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Making Waves


Making Waves

Grab your board. Surf’s up – forever.

By Jon Cohen

Tom Lochtefeld, a ball-capped, lanky 47-year-old, stands on a bluff watching the waves pound a small, storied cove in La Jolla, California. He props his bearded chin between a thumb and index finger and slowly taps it, evaluating the surf variables. A powerful northwesterly swell from a storm that churned the Gulf of Alaska five days ago rolls in full force.

Directly beneath the bluff is Simmons Reef, and it can’t handle today’s thick swell. The lone surfer out there is getting spanked big time. A little farther south, at Windansea, the break that Tom Wolfe celebrated three decades ago in The Pump House Gang, the swell is coming in at the wrong angle. Consequently there’s nothing to surf – and no one out there. Even farther down the coast, but still in view, lies Big Rock – and Big Rock’s been firing all morning. Even though the waves have a beautiful shape, there have been only about half a dozen guys on them at any given time. By my estimate, it’s well worth a quick session.

Lochtefeld just taps his chin. He looks at his oversize Swatch watch – one of the new ones that keeps “Internet Time” on a clock from 000 to 999 – and then back out at the ocean. Finally, he decides the tide has dropped too low; the waves are losing their composure, falling short of Lochtefeld’s high standards: “We should have gone out earlier.”

A good wave is hard to find; a good, empty wave, even harder. This is the existential woe of surfers, but it’s also a real problem. There are anywhere from 1 million to 2 million surfers and fewer than 100 great surf spots around the world. On good days (and most days aren’t) these spots are jammed, and you have to fight to get a wave to yourself – often facing down the hostile local hotshots who intimidate newcomers. Even once you’re riding a wave, you frequently have to slalom through the crowd, and accidents are not uncommon. Between bad vibes and the threat of injury, the soulful aspect of surfing disappears. And this is why Lochtefeld may soon be hailed as some kind of prophet, for he has created one technology, and champions another, that has the potential to generate artificial waves even a surfer could love.

The first innovation is the Flow Rider, a land-based machine Lochtefeld invented in the late 1980s and has been refining ever since. Installed in more than 20 water parks around the globe, the Flow Rider shoots thousands of gallons of water a second up a padded, sharply angled slope while thrill seekers ride the torrent on bodyboards. The Flow Rider has made for a decent business, too. Each new Flow Rider means on average a seven-figure contract to Lochtefeld and his company WaveLoch. They are developing Flow Riders for a Taiwanese shopping mall, a water park in the United Arab Emirates, and a proposed oceanfront amusement park at San Diego’s Mission Beach.

Now, with funding from Swatch, Wave Loch has built a $2 million mobile Flow Rider to popularize a radical new sport: flowboarding. With flowboarding, you actually stand up on a snowboard-shaped piece of compressed foam and surf the Flow Rider. Lochtefeld has not yet offered flowboarding to the public (for liability reasons, he hires talent to demonstrate it), but he hopes the Swatch Flow Rider, on tour this summer in Europe, will drum up excitement and more sponsorship – outside of Norway. For some reason, the Norwegians were the first to take an interest in the new sport, and they currently host the only annual flowboarding contest. Next summer Lochtefeld plans to offer flowboarding to the public in San Diego, and Swatch intends to showcase it in Sydney at the 2000 Olympic Games.

At the same time, Lochtefeld is pushing for the development of artificial reefs, like the one coastal engineer Dave Skelly wants to build off the coast of Los Angeles, about 500 yards from the beach at El Segundo. Skelly’s controversial plan calls for sinking massive bags of sand that will sit on the ocean floor and form a V-shaped wall. As ocean swells approach the shore, they will hit the V and form a surfable break. It is an expensive and technically formidable proposition. In fact, if Skelly succeeds – he’s set to begin construction in September – his will be the first artificial surfing reef in the United States and only the second in the world, trailing the one designed by Cahri Pattartchi of the University of Western Australia and completed Down Under last spring.

Lochtefeld, for one, thinks Skelly can pull it off. What’s more, he envisions creating resorts wherever it’s appropriate to build surfing reefs. “It’s all doable,” he says.

Wave Loch world headquarters is five people in a roomy attic atop Lochtefeld’s remodeled home. Through a large dormer window there’s a tantalizing view of Simmons Reef, Windansea, and Big Rock.

Lochtefeld sits behind a desk on a raised platform, talking steadily on a telephone headset and looking out over his four assistants. (His desk-on-a-dais, an assistant explains, is positioned in accordance with feng shui.) It’s clear he’s enjoying his success. In addition to all the Flow Riders, he’s consulting on a surfable wave in a pool at the new Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, and he’s tinkering with a number of seemingly absurd but functional prototypes for surfable waves.

On a VCR in the office, Lochtefeld cues up footage of these works in progress. The first involves reconfiguring the stern of a boat so its wake gives up a surfable wave. “It has promise,” he says, “but it’s going to need more R&D.”

“The goal has always been to surf real waves,” says Lochtefeld. That’s “real” as in “real man-made.”

Next, he shows off his water sled. When it’s towed across a lake or shot down a submerged track, the sled displaces water into a tiny, flawless, tubing wave. It’s a great shape, but it’s tailor-made for a Lilliputian.

Then there’s his latest invention, a device that looks like a wing from a model airplane. When it’s pushed through the water, it forms a luscious, drop-dead-gorgeous wave – except that the waves, too, stand only a few inches tall. “You know that on waves like this, surfers would go nutzo,” Lochtefeld says. “It’s just a matter of scaling it up.”

Scaling up is precisely what has frustrated many makers of artificial waves. Several theme parks, from the multimillion-dollar Ocean Dome in Japan to Walt Disney World’s Typhoon Lagoon in Orlando, have made waves in giant pools by using gates to create surges of water. But this approach – basically a sophisticated, horizontal version of a toilet flush – has failed to impress. The waves simply aren’t big enough or long enough, and without critical mass, these pool waves re-create – at best – the conditions of a mediocre day at an average California surf spot.

Considering what would-be wave makers are up against, it’s no surprise. Beautifully shaped, natural waves are the result of the right-sized swell coming from the right direction and rolling over the right bottom during the right level of tide when the wind is just right. None of these variables is easily reproduced – much less in combination.

At the same time, what constitutes optimal surf is highly subjective, though surfers agree on some of the qualities waves must have to be rated worthwhile. “Organization” is one. Ideally you want the whitewater to scroll across the wave sequentially, evenly, the way a zipper unzips. Surfers also value height and length – the taller and longer the wave, the longer the ride. The speed of the break matters, too. Steeper waves have advantages of their own: When the crest of a steep wave breaks, it forms a cylinder, offering surfers the exhilaration of riding under the wave’s lip and getting “tubed.” Best of all, surfers love it when there’s no wind or a light wind is blowing into the waves, which holds up the lip and helps hollow out the wave.

Surprisingly, many theme parks start out with a major handicap: They don’t bother to hire surfers to tell them any of this. Consequently, ambitious plans for killer waves result in soft-breaking, slow-moving “mushburgers” that rarely, if ever, tube. One professional surfer aptly compared the experience of surfing Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon to riding a bike with a flat tire. Fortunately, the Flow Rider’s stationary (long-lasting), fast, and windless wave is changing all this.

The inspiration for the Flow Rider came to Lochtefeld in 1987 while he was watching a particularly hard-breaking La Jolla surf spot, Black’s. He noted, as if for the first time, that the water appeared to travel up the breaking wave. (Water doesn’t actually flow up a wave, but it seems to as the wave surges forward.) Not long after that, a second lightbulb clicked on while he was surfing Big Rock. As with many hollow, steep waves, Big Rock breaks over a shallow reef, yet surfers ride it without scraping bottom. This highlighted another salient but little-discussed fact: Surfing takes place in the top few inches of water. Coupling these two insights, Lochtefeld began toying with the idea that he could make a surfing wave by shooting a thin sheet of water up a curved surface.

At the time, Lochtefeld had already switched careers, from real estate law to building elaborate water parks called Raging Waters. The parks did well, but, Lochtefeld notes, “There was no surfing attraction in any water park that a surfer would find good. And I knew what the demand would be.” He kept toying with his sheet-wave technology, using his bathtub, his swimming pool, and then one of his water parks as labs. Eventually, he enlisted the help of legendary La Jolla designer Carl Ekstrom, and soon the Flow Rider was in beta.

Ekstrom, who looks like a handsome Andy Warhol, is famous for his eccentric designs – and especially for his bizarre surfboards. To develop the Flow Rider, Ekstrom began with miniatures 1/24th the size of the final machine, and then engaged in months of trial and error to get the right effect. “There’s never been any need for people to learn how water goes uphill,” Lochtefeld says. “So there’s no study, no body of work, no literature on the phenomenon that we had to deal with.”

In 1991, three years after Lochtefeld came to Ekstrom with the sheet-wave concept, the two unveiled the first full-scale Flow Rider at the Schlitterbahn, a water park in New Braunfels, Texas. The Schlitterbahn’s Flow Rider relies on two Flygt submersible pumps – staples in sewage-treatment plants – that shoot 100,000 gallons of water per minute up a curved surface made from a material that feels like a gymnasium mat. (It’s actually rigid, closed-cell urethane foam, but it has a little give to it.) The thin sheet of chlorinated water travels at 15 to 30 mph, creating a stationary wave with a sheet of water gushing at about twice the speed of a similarly sized, breaking ocean wave. The wave, which spills into an artificial river, was an instant hit with bodyboarders, boosting park attendance by nearly 25 percent.

Almost from the day the Schlitterbahn Flow Rider was up and running, Lochtefeld began trying to stand up on his bodyboard and surf the Flygt-powered deluge. To help him out, Ekstrom began carving up bodyboards, looking for a shape on which he could better keep his balance. Thus was the flowboard born.

Today, Ekstrom tops these boards with ethylene vinyl acetate using a process invented by his collaborator, Stanley Pleskunas. The core consists of Divinycell, a polyvinyl chloride foam. Just as surfboard cores have reinforcements called stringers, flowboards are constructed with stringers of pultruded fiberglass. Over the years, Lochtefeld has invited friends to test the boards, and twice he’s extended that invitation to me.

The Flow Rider in Vista, California, is part of a water park called the Wave, about 10 miles inland from some of the best ocean surf in San Diego’s North County and about 30 minutes from Wave Loch’s attic HQ. It doesn’t make a very big wave – it’s about 4 feet tall – but it’s plenty challenging. The first timeI tried flowboarding on it, I flailed madly. The second time, Lochtefeld advises me to begin by sitting down in the middle of the wave and then shoving the flowboard beneath my feet. With the water racing underneath me and spray flying, it takes some effort, but I finally manage it. Sitting down on the flowboard, I can easily steer the board by placing my weight at the edge of the direction I want to turn toward. Once I get the feel of that, I try to stand and turn, but my body flies into the air and slaps the mat. I do this dozens of times – and, I imagine, begin to resemble a drunk at a bar bucked off a mechanical bull again and again, laughing and feeling no pain.

After two hours, however, my body finally decodes how to stand and turn. I ride one wave to my satisfaction and finish exhausted and sore, but with that blissful, surfed-out afterglow. It’s not surfing by a long stretch, but on a bad surf day, I’d pay good money to do it.

To create the Swatch Flow Rider – the one now making the rounds in Europe – Ekstrom again began with a 2-foot-square scale model. In his studio, Ekstrom sets the model atop a 44-gallon trash can on wheels that’s half filled with water. He dips some tubes from the model into the water and turns the little machine on. A sheet of water shoots at the curved wall. He adjusts a few knobs and a wave magically appears. It’s a left, meaning that the wave, if looked at from the “shore,” breaks from left to right. He tweaks the knobs until the shape, from a surfer’s perspective, becomes ideal.

Ekstrom picks up a miniature plastic surfer a local company sells as a car-antenna adornment. He has attached a sturdy piece of wire to this surfer, whom he calls Laird, a reference to tow-in surfing pioneer Laird Hamilton. (Hamilton and his friends use Jet Skis outfitted with ropes to drag surfers into mammoth waves that break on Hawaii’s outer reefs.) Ekstrom lifts Laird by the wire, delicately places him on the wave, and guides him in fluid turns up and down its face. “Look at this guy!” Ekstrom announces. “He’s just ripping!”

He hands Laird to me. “It’s not easy your first time,” Ekstrom warns, but after a few minutes I’ve got Laird dialed in, comfortably doing roller coasters and sick tube rides. I am mesmerized. I am not so much controlling Laird’s maneuvers as I am allowing them to happen. It is this sense of going with it, clicking into the groove, finding the line rather than drawing it – of flowing – that most deeply satisfies me when I surf. I’m micro-flowboarding.

With the model, Ekstrom and Lochtefeld are constantly finessing the physics of flowboarding, and they say it’s just about ready for prime time. The boards are almost there, and with any luck, flowboarding will be public within a year. But, he says, “the invention of sheet-wave technology was more a half step. The goal has always been to get to surf real waves.”

But that’s “real” as in “real man-made.” And to get there, Dave Skelly believes the best approach is to return to the ocean. For the past four years, he’s been designing and lobbying for an artificial surfing reef that would be situated right beneath the jets taking off and landing at LAX. And for the past several months, Lochtefeld’s been supporting Skelly politically, helping him build a base of like-minded surfers who can confront opposition to artificial surfing reefs.

Skelly, 45, a mustachioed, 230-pound walrus of a man, is gregarious, opinionated, and turned up a little higher than the laid-back Lochtefeld. “Tom and I are trying to take the dreams lots of surfers have and change the sport,” he says. “We’re about to take a quantum leap into the 21st century with this.”

Unlike the self-taught Lochtefeld, Skelly has a more accredited technical background. He worked at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for 17 years, and under a contract with the US Navy, he and another Scripps researcher and surfer, Scott Jenkins, worked up models for tactical harbors, temporary safe havens for ships in combat. These structures called for submerged breakwaters made of specially designed sandbags or other structures that could be assembled on the spot.

Artificial reefs are not entirely new – no more so than rock jetties or walls built to protect marinas and beachfront property. But artificial reefs built expressly for surfing are new, and while a number have been proposed in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK, only one – the Cables Station Artificial Surfing Reef in Australia – has been completed. Sponsored by the state government of Western Australia, the Cables reef was built by placing a boomerang of granite over an existing limestone reef. The old reef was too far below the surface – waves break when ocean swells move into shallower water – but the new wall makes the reef taller and is designed to form the swells into surfable waves. What’s more, the boomerang generates both lefts and rights, which you can watch roll in on the designers’ Web page (

The structure Skelly wants to build is known as Pratte’s Reef. It owes its origins to a $25,000 donation Yvon Chouinard made to the Surfrider Foundation back in 1989. Chouinard, founder of the Patagonia clothing company and a surfer, commissioned a study on the possibilities of making artificial ocean waves. Surfrider, a group formed by surfers to protect the marine environment, had, as one of its stated missions, “enhancing wave-riding opportunities in ways which will not adversely impact nearshore ecosystems.” The notion of building artificial reefs fit right in.

The reef studies might have remained an academic exercise, however, if it hadn’t been for El Niño and a longtime antagonist of the environmental movement: the oil industry. During the winter of ’82-’83, unseasonably warm water in the Pacific Ocean created a particularly powerful El Niño. (El Niño conditions lead to massive storms and thus massive waves.) Chevron runs an oil refinery off the beach in El Segundo. During that winter, the waves removed a tremendous amount of sand from the beach there, and Chevron became worried about protecting its operation. The California Coastal Commission granted Chevron’s request to build in front of its plant a new rock groin that stretches 900 feet into the ocean.

Following a campaign led by local Surfrider member Tom Pratte charging that the groin ruined several surf spots, however, Chevron eventually agreed to give Surfrider $300,000 to build an artificial reef as a “restoration project” – to create new surf spots to make up for the ones it flattened. Skelly came on the scene in 1995, when he won a small competition to design the reef.

Skelly’s plan calls for a reef 350 feet offshore. If all goes well, Skelly will form a V-shaped reef with 90 to 100 sandbags made from woven, high-strength polyester fabric. By studying the ocean floor at the site and analyzing wave records from the area for the past few years, Skelly believes that he has identified the best place to sink the bags. He has determined how steeply to shape the V by taking advantage of a landmark analysis of waves done in 1974 by then PhD candidate Kimo Walker, who studied the angle of the reefs at such classic and varied Hawaiian surf spots as Pipeline, Waikiki, and Queens. Walker’s analysis detailed how steeper “peel angles” – the difference in degrees between the swell and the reef it’s hitting – create steeper, better waves.

Each 10-foot-by-7-foot bag will contain 18.5 tons of sand and stand 4.5 feet tall. Skelly plans to drop the bags off a barge outfitted with a crane. By carefully moving the barge parallel to the beach, Skelly hopes to control where the bags drop. At the end of each day during construction, scuba divers will inspect the bags to make sure they have landed in the expected location. Straps that gird the bags will allow the crane operator to move any that did not settle in the right place. When it’s done, each arm of the V will extend 150 feet. “You’ll be able to see this when you take off at LA International Airport,” says Skelly. “It will be the size of a small warehouse.”

“Mother Ocean doesn’t fuck around,” says a critic of artificial reefs. “But when she wants to, she does.”

In January 1999, Skelly finally secured the necessary permits to build Pratte’s Reef, but Chevron has ponied up only one-third of the $300,000 it promised. Chevron spokesman Rod Spackman, however, says he’s “100 percent confident it will happen.”

Still, Skelly and Lochtefeld know this is a onetime deal. “There’s no money in engineering surfing reefs,” he says. “How can we get the end-line user to pay? You aren’t going to. You’re not going to put a turnstile out there.” The two agree that the best way to offset the costs of building surfing reefs is to tie them to issues like coastal erosion, habitat preservation, and diving and fishing, and to enlist people passionate about protecting their beachfront property and marine life to fund their projects. Think of an artificial reef as a water park – a refuge. Think of waves as a precious natural resource.

Surfers, of course, already see waves as a precious resource, but some have serious reservations about solving the scarcity with artificial reefs. Scripps’ Jenkins, the former environmental director of Surfrider, worries that allowing the creation of reefs for surfing might give developers a “mitigation strategy” for the future: Destroy this wave, build another one here. He also predicts that an artificial reef will lead to lawsuits. “If someone gets hurt, the first thing they’re going to do is say an unnatural thing caused this accident,” says Jenkins. “It’s a sitting duck for an ambulance chaser.” Still, Jenkins doesn’t actively oppose Skelly’s scheme; others do.

Gordon LaBedz, a Long Beach physician who has been with Surfrider since its inception, argues that artificial surfing reefs encourage messing with the ocean by groups that don’t care one whit about surfing.

“We have to take the moral high ground and say, ‘Leave the beaches natural,'” says LaBedz. “Once you take the opportunistic stand that it’s OK to build things in the surf zone, you leave yourself open.” As LaBedz sees it, Chevron’s $300,000 won’t cover the costs; even if Pratte’s Reef gets built, he thinks the ocean will have its way with the structure. “Anytime you’re dealing with things in the surf, you’re dealing with Mother Ocean, and she doesn’t fuck around,” he says. “When she wants to build 10-foot waves, she does so and takes out everything in her way.”

Skelly contends that his reef can well withstand most of what Mother Ocean might serve up, and says the structure could actually benefit the marine environment. Beaches in California have been steadily losing their sand, mainly because the damming of rivers has dramatically reduced the natural flow of silt. The reef, Skelly says, could dissipate the energy of waves farther out at sea, slowing some of the erosion. Sand would also naturally accumulate in the “shadow” of the reef, creating larger beaches. New sea life might move in, too, offering new places to dive or fish. And if that turns out not to be true, and any harmful effects are detected, he’ll simply slash the bags, releasing the sand. “It could be done in a way so that it’s a win-win for everybody,” says Patagonia’s Chouinard.