The technology behind Austin’s NLand Surf Park
By Derek Van Wagner
Photographs by Danielle Chloe Potts
What does it take to create a near perfect wave in the center of the Lone Star State? With the nearest ocean hundreds of miles away, let’s just say it was no day at the beach for NLand founder Doug Coors.
Start by finding and purchasing 160 acres of land near Austin during a real estate boom. Next, assemble a crew of skilled engineers passionate about surfing. Then, convince the Spanish company Wavegarden to share some of their proprietary secrets to making artificial waves. Once you’ve gotten this far, build an incredibly expensive facility that may not work unless all the measurements and specifications are exactly right. Fill your man-made lagoon with 14 million gallons of rainwater and spread the news to the impatient public. Along the way, you’ll need to repair any mistakes and leaks in the system, while navigating the treacherous depths of city and municipal codes that regulate businesses and bodies of water. Finally, open your doors to North America’s first inland wave surf park, all the while holding on to the hope that if you build it, they will come.
To better understand exactly how the wave was made, we spoke to Director of Surf Operations Ion Eizaguirre, an industrial engineer from Spain who has spent the last three years working on the technology behind Wavegarden and moved to Austin specifically to work on the launch of the NLand Surf Park.
To begin with, what is Wavegarden?
Wavegarden is a Spanish engineering firm that creates an authentic surf experience that is fun, safe, and accessible. The company was founded more than ten years ago. In the beginning, there were three or four engineers. Now we have about 30 employees, most of them engineers.
Explain to me in non-engineering terms, how is an artificial wave created?
In the middle of a lagoon, you build a structure called a wave foil that looks like a snowplow. The snowplow is installed on something like a skateboard, which is pulled by a cable. Basically, we’re pulling a skateboard with a snowplow on top of it from one side of the lagoon to the other, and then again in the opposite direction.
There’s about a one-minute lapse between waves. What’s happening in that time?
We need the water to settle down before we create the next wave or else it won’t have the same quality. To that end, we have a system that anticipates the backwash and water movements. The water moves through a wide channel in the middle and to the outskirts of the lagoon, removing energy in the process. Usually we wait around 50 seconds to one minute for the water to calm, and then we’re ready to run the next wave.
Did you model the NLand wave after any particular surf break?
We follow some waves but, at the end of the day, we’re not designing only one wave but three. The Reef wave is perfect for experts. Some of the pro surfers who’ve tried it say it’s similar to Lower Trestles in San Diego, California, where you have a pretty nice wall to do all sorts of tricks. We also have the Inside wave, which is a little easier than the Reef, and the Bay wave, which is ideal for beginners.
How do you describe the Reef wave?
The Reef is an advanced wave; it’s fast, it’s powerful, and it’s aimed at surfers who want a high-performance experience. It lasts for over 30 seconds and you can do more than 14 turns in one wave. After two or three Reef waves you get exhausted because each one is so long. It’s really a worldclass wave, being longer than the waves you typically find in the ocean.
Tell me more about the difference between your waves and the ones in the ocean.
With the Reef, we create a peak right in the middle. When you’re surfing in the ocean, you try to go to the open space of the wave, to the outside. Here, you catch the wave and rather than going to the outside, you’re surfing against the peak, back to the inside where the wave typically crashes in the ocean. It usually takes one or two waves to figure out the difference.
Why was Austin picked for the surf park?
It was a strategic decision; the Gulf Coast is pretty close, so there are actually a lot of surfers here. People wakesurf on the lake or they drive to the coast, but they don’t have the opportunity to surf these types of waves very often. This area is growing with lots of young people who create a sporty, healthy culture. You see everybody stand-up paddling on the lake, running, and hiking. And there are people moving here from places like California and New York who’ve been surfing a long time. There are so many reasons why Austin was an appealing spot for the surf park.
Was the climate a factor?
Yeah, here you can surf all year long without a wetsuit. There aren’t many places around the world where you can do that.
How long did it take to build NLand and what hurdles did you have to overcome?
It took between two and three years, refining everything and making improvements. Whenever you do anything for the first time, you face problems. For example, during construction, unexpected things happened while installing the machine and doing the tests. Then, once we opened, we didn’t know how many people to expect. It’s been a learning process. Now that we’ve been open for nearly two months, we feel confident, but we’re still learning every day.
I’ve heard that these are sustainable waves. What does that mean?
Well, the lagoon is filled with rainwater, collected in our reservoir at the south end of the property. The water is gathered there and then pumped into the lagoon through a filtration system. Also, the construction was environmentally friendly — the only concrete poured was on the central channel, where the machinery is installed. On the rest of the lagoon, we simply compacted the soil. So one day, if you wanted to remove everything, the land will be as it was before. And, finally, the most important aspect of our sustainability is the energy consumption. This is an electrical and mechanical system and the energy consumption is pretty low.
Read more from the Makers Issue | August 2017