Tom Lochtefeld’s mission to create the world’s best wave pool
By Neal Kearney
Kelly Slater shocked the surfing world last December when he released a three-and-a-half-minute web clip that showed him threading through perfect, four-foot barrels. This in and of itself wasn’t news—Slater’s spent the better part of the last 30 years practically living in the tube. The wow factor here came from the location of the wave: a man-made wave pool in the middle of California’s San Joaquin Valley.
There have been plenty of wave pools throughout surf history—Allentown in Pennsylvania, the Typhoon Lagoon in Florida, and the now-defunct Ocean Dome in Japan—yet none had the technology to create the mesmerizing, perfectly groomed waves seen at the Kelly Slater Wave Co. facility. Santa Cruz star Nat Young was one of the lucky few who tested Slater’s artificial wave.
“I don’t know what to say other than it was the longest barrel of my life,” Young says. “I could sit in it for as long as I wanted until my legs gave out.”
But Slater isn’t the only player investing in wave pool technologies—and one of the others, Tom Lochtefeld of Wave Loch, believes he can one up the 11-time world champ.
Lochtefeld grew up surfing in and around his hometown of San Diego. He was a bright student and outstanding athlete, who, after graduating from high school in 1970, turned down football scholarships at Stanford and UC Berkeley to attend UC San Diego so that he could continue to surf. In 1974, he earned a law degree from the University of San Diego Law School. He dabbled in real estate after completing school, then took a gamble by entering the water park business in 1981 with partner Bryant L. Morris, co-founding the Raging Waters Theme Park in San Dimas, Calif. Lochtefeld went on to independently develop and operate the San Jose and Salt Lake City Raging Waters parks for several years, but his inner surfer kept calling to him back to his ocean dreams. In 1987, he sold his interest in Raging Waters to pursue his goal of building the perfect wave machine.
“My objective since day one was to build a real, functioning surf pool that would be identical to the physics and phenomenon one finds in the open ocean,” Lochtefeld explains. “However, creating an economically viable pool like this was a quantum leap that, 30 years ago, wasn’t available—we didn’t have the technology. That was why, from a practical and economic starting point, I went to create the sheet waves, which work well at water parks.”
These “sheet waves” were stationary padded surfaces over which water flowed, and on top of which riders used skateboard-like crafts to slide and carve. The machines were lacking in comparison to real surfing, yet they offered the similar challenge of maintaining balance and speed. Lochtefeld became closer to reaching his goal with the advent of the FlowRider, which acted similarly to the sheet waves, except that it actually made a curling lip where riders could simulate riding in the tube, something Lochtefeld calls a “Flowbarrel.” With test subjects such as Slater, Terje Haakonsen, and Tony Hawk, he was able to get valuable research and development data.
As a standalone, the FlowRider wasn’t financially feasible, so Lochtefeld had to build a different business model around it to support the energy costs: the Wavehouse, a park-like atmosphere with a bar and restaurant.
“As a surfer, I always thought these [Flowriders] were a lower life form [than surfing],” Lochtefeld says. “Compared to the ocean, they were like a stepchild in a way. I wasn’t that sold on it. On the same token, I’ve had parents come up to me and say, ‘You saved my son’s life—he was getting into drugs and now he’s straightened up and it’s all about Flowriding for him.’”
While developing the FlowRider and sheet waves, Lochtefeld was simultaneously doing research and development on creating the perfect man-made wave. He designed the ultimate wake-surf boat, reconfiguring the hull to produce wakes that could create stand-up tubes. But, as he puts it, “we’d be kicked out of the lake in a second because a boat that big wouldn’t be legal,” he says, laughing. He also developed things called moving reefs and flying reef, which are cornerstones of the approaches at Slater’s company, as well as Wavegarden, a simulated surf facility in Northern Spain. He gave up on these methods for a number of reasons, including cost and maintenance issues.
“I built it, I surfed it, and I abandoned it, primarily because in my analysis they weren’t economically viable in the long run,” he says. “Like the evolution of every life form … there are certain species that die out, and I think these will eventually.”
Lochtefeld sold his interest in FlowRider, and has taken that money and “doubled down,” investing in surf pools with a new technology that uses air to produce waves, a venture his company, Wave Loch, has dubbed the SurfLoch SurfPool.
“Conceptually, when you think about what happens in the real world, with how waves are formed, it’s done with air,” he explains. “Winds blow over a wave, over a ‘fetch,’ and that energy gets translated into a particular class of wave, which then shoals on a beach and breaks. So what I’ve done is learned how to draft off algorithms and write the programs to shrink the fetch that waves are created in from hundreds of miles … [to] inside a box that’s 20 feet by 10 feet.”
Lochtefeld is tight lipped regarding how he and his team have been able to harness air to create his new wave technology, yet he insists that they will be able to create waves in a pool identical to those found in the ocean.
“I don’t have any motivation to disclose exactly what I’m doing to the public, because my philosophy is [that] unless you can come and ride it, I don’t want to be out there claiming something that isn’t yet real,” he says. “That’s like claiming a wave in a surf contest before you finished your ride. But I will tell you this, once they are up and running, you’ll be able stroke into waves just like you do in the ocean. The barrel will pitch over you and you’ll get the ride of your life.”
That said, Lochtefeld is realistic about the scope of this technology: “I think the biggest waves we can produce at this point will be a bit over 10 feet. You can always go bigger, there’s no real limit—it’s just about budget. At some point we can get there, but right now we don’t have enough people investing and sponsorship money to support anything bigger.”
Currently, the wave creator has 30 to 40 projects with his new technology in the pipeline, with about a year to go before the first one is finished and open to the public. It’s a large-scale project, yet he has the finances and test facilities in place to finally achieve his dream—one that, when realized, he believes won’t take away from the attraction of surfing in the ocean.
“There has always been negative press [saying] it’s going to take the soul out of surfing,” he says, commenting on the backlash of oceanic surfers worried about a new breed of freshwater newbies. “You’ve got to think of it as a whole different life. … It’s just the nature of what happens in our world; things always change, we aren’t static. It’s in our human nature to evolve.”