By Jim Benning
Los Angeles Times
As I studied the 5-foot-tall artificial wave known as the FlowRider outside San Diego’s Wave House Athletic Club, I thought: Riding this will be too easy. I will rip and tear this wave to smithereens. I will carve wicked turns and school all the kooks around me in the lost art of shredding.
Sure, I’d just signed a form stating that “riding may result in the flow of water picking you up and pitching you head-over-heels.” And yes, one veteran rider with a substantial lip piercing had warned, “It’s tougher than it looks.” But over the last decade I’d surfed tasty waves from Central America to Indonesia. How hard could riding a fake wave be?
As a dozen spectators, five FlowBoarders and a lifeguard looked on, I stepped onto a board at the edge of the swimming-pool-sized, foam-padded box and pushed myself onto the stationary wave. I crouched low, feeling a rush of white water under me. Then, as I was about to rip my first turn, I fell flat on my back. In a blur, I shot up the wave and straight into a foam wall, ejected. It was I who’d been schooled.
Riding the FlowRider is indeed harder than it looks. The machine at Mission Beach’s Belmont Park, one of nearly 50 of varying sizes around the world, shoots a thin layer of water over an incline composed of taut fabric. The resulting wave can be ridden prone on a bodyboard, which is the easiest way, or standing on a foam-padded fiberglass board roughly the shape of a big skateboard. Up to 10 riders take turns at a time.
A small cadre of hard-core stand-up enthusiasts has evolved around the machines, including snowboarders and wakeboarders, surfers and skateboarders. Most beginners need at least a few hours of wipeouts before they begin to feel proficient. Even professional surfers can struggle to catch on. The bottom is soft, but riders sometimes fall hard, emerging with bumps and strains.
“It’s unlike anything you’ve ever done,” says Brian Crecely, 20, who rides the wave five days a week. “It’s addictive.”
On its face, the idea of building artificial wave machines located only steps away from real waves sounds preposterous. Charging $20 or more an hour to ride them recalls the old joke about selling refrigerators to Eskimos.
The scene around the FlowRider is surreal. Tourists while away their time watching riders on the fake wave, ignoring surfers gliding across real waves nearby. It’s only a matter of time before a graduate student works up a doctoral thesis on the phenomenon: “Post-Modern Recreation and Meta-Surfing in the Age of NutraSweet.”
The irony isn’t lost on the wave’s creator.
“It’s totally absurd,” admits Thomas J. Lochtefeld, 52, chuckling.
A die-hard La Jolla surfer who has ridden some of the globe’s best breaks, Lochtefeld co-founded the Raging Waters theme parks in 1983. After he left as chief executive, he saw the potential for a wave attraction and soon began dragging hoses into his jumbo bathtub to experiment with designs.
“My wife thought I was nuts,” he says.
He knew he’d have to build gentle waves for families, but the surfer in him yearned to create powerful waves that put the wimpy swells found in many wave pools to shame. Thus, the FlowRider was born. And next month, it will have a bigger, meaner cousin: Bruticus Maximus.
On June 16, the $2-million Bruticus Maximus machine, which spent several years touring the world, will open adjacent to the Mission Beach boardwalk, complete with concert-style sound and lighting effects. Rivaled only by a sister machine in Durban, South Africa, Bruticus Maximus offers a free-standing wave 9 feet tall that enables riders to get completely covered by the curl — the Holy Grail of surfing. Compared with the smaller FlowRider, which offers a more gentle Waikiki-style wave, Bruticus Maximus is the Banzai Pipeline.
Strolling onto the oceanfront site where the wave’s framework is rising, Lochtefeld is equal parts mad scientist, giddy surfer and shrewd entrepreneur. He points to the machine’s water pumps, discussing “force potential” and “super critical sheet flow.” He crouches low where the curl will form, his eyes gleaming. Then he looks out at the spectator area, with its thatched-roof bar and hanging hammocks, and invokes the importance of “ancillary revenue models.”
With Bruticus Maximus and its commercial spectator zone, Lochtefeld has tried to package the California dream in a lot the size of a football field. If it’s profitable, he says, he’ll export similar operations to spots around the globe, including Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
He’ll get his first indication during the opening festivities next month, when veteran riders will perform dazzling flips and spins. I’ll be watching from the bar, a margarita in hand, nursing my bruised ego.