Waves of Illusion
Surf / January 22, 2014

Nashua, NH. Thirty minutes north of Boston, hugging the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border. What surf relevance does this frost-ridden township bear? If curiosity is poking, prodding and just won’t let the question free, the answer is “none”. No surf culture or surf scene whatsoever. Absolutely none. That was until an adrenaline-seeking couple aligned their sights with a company by the name of American Wave Machines, forerunner in manmade wave technology. The confluence of these two parties has resulted in what is the largest river wave replica in North America. Housed under the roof of Surf’s Up New Hampshire, this machine is 40’ wide x 75’ long and is capable of moving 200,000 gallons of water per minute. Four municipal sewer pumps thrust a one foot sheet of water along preformed sections of fiberglass molds to project multiple wave configurations and heights. The complete atmosphere within the park is a fabricated surreal-ness. Tropical blues, palms shipped in from the more equatorial situated regions, a waterfall adorned with Amazon inspired vegetation, and a retractable glass roof are all features that  are distinctly contrasting to the fabric of New Hampshire. Whats more, theres a surfable wave within the walls of this illusion.

Michael and I were invited to test out this wave before the park opened its doors back in November. After having experienced surfing an artificial wave, I was evoked with deepened curiosity as to how the physics compare to the real thing.


Wave Dynamics: Natural vs. Artificial

The major difference between a real ocean wave and this artificial wave is rather apparent. A natural wave is essentially a column of energy progressing forward through the ocean. Once this column moves into continuously shallower water it gets compressed, the front edge of the column slows causing the trailing edge, which is moving marginally faster, to move on top, ultimately cresting. Its man-made brethren is more of a horizontal plane of water pushed against a fiberglass form, assuming the shape of this form. A form with more steepness equates to a wave with more steepness. The way a surfer increases momentum is by aiming the surfboard in the direction of the downward slope of the wave. This is true in both the natural and artificial wave.

Reactive & Static

Interaction between the participant and wave is essentially the foundation of surfing. This is what makes the sport a sport.  The two different styles of waves can be categorized as a reactive and a static relationship. In a natural wave ecosystem, the surfer is constantly reacting to the form and speed of the wave. For example, as the face of the wave becomes more vertical, the surfer must adjust the pitch of the surfboard to account for the steepness. This unpredictable mutation calls on split second decision making. Comparatively, in the wave pool, a static relationship is seen. The wave face itself doesn’t change its shape while a surfer is riding. Therefore elongated premeditation can take place before each action, akin to that of Bobby Fischer.


In an open environment wave there are two forces that act on the surfer which creates momentum. One is the force of gravity. As the surfer moves from the top of the wave to the bottom the force of gravity is acting to increase the rate of speed. The other force is the speed of the wave itself. With these two combined forces, surfers can reach speeds in excess of 20mph. On the other hand, in the wave pool, there is only one momentum force acting on the surfer; the force of gravity. There is no forward wave speed. Because of this, and a few other factors, speeds on this wave cannot be attained that are seen in the ocean. This directly relates to the scope of maneuvers that are allowed in the pool and there are some  that Sir Isaac Newton just won’t allow. Speed along with the fact that the water is flowing quickly in the backwards direction make it impossible to do things like a full cutback or a roundhouse. Snaps, semi-carves, Christian Fletcher style airs, gaffs, and getting barreled are all allowed.

Surfing the artificial wave was much more fun than I had originally anticipated. Going into this whole journey, I was skeptical. Convinced that the novelty of surfing an artificial wave would last for about seven minutes, where I would then retire to the nearest pawn shop in search of the biggest rifle I could find. But, I was wrong. This wave had me captivated for days. There’s this unusualness about surfing indoors that had me by the cojones. Its unusualness fused with slight egotistical preoccupation with yourself that makes this wave really cool. You are the only person in the world surfing a wave, set in a landlocked town, within a gigantic human terrarium. Not only was it cool, I also fine-tuned my pumping and gaffing faculties. I must hand it to the guys down at American Wave Machines. They have brought surfing in non-ocean environments to reality, which before, was just an abstract concept in the mind. It takes a lot of work to bring the first generation of anything to mass-market. And, although the device may not be perfected yet for advanced surfing, it surely is for those who want to learn surfing at its fundamental level. And from an economical standpoint, thats all that matters now. Introduce a great sport to this demographic who was once deprived of the opportunity to take part. Its a recipe that will mix up a large sum of cash. A sum that even Latrell Sprewell would have trouble burning through.

Differences can be seen in the two wave types. The dynamics of each form of wave are causal to the style of interaction that occurs while riding. Real ocean wave surfing is something that requires rapid thought-processing due to its unpredictability and this world of acute decision making is what surfing is all about; something that is almost impossible to replicate.

michael powell surfing surf nashua new hampshire american wave machines artificial wave class on tap P1200050Edit470 P1200346Edit374

Photos: Travis Varga

ESPN article on the pool

#American Wave Machines#Artificial Wave#Bobby Fischer#ESPN#Latrell Spreewell#Nashua#New Hampshire#physics 101


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