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Waco, Texas, Has Become An Unlikely Destination For Surfers. Why?

NOEL KING, HOST:

A water park near Waco, Texas, has an artificial wave that's allegedly so dope pro surfers are joining hobbyists to ride it. NPR's Jon Hamilton caught a couple waves there and brought us this.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Nearly 200 miles from the nearest ocean, nine surfers are bobbing under the Texas sun in what looks like a tropical lagoon. Then the wave machine spins up, one surfer starts paddling, and out of nowhere, a head-high wave rises from the placid water to carry him down the line toward a sandy beach. Seconds later, two more waves materialize and two more surfers glide off.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASHING WAVES)

HAMILTON: One of those surfers is Dane Grochowski. He's 12 and usually surfs near his home in Pacifica, Calif. Today is his first session at the BSR Surf Resort in Waco. When Grochowski gets near the beach, I wade out to chat.

Dane, what'd you think, man?

DANE: I loved it. It was so fun. I knew it was going to be super fun, but that was just a blast.

HAMILTON: Grochowski has been surfing since he was 4 or 5, and he shreds, so I ask him about his ride.

DANE: I pumped down the line and did a little snap and kind of got caught behind the section. So I, like, pulled into the barrel and got in there, but I wasn't going to make it out.

HAMILTON: As we talk, the wave machine starts up again.

DANE: Woo (ph).

HAMILTON: Look at that, a little tube ride.

DANE: I should probably try to go back out.

HAMILTON: Yeah, go ahead. Sorry. Didn't want to hold you up.

(CROSSTALK)

HAMILTON: The BSR Surf Resort is the result of decades of progress in both the science and technology of wave-making. The wave here is generated by powerful fans housed in a concrete wall that runs along one side of the surf pool. Mike Schwaab is the resort's general manager. He says those fans compress air inside a series of chambers in the wall.

MIKE SCHWAAB: There's a proprietary way that that air gets released, displaces water, and that specific displacement, paired with the way that the concrete bottom is designed, is what creates a breaking wave.

HAMILTON: The system was designed by American Wave Machines in Solana Beach, Calif. It's one of several companies that uses air pressure to generate surfing waves. Other companies use paddles, plungers, pistons or a hydrofoil dragged through the water. Schwaab says in Waco, a computer algorithm controls the size, shape and direction of each wave.

SCHWAAB: You can have a beginner wave that's fun on a longboard or a foam board. You can have an expert wave. You can have a wave specifically to get barreled. You can have a wave to try and work on your airs and things like that.

HAMILTON: Artificial waves have been around for decades. For example, Disney World opened its Typhoon Lagoon in 1989. But the waves in these pools tended to be slow and mushy. They were designed for tourists, not surfers. Then in 2015, 11-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater unveiled a different kind of wave. It breaks in an abandoned water ski park in central California. A massive hydrofoil is propelled through the water to generate the sort of fast, barreling wave that surfers' dreams are made of. Slater had spent 10 years on the project, and a promotional video captured his reaction to the finished wave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLY SLATER: (Laughter) Oh, my God! No way.

HAMILTON: But Slater's wave was never meant for the surfing masses. The machine produces about 15 waves an hour, and riding just one costs hundreds of dollars. The Waco machine can make 120 waves an hour and costs surfers about $10 a ride. That makes the wave pool commercially viable. Sessions in Waco are generally sold out weeks ahead of time, and the success is encouraging other resorts and water parks to add their own state-of-the-art surf pools. Schwaab says the Waco surf pool itself was added to a park built for another water sport.

SCHWAAB: The dude that put it all together was a barefoot water skier, and this whole place started based on barefoot water skiing.

HAMILTON: Over time, the facility added a wakeboarding pond, a lazy river and an extreme water slide.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER PARK AMBIENCE)

HAMILTON: The BSR surf pool opened in 2018. Within weeks, a pro named Seth Moniz landed a backflip on the air section, and the video went viral. But beginners come here, too. Brian Fillmore, the manager, is a Texas native who pretty much learned to surf on the Waco wave.

BRIAN FILLMORE: When I started, I was a beginner, and now I'm able to get barrel, do airs, work on perfecting my turns, just like every other surfer.

HAMILTON: Surfers often talk about finding the perfect wave. But Dave Likins, the chief operating officer here, says they don't want to ride the same perfect wave over and over.

DAVE LIKINS: If it's not changeable and if it's not something that's going to be a little different each time, where you can try something different each time, you're eventually going to get bored of that.

HAMILTON: So Likins says the wave here can be customized.

LIKINS: We had an event recently out here that Rip Curl did called the Grom Search, and American Wave Machines put a new wave in, a wave that nobody had seen. They debuted it right there.

HAMILTON: The most radical wave in Waco is the Freak Peak, produced when two swells collide. But even the standard waves can challenge surfers used to catching ocean swells. Rebecca Carr came here from California with her husband and their three kids.

REBECCA CARR: You can only drop in on one spot, so you have to actually - like, you have to be good to get in these waves.

HAMILTON: Carr figured it out, though. So did I after botching a few waves. And Carr says she's definitely coming back.

CARR: Well, I grew up two hours from here in Granbury, Texas, so this is our family vacation every year. And it just turns out now we can surf when we're in mid Texas.

HAMILTON: And lots of other places with artificial surfing waves, including one that breaks in a mall in New Jersey.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News, Waco, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT MEOLA: (Singing) Gonna take my surfboard to Waco, gonna ride till... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.