves every six minutes the KSWC biz model falls apart like an Airfix on a test flight.
At $55K a day it's acceptable for moguls and trustafarians, but it's a difficult to concept to scale, especially beyond the reach of Silicon Valley executives. Hence KSWC pools are being sold with excessive value adds to underpin their loss leading fun ride, but all of which bring their own set of obstacles. For one, the cost is exorbitant. The KSWC Coolum project has been projected at costing between $100 million and $1.24 billion depending on which press release you read, and who they're trying to impress.
More striking is the footprint needed to house the KSWC wave and its associated value adds. The pool itself is large, however with a wave rate that will never pay for itself, costs need to be recovered by planting the pool within a larger 'community'. And that means even more land.
As mentioned, the Coolum site is 529 hectares, though apparently 375 hectares will remain wetlands. The remaining 154 hectares will be developed, which still makes the footprint more than ten times that of American Wave Machines, and therein lay the hurdles.
With coastal land at a premium, and further soaring since COVID, large-scale developments such as KSWC will struggle to pass muster. And it's not just a matter of cost; as more people move to the coast, issues of land use come to the fore. More people mean more stakeholders - or to put it another way, more backyards that people don't want a development in.
The Coolum wavepool may well get over the line - right now, post-COVID stimulus is giving them an economic tailwind - but the limitations of the elephantine KSWC model are laid bare. How many locations can realistically house a sprawling, all-encompassing development just to underwrite an ocean facsimile?
The future of wavepools - if indeed there is one - is small, nimble, and adaptable.