Monday, October 19, 2009

Star Wars and the Surf Park: Waking Up from the American Dream

In early August 2006 I signed up for the waiting list at the Ron Jon surfpark in Orlando Florida. I was number 5166 on the list, with little chance of actually getting a membership in the first few years (only the lucky first 2000 could expect that); but I was thrilled anyway. It seemed like a kind of utopia to me. I toured the “Virtual Park” whenever I was on-line, giving new meaning to the concept of ‘surfing’ the net. I scrolled up from the learner’s pool (three foot waves, beginners only) to the advanced pool., where six to eight foot swells would be generated every six seconds, and the bottom could be re-contoured in a matter of minutes to imitate any break in the world, from the gentlest to the most radical. Along the way I paused to appreciate the restaurant, the bandstand (they were going to have concerts, too – maybe even the Beach Boys!) and the tiled channel that allowed you to paddle back out into the ‘line up’ at the far end of the pool, without bothering other surfers or struggling with the white water from broken waves. As someone who is frequently forced back to the beach on big days by wall after wall of churning water, this felt like the perfect final detail, the linen hankerchief in the breast pocket of a suit hand-tailored just for me. In the surfpark world you waited with the other five or six people in your group and took turns riding waves. I did the math --the longest you had to wait was 36 seconds. I’ve waited an hour for a wave, sitting in the ocean with all those jelly fish and sharks and kelp and other icky manifestations of the real world. The surfpark would get rid of all that. Clear water, lightly salted (served to order like a steak at Applebees); no sea life to squelch underfoot or bite or sting. I did more math. I could catch more waves in one session at the park than I’d caught in a year surfing the old fashioned way, in the ocean. My carpenter friend laughed at me. The whole point of surfing was appreciating the actual ocean – just being there. That was what made our sport unique. “No one ever sat around for hours staring at a baseball diamond,” he said.

Besides, there were to many moving parts, it was too complex, it would never work. He’d check the plans before he started building – any good carpenter would.

I ignored his Luddite cynicism. I dropped the subject. But I was still enthusiastic. The e-mail confirming my status invited me to keep track of the surfpark progress on their website, and I did.

It was slow. There were setbacks. The place was going to open in March and then June and then September; in 2007 and then in 2008.

Well, it’s 2009 now and the dream is dead.

The people who put millions into the place lost everything and it’s doubtful anyone else will try to build a surfpark for decades now. What went wrong? Everything went wrong. Water sloshing off the sides of the pool ruined every wave but the first one. The bottom contour-changing machinery was slow and cumbersome and made no difference, anyway. Most damning, the pool itself was only twenty yards wide. This fact sticks in my mind because even during my initial infatuation with the idea, the width of the pool set off a small alarm. But I figured I just wasn’t bright enough to fully imagine the set-up, even with the virtual tour. I forgot about it but I shouldn’t have, and neither should the park designers. For non-surfers, I’ll be brief: You don’t ride a wave straight in toward the beach. You slide parallel to the beach, across the face of the wave. Even an unsatisfying Nantucket shorebreak close-out takes you twenty yards. The pool would have to be as wide as the length of a football field to approximate a really good ride on the kind of waves they claimed they could manufacture.

So the whole enterprise was doomed from the start, but no one wanted to admit it.

I have to say, it all felt very familiar. In fact it felt like a classic American moment. So many of our big plans have come to nothing lately. The Bradley mini-tank,(twigs clogged the treads: no one took it off-road for a test drive?) the Star-Wars defense system (Ever trying shooting a bullet with another bullet?) that put our national security into the hands of computers (How often have the computers been down when you go to the bank? And that’s just for basic arithmetic). Or go bigger – The Iraq war we botched, the Afganistan war we’re botching., the Iran war we’re eargerly looking forward to botching in the near future with the same mixture of hope, hubris and blinkered, irrational optimism. We’re “can do” people! We watch Oprah. We build it and assume they’ll come. We believe in “The Secret” which boils down to wishing makes it so.

But it desn’t.

I haven’t mentioned any of this to my carpenter friend, but I know what he’ll say: They should have checked the plans. And his other mantra: measure twice, cut once.

But that stuff is for realists. And we haven’t been realists since the Eisenhower Administration. We’ll always go for the shiny treat, the quick fix, the cool gimmick that’s too narrow, too incapable of dealing with the chaos its orderly solution creates.

I feel it in myself, the national virus. I’m ready to sign up for the next surfpark right now (I’ll be higher on the waiting list this time), and no one has even been dumb enough to suggest it yet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

check out and These guys are well into the design and construction of at least 3 surfing wave pools and sick new standing wave concepts. Even better, check out Waveyard on Facebook. Their concepts are far beyond where surfparks ever was.