Saturday, September 03, 2005 | After taking one last glance at a calm and waveless ocean in Mission Beach last week, I placed my feet on a tiny wooden board, with chlorinated water rushing swiftly below, and attempted to stand up on one of San Diego’s artificial waves.
Seconds later, having come nowhere near to reaching my feet, I was rapidly taken up the foam-covered, plastic wall, which gives form to the wave, and was unceremoniously deposited at the end of the ride.
Despite warnings from the staff that my 15 years of experience as a surfer would be of little use on the FlowRider – where the water moves twice as fast as an ocean wave and the boards are tiny – I was still surprised and humbled after an hour that featured almost exclusive failure.
“The easiest way to learn if you are a surfer is not to think about surfing,” said Tom Lochtefeld, the inventor of the FlowRider, and the man responsible for bringing the Wave House to his native San Diego. “That allows your muscles to learn how these boards work, so that new muscle memories are formed,” he said.
Lochtefeld’s second piece of advice concerned the smaller boards.
“Because the boards are so much smaller, foot positioning is absolutely crucial,” he said.
“Up to a quarter-inch can matter, so you need to figure out your perfect stance to succeed.”
The Wave House at Mission Beach may represent the latest frontier of wave riding, and the FlowRider has the potential to allow people all over the world to experience something akin to surfing.
But the roots of the ancient sport exalted an opposite set of values. Hundreds of years ago, surfing was the exclusive domain of Hawaiian royalty, and death by public stoning was the proscribed punishment for any commoner caught riding a noble’s board.
No mere playthings were the enormous wooden boards that gave the power to ride the sea. A board helped to inspire awe in the royal subjects, and was a part of the deadly serious system of taboos that defined the Hawaiian caste system.
Christian missionaries at one point tried to ban surfing in the islands, but the sport of the Hawaiian Kings survived, spreading from Hawaii to California and around the world. Unlikely communities of surfers read the latest surf magazines in Israel, Ireland and beyond.
For those who surf regularly, it is nearly impossible to imagine surfing without the ocean providing the liquid canvas upon which riders use their board to best attempt an expression of their athletic or artistic vision.
For instance, almost every winter night before I plan to surf the next day, I check the Internet to see if a storm in the Gulf of Alaska last week produced large enough swells for good waves the next day, what the wind speed and direction will be at what times, when the tide will be right, and of course, once in the water, I sometimes wonder, is that a shark or dolphin fin?
One can add to those possibilities such a myriad of other natural factors and choices, including what type of break you will surf, that every natural wave ridden will always be different.
San Diego’s coastline provides almost every type of surf break, including rock reefs in La Jolla, such as WindanSea, beach breaks in Del Mar, Oceanside and many other locations, and perfect, cobblestone point-breaks at Trestles, near Camp Pendleton. There’s also a big wave spot not far away, at the island of Todos Santos, just off of Ensenada, Mexico, where you can find waves up to 50 feet in the winter.
However, when summer rolls around and the waves become small or flat for long periods of time, San Diego surfers have a new option at the Wave House.
Although the FlowRider that I experienced was exhilarating, the Wave House also features a new attraction called the Bruticus Maximus, which has a wave that is more than double the size and power.
Those who want to challenge the Bruticus can choose from stand-up boards with straps, stand-up boards with no straps and boogie boards.
The boogie boards are the safest and easiest way to learn artificial wave riding, but if you want to eventually ride standing it is better to start that way.
Although the straps allow for more control, and therefore make riding easier, they can also cause significantly worse injuries since knees and ankles strapped into place are more vulnerable, and the board stays with you, increasing the chance you might collide with it.
Therefore, a beginner is left with a bit of a Catch-22, as straps might lead to a faster pace of learning, but also a torn tendon, meaning no practice and no learning for months.
When I asked the instructors which board to start on, they all said to go without the straps until you can ride somewhat proficiently.
Hopefully, by fall I’ll be strapping on a board and standing.
Edward Graham is a freelance writer living in La Jolla. He has been surfing in Southern California for 15 years.