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Original Issue

New Wave

San Diego's Wave House, a man-made surfer's paradise, offers boarders a place to hang out--and a fresh way to hang ten

Not only have I seen the future of wave riding, I've also tasted it (it's chlorinated), drunk deeply of it and had it thrust with unnatural force into sundry other cavities. I have known the mortification of having it spout from my right nostril onto my tray table during the flight home. (The woman to my left pretended not to notice, forging ahead, in a show of sterling manners, with her anecdote of how the family cat survived four days in a moving truck.)

The "future of wave riding," as the Wave House in San Diego is ballyhooed by its designers, had its grand opening last week. Located in the heart of Mission Beach between an amusement park and the Pacific Ocean, this hydrodynamic marvel combines elements of both. Here's how it works: Inside a 50-by-50-foot outdoor pool a powerful nozzle shoots 100,000 gallons of water per minute, at a maximum of 30 mph, up a 10-foot-high steel and fiberglass "wave form" that is covered, mercifully, with two inches of foam. Cranked up to full volume, this wave in a box produces a stationary, 10-foot barrel dubbed Bruticus Maximus.

The name fits. Before entering the "media challenge," I signed a waiver warning of potential "lacerations, sprains, herniations, torn or wrenched off body parts, broken bones, broken teeth, drowning, numbness, paralysis, incontinence," etc.

While no one lost his life, or even (one hopes) his water, some of the pros at the grand opening had a tough time retaining their dignity as they struggled to master an unfamiliar skill.

"It's surfing, but it's different from surfing," said Mark Healey, a big-wave charger from Oahu's North Shore. Healey, having just returned from Tahiti, where he'd spent three weeks towing into monstrous waves at Teahupoo, was slow getting the hang of Bruticus Maximus, which forces riders to keep their weight over their back foot--the opposite of what big-wave riders are accustomed to doing. After many spinning, violent trips through the BM rinse cycle, he admitted, "I'm so sore I need a walker." Would he like some Advil? "No, thanks. I'll just drink."

Healey was joined in a morning jam session by fellow pro surfers Kalani Robb and Jamie O'Brien, snowboarder Andy Finch and Bill (Beaker) Bryan, a jack-of-all-trades (he is a former pro surfer and snowboarder) and master of one. Beaker, so nicknamed because he loved science as a boy, is an 11-time world champion skimboarder. That grab bag of skills served him well in the Wave House, where he amazed peers and spectators alike with a mind-bending array of spins, flips and gigantic airs hucked off the permanent "ramp" on the wave's shoulder.

"I'm just into finding that moment," Beaker told me, "that euphoria of losing yourself, of not thinking, just being. That's a real nice place to be."

It is strange but cool that he found this sacred place on a man-made contraption. What I liked about the Wave House is that its keepers make no apologies for its artificiality. Indeed, they embrace it. Tom Lochtefeld, the water-park magnate and native San Diegan who invented the Wave House, says that it celebrates "the plasticity of beach culture."

Three years ago Lochtefeld acquired the lease for Belmont Park, a moribund collection of retail shops in Mission Beach, and has been breathing life back into the place ever since. He sees the Wave House, with its palm trees, fire rings and hammocks, as more than a place to catch waves and scope babes. It will be, he hopes, a gathering place for the various boarding tribes--surf, skate, snow, skim--to come together. If Southern California is the home of beach culture, marketing director Albert Liu told me, "this place is its Royal Palace."

"It's not about killer whales," continued Liu, unable to resist a dig at nearby Sea World. "It's about killer waves."

I arrived at the "Palace" early, hoping to sneak onto the wave before too many people showed up. No such luck. To surf, I had to join the media challenge, which I lost handily. Four attempts resulted in four falls that were at once ignominious, violent and surreal. I am being flushed down a Brobdingnagian commode, I would think to myself. Or, I am the Ty-D-Bowl man come to grief.

I was done for the day, or so I thought, when Beaker pointed at me. "You," he said. "You're going to surf today."

He helped me up, held my hand, told me to get my weight back--"Further back, all the way back"--and, next thing I knew, I was surfing. For the briefest moment, maybe six seconds, I recognized his euphoria.




Pros quickly took to the tube, but the author (inset) found Bruticus brutal. The "wave form'" produces a stationary 10-foot barrel dubbed BRUTICUS MAXIMUS.