How Wavegarden saved a Welsh town!

Building a wave pool put an economically depressed little town back to work…

Preface: Yes, Surf Snowdonia is closed due to major mechanical repairs. But they will be back in the spring. I was fortunate to surf the pool in their opening week during a trip earlier this year. Obviously, the wave itself is fun but the location and history was the biggest surprise. 

I surveyed the surreal scene around me. I could see the century-old pipes leading down from the mountains toward the adjacent hydroelectric station. I could make out the hustle and bustle of spectators though the chain link fence that prevents any entanglements with the unforgiving machinery of the foil. The infinite Welsh countryside rolled out into the distance.

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Excited? Yeah.

I tentatively paddled out. No salt in the water. There was a bit of wind, the light chop of capillary waves on the surface. A guy who’d just finished his session gave me two pieces of advice: stay close to the pier and paddle hard.

I’d hired a perfectly respectable fish from the on-site surf academy and made my way to the takeoff spot. There was a gurgle and a deep mechanical screech. A ripple gathered speed, quickly evolving into a head-high lump. Instinctively, I turned and started paddling hard.

The £12 million project is more than just a hyped-up-sports facility. It is a regeneration project and the latest chapter in the unlikely story of a small Welsh village of which the principle protagonists are gravity, aluminium, electricity and most importantly water.

Not so instinctively, I got to my feet and bottom turned towards the chain link fence. I raced toward the pier as fast as I could, never reaching it. I did top turns and cutbacks. There was a pitching lip and fast section. This was actually surfing.

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I had a one hour advanced session that gave me and two others about 15 waves. A large contoured membrane lined lagoon is filled with 33,000 cubic liters of tea coloured, UV-filtered Welsh water transported directly from lake Eigau (four miles away) down the same two giant pipelines to the hydro-eclectic plant that once ensured a pioneering aluminium plant had access to cheap, reliable electricity.

Waves and Water Power

That same system now provides Surf Snowdonia with access to the water necessary to provide waves for to 36 surfers at a time. Yet the £12 million project is more than just a hyped-up-sports facility. It is a regeneration project and the latest chapter in the unlikely story of a small Welsh village of which the principle protagonists are gravity, aluminium, electricity and most importantly water.

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Nestled in a glorious slice of the north Welsh countryside seven miles up the winding Conwy valley, the unsuspecting hamelt of Porth Llwyd  was chosen in 1906 to be the site of a large aluminium smelting plant. The hamlet’s fate was sealed by its proximity to the lakes of the Carneddau mountains. Not only where these lakes the source of reliable, clean and plentiful peat brown water but, crucially, they where at elevation.

The Aluminium Cooperation Ltd were blazing a new industrial trail, hedging a bet that they could bring the price of aluminum production down by extracting it from the aluminum ore (bauxite) using the relatively new technique of electrolysis. The clue is in the name. Electrolysis on this scale requires large and readily available amounts of cheap electricity.

The corporation set to work constructing Eigiau, Coedty and Cowlyd dams to raise the levels of the lakes on high ground to the west thus providing the potential for hydro-electrical power generation. Given the rugged and, at times soul-crushingly steep, nature of the local terrain, these were major engineering feats – and engineering feats require workers and their families to bring them to fruition.

Before long, little Porth Llwyd grew into the bustling industrial village of Dolggarog. By 1907, the smelting plant was up and running. Herculean efforts had made it made it possible, not only were several dams constructed but a network of canals had been dug to transport the water from the dams to supply the plant 300 meters below.

A steel pipe had been constructed to negotiate the improbably steep drop at ‘marble arch’ high above the village, along with the construction of railways to transport both materials, finished product and workers around the various sites and to the coast for shipping.

The 1920’s saw the development of purpose built hydro-electric scheme and the  aluminium rolling plant completed. All this activity placed Dolgarrog at the heart of a fledgling industry. For the next one hundred years, water and gravity provided the electricity to drive an industrial operation dedicated to producing refined aluminium to a world hungry for airplanes, caravans and kitchen utensils.

Nothing is more certain than a world that turns and by the end of 2007 the un-profitable aluminum works closed it doors, leaving 170 people to find new work. These would have been dark days for Dolgarrog, suddenly a tiny, relatively quiet backwater of north Wales in a world headed for fiscal meltdown.

The hydroelectric plant remained open but would never be able to provide the employment opportunities necessary to sustain a now-defunct workforce. Even with the incredible vision of Dollgarrog’s forefathers, it’s doubtful anyone would’ve seen what was coming next.

The decommissioned aluminium works remained a prospect-less brown field wasteland until 2012 when it was acquired by Ainscough Strategic Land Ltd who ingeniously and resourcefully set about developing the site.

Three years later, Surf Snowdonia opened its doors to the public. The central pier that runs down the centre of the vinyl lagoon sits between two stout motor houses and drags an elusive top-secret hydrofoil up and down at approximately one minute intervals. The foil creates waves, waves create stoke.

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This revolutionary technology has been developed by the Spanish group, Wavegarden, who have answered the dreams of every landlocked surfer on the planet. At the push of a button, a head-high peak can be mustered from the depths and sent rifling down the lagoon.

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So what’s the deal?

It’s a real wave, but don’t go expecting an ocean wave or you’ll be disappointed. But you can do real surfing here. It’s all been worked out so that everyone gets fun waves. It’s a totally unique experience and something every surfer given the chance should try.

At 45 pounds an hour it isn’t cheap in comparison to the beach, but I didn’t feel ripped off. I suspect the lagoon will come into its own as a learning and training facility for inland grommets who will have a chance to get on a board, get to their feet and wiggle to the vinyl shore, unburdened by the ferocity of the sea.

It’s a great spot for families and groups alike to have fun. Surf Snowdonia have big plans for the future with further water-based activities and events, they have on site accommodation, restaurants, a bar, good transport links and the whole place feels well-thought-out and exciting to be around.

Whatever your view on the place, it’s a regeneration project worthy of celebration. They have a taken a negative and turned it positive, provided local jobs where there were none.

With a projected 75,000 visitors are year, it should be profitable and self-sustaining. They are striving for and achieving a good environmental impacts. The ripple effects from a project like this could really benefit Dolgarrog and the surrounding areas for years to come.

If you are fortunate enough to find yourself riding this mechanical wonderess, try to make some time to explore the local area. It’s a fascinating landscape, steeped in industrial history and full of rugged splendour.

As I paddled back toward the crowded shore, tired and stoked, the next three guys were paddling out, wild in the eyes and excited as hell, just as I had been an hour before.

Dan Kerins is photographer, writer, surfer and horticulturalist specializing in ill-planned and under-funded excursions into the lesser known. Want more of his writing and photography? Click here. 

His old boy Tony Kerins made the map. Click here for his dazzling skills. 

“I’m in love with a Brazilian boy!”

And he rides big waves. Don't this world need a li'l more culture defying romance though?

Pedro”Scooby” Viana is one of my favorite surfers in the world because he is fun and he is brave and rarely do those things go together. I interviewed him a few years back and it is printed below. I hope he wins the XXL Ride of the Year.

Pedro “Scooby” Viana has a neck tattoo, like me, and that alone makes him totally awesome. It makes him my current favorite surfer in the world. But guess what else he has? A movie-star/model wife, an amazing home in Rio de Janeiro, a Nike (Oops! Not anymore!) contract, a fine moustache — when he chooses to shave just so — the most amazing nickname and the world at his fingertips. Scooby is so totally awesome.

He was born in Rio to a surfer father. “My dad was a surfer,” he says, “so I started surfing when I was 5 years old and competing when I was 13.” But competition was not his avenue toward the so totally awesome. No, when Scooby was also 13 he became the first person to pull a kerrupt flip completely nude. He has since surfed macking Pasquales completely nude for two days. Just getting barreled and barreled and barreled in God’s wetsuit. “Surfing makes me happy,” says the now 24-year-old.

Being Brazilian also makes him happy and one star-aligned day, after surfing, he went to Rio’s famous Carnival and attended a party. It was all samba and sangria and capoeira and amazing. And standing there across the room was the sexiest woman on earth. Literally the sexiest woman on earth, as chosen by VIP Magazine. Her name was Luana Piovani and she was a very, very famous Brazilian actress and model. They locked eyes and pow! Magic. “It was love at first sight,” he says, “but her world is very different than mine. It is interesting but it is not all good because we have no privacy. But we get to go to amazing parties. It’s fun!”

Scooby and Luana were married soon after they met and honeymooned in Tahiti, this past year, during the swell. The code-red swell. And Scooby had not packed any tow boards so he called Nike’s team manager (Oops! Not anymore too!), Frankie D’Andrea, and informed him of his dilemma. Frankie sourced a too-small tow board and got it over to the island and Scooby caught a ride out to Teahupo’o. He had never towed before.

As the waves grew and grew he sat on the shoulder and became excited and then it was his turn. His partner whipped him in to one of the biggest waves of the day. A Teahupo’o beast. A bone-crushing giant. And he skittered down the face on his too-small board and got very deeply barreled and then got bone crushed. “I saw the footage,” Frankie says, “and I thought, ‘Oh man…I sent him a coffin, not a board.’” But when a man is so totally awesome he does not become undone by the ocean’s wrath. Scooby popped to the surface laughing.

Big waves are now his passion. He is currently being filmed in a documentary also staring Carlos Burle and Maya Gabeira. He is chasing the beasts. Laughing. Before his Tahitian honeymoon he had a standout North Shore season. “He gets barreled as good as anyone,” Frankie says. “He just looks great out there.” And so he plans on putting in another two North Shore months this coming winter in between chasing more beasts. “I want to keep traveling to find the best and the biggest waves in the world,” he says. “Big waves make me happy.”

What could be better than Scooby? I cannot think of many things and I want him and Luana to move near my wife and I so we can all become best of friends. The waves in lovely Cardiff-by-the-Sea are not large, but San Diego International Airport is nearby and I can make a delicious caipirinha.

David Eggers dies
…at one point, David Eggers was the hottest thing in California. A couple of years older than Kelly Slater, he flamed out early, competitively. On Monday Eggers died of what is being called a suspected heart attack.

RIP: Dave Eggers

One of surfing's tall tales dies of apparent heart attack.

I went looking for famous surfer turned dropout Dave Eggers once on the Salton Sea. It is a strange world out there in the middle of California’s desert. A “sea” was formed, or rather re-formed, accidentally in 1905 when engineers were attempting to irrigate the area for farming. It was then thought to be a wonder and many people built vacation homes.

Today, the water has resided and toxic dust delivers cancer to the few inhabitants who think that levels will rise again and they will be sitting on primo waterfront property. Dave worked here, somewhere, I was told in a bar. I went looking but never found him and today, at 45, he is dead of an apparent heart attack.

Much has been made of his prodigious rise as a young surfer, his fall into drugs and later diagnosed schizophrenia. Matt Warshaw wrote the most beautiful eulogy today, or maybe just the most fitting. As a younger man I heard the tale of Dave Eggers and how he fell into drugs then disappeared. For some reason I thought he came back as Dave Eggers the author and thought, “What a brilliant story. Surf star to drug addict to best-seller.” It’s too bad that his story, and most stories like his, generally end in the dumps. Fucking drugs.

David Eggers from ENCYCLOPEDIA of SURFING videos on Vimeo.

“Let’s go to the surf gym!”

A new facility in Southern California makes you and Brett Simpson better surfers.

There is, in Costa Mesa, California, a 2500 foot warehouse filled with all manner of heavy rope, heavy ball, stretchy band and padded floor. The name on the outside reads Extreme Athletics and, though I’ve never been inside, I’m certain it is also there on the wall.

What makes Extreme Athletics different from all varietals of CrossFit X-Fit t-Fit is that it is surf specific training. A whole gym! Dedicated to the shred! First opened in 2012 by a kinesiologist and an exercise scientist, the whole mission was/is to help surfers surf better by focusing on what surfers actually do.

“It’s not traditional training, we put a different spin on it. We take the mechanics of how the body works and [use] specific exercises that a surfer needs to get results…” Paul Norris, the exercise scientist, tells Sports Illustrated. “If you watch a lot of videos of NFL athletes, they’re doing a lot of clean and jerks and really heavy Olympic lifting because they want to be explosive. Surfers don’t need to be big and bulky and don’t need to carry a ton of mass, but they still need to have that power and agility.”

Pros (Brett Simpson is a client!) and more casual surfers both receive similar training, apparently, focusing on the legs and agility but the pros get a more tailored experience depending on what sort of wave they’ll be making surf to.

In Huntington Beach, for example, during the US Open of Surfing “… the waves are chopped up and not smooth and the wave will reform so they can do a few more turns on the inside,” Norris says. “So we’ll focus on leg endurance so they can keep pumping on the wave on the inside.”

Let us please, now, be honest with each other. Are you the sort that tells people, “The best training you can do for surfing is to go surfing…”?  Do you roll your eyes at the thought of going to a gym and doing surf exercises? Do you even hate the gym altogether and think it is completely anathema to the surf life?

Would you surf train if it was guaranteed to make you surf better? Do you only hate the gym because people who used gyms beat you up in high school? Does the smell of sweat on padded floors and the sound of Metallica rush you back to an uncomfortable childhood place?

So many questions, but important I feel to arrive at our root catechism. Is surfing a sport? Let’s once and for all answer!

Nix Nic Nooly
This is the Sunshine Coast surfer and expert concreter (really!) Thom Pringle starring in the Toby Cregan film Nix Nic Nooley. | Photo: Toby Cregan

Watch here: Nix Nic Nooley!

Don't like paying for eye candy? Watch that instant surf-classic from early 2015 here… for free!

Earlier this year, the filmmaker Toby Cregan released his sci-fi surf film Nix Nic Nooley. The 40-minute film conjures up a fantasy world in the year 2879. There is transmutation, flight, prophecy and wizardry.

“Due to pollution the ocean has dried up, the only way to surf is by time travel using a cybotactical head unit. Zilou and Bibilou are two of the only humans interested in surfing, this is their story back in time.”

Apart from illuminating the many genuine gifts of Creed McTaggart, who filmed for NNN in between trips for Cluster and Strange Rumblings, we see the very underrated surfing of Duncan McNicol and a roll call of cameos that include Noa Deane, Dion Agius, Beau Foster, Nate Tyler, Wade Goodall and Jay Davies.

A few minutes ago, I asked Toby, who is 24 years old and who is also principal in the band Skegss,  why the movie was suddenly for free. He said he’d sold out his entire print run of DVDs (500, of which 50 were gifted to friends)  so, “why the fuck not?”

“Literally, the next day, we had Beau Foster in a dress because we knew if we didn’t shoot straight away it wasn’t going happen. It was just going to be one of those things we talk about, like, ‘We should do that movie where we dress Beau Foster up in a dress.'”

The idea for the movie came when Creed, Toby and Duncan were driving from Byron Bay to nearby Cabarita for a surf. Duncan had just watched the Oscars and he announced that he would make a “fucking sick actor.”

They started shooting the next day.

“Literally, the next day, we had Beau Foster in a dress because we knew if we didn’t shoot straight away it wasn’t going to happen. It was just going to be one of those things we talk about, like, ‘We should do that movie where we dress Beau Foster up in a dress.'”

Why the dress?

“Because everyone on the internet, and in real life for that matter, says he looks like a chick. And because he does. He’s a hot dude.”

The name Nix Nic Nooley comes from the opening scene where Duncan and Creed speak a invented language called Zeekna. Listen carefully and you’ll hear.

Nix Nic Nooley translates as let’s go surfing.

Now watch!

NIX NIC NOOLEY from Toby Cregan on Vimeo.

Want more of Toby’s film work? Swing over to his Real Axe series here.