What's it Like to Surf Waco?

Dashel Pierson

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Updated 50d ago

My first thought was; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

I’ve never even seen the movie, but that was the prevailing, somewhat unsettling feeling I got as I approached Waco Surf (née BSR Cable Park). Middle of nowhere. Creepy old shacks dotting vast Texas wilderness. The occasional overalls-wearing, tobacco-chewing farmhand side-eying us city folk as we kicked up dust in a flashy green Audi.
Leatherface must be around the next corner, I thought, chainsaw roaring in hand. 

No chainsaw here, but you sure can cut through a variety of waves. And your wallet too, $130.

No chainsaw here, but you sure can cut through a variety of waves. And your wallet too, $130.

© 2022 - Waco Surf

But this is a new era: the dawn of wavepools, and manmade surf spots are popping up everywhere like beginners at Waikiki, often in highly unusual places. Kelly’s wave in Lemoore, CA, is 100 miles from the beach in Cow Country, there’s one beneath the snow-topped Matterhorn in Switzerland, and this one – an oasis of artificial surf, waterslides, and lazy rivers – is tucked away deep in the heart of Texas.

At first I thought, “Yeah, let’s turn around and drive back to Austin,” where I was staying for the week, visiting a friend and enjoying the libations, live music, and unlimited BBQ at the annual SXSW festival. But then I saw the wave, and everything clicked.

A perfect, shoulder-high left materialised out of nowhere from a pastel green pool and a nondescript concrete wall. It offered multiple sections for floaters, turns or mere cruising before ultimately finishing off with a compact, yet adequately hollow, tube section. That, I realised, that right there is why I’m here in Nowheresville, Texas — why so many surfers across the globe make the same pilgrimage every year to Waco Surf.

Your author, with a little shimmy shimmy off the top.

Your author, with a little shimmy shimmy off the top.

© 2022 - Waco Surf

Compared to, say, Kelly’s Frankenstein's monster, Waco Surf’s iteration is its own beast. It’s not as artificially perfect. It’s more user-friendly for the every-surfer. Waves come in sets of three as opposed to one, and each wave is slightly different from the last. All of which makes Waco more… approachable? Familiar, perhaps? Less synthetic, less designer, if you will. It’s like a hand-picked bouquet – dangling leaves, pockmarked petals and all – versus an immaculately assembled, yet suspiciously too perfect, store-bought arrangement.

In essence, if you close your eyes (not recommended when surfing, anywhere), it almost feels like you’re surfing your local reef or beachbreak on an above-average day. Keyword: almost.

But before I get into what it’s actually like to surf this fringe slice of Surf Americana, a little bit of background on Waco Surf. Of course, the town is notoriously known for the Waco Massacre, when an extremist group of apocalyptic Christians called the Branch Davidians held an armed standoff against the ATF and FBI, resulting in 76 dead including cult leader, David Koresh. That was 1993, and even for someone like me who was two years old at the time, that is still what comes to mind when most people think about Waco. Unfortunately. 

Grab a couple pals and make a day of it? Yes.

Grab a couple pals and make a day of it? Yes.

© 2022 - Waco Surf

But there’s so much more to Waco than that tragedy. There’s a river and a lake with hiking trails; there’s a paleontological dig site with the world’s largest concentration of well-preserved Wooly Mammoth fossils; it’s the birthplace of Dr. Pepper, which has its own museum in town; and it’s a known hotspot for paranormal activity. And now, Waco hosts one of the world’s foremost artificial surf spots, some 250 miles from the nearest surfable ocean in Galveston.

So, how did this happen?

“The history of Waco Surf is wild,” said the park’s co-owner, David Taylor. “Its original use was as a barefoot waterski training lake, dating back to 2012. Most people don’t know this, but the original name of the place, BSR, stood for ‘Barefoot Ski Ranch.’ At some point, the previous owner saw an opportunity to commercialise the property and put in the cable park, which quickly became a destination trip for the wakeboard community. After that, the Lazy River was dug out, followed by the Wedge Slides [previously known as The Royal Flush], and finally in 2018, the PerfectSwell surf attraction was installed and blew up the surf space.”

Remember that first video of Kelly’s wave, the one that dropped an atom bomb on the Internet? That was back in 2015, and Kelly rode his first wave there on December 5 of that year. It wasn’t until 2018 that the Surf Ranch held its first public event, The Founder’s Cup, so BSR wasn’t that far behind in the international wavepool race. But right from the start, it was clear that Waco was different.

Remember remember the 5th of December.

“I think the moment word got out about a wave in Waco was when Seth Moniz landed that backflip in 2018” said Taylor. “That’s the first time your average Joe said, ‘Dang, that tank full of water looks kinda rad.’ Before that, it was a steady trickle of pros, athletes and VIPs who would use the pool for training.”

From the get-go, the main thing that separated Waco from all other wavepools was its variety. While others had written “perfect wave” in bold letters on their brainstorming whiteboards, Waco crossed out the “perfect” and added an “s” at the end. And whether or not they presciently knew that imperfection was, in fact, something to strive for — perhaps anticipating the collective fatigue of seeing one unblemished cylinder after another unfurl at other locations — their formula seemed to work.

“We’re at a point where our demand outweighs our supply,” said general manager, Mike Schwaab. “And for an industry that’s less than five years old, that’s pretty insane. We currently have a ‘playlist’ of over 30 different wave types and sets. Anything from a drawn-out, Malibu-style cruisey wave to the infamous ‘Sissy Sauce’ air section made famous by Mason Ho.”

It should be noted, however, that the full buffet of Waco Surf’s wave menu is only available for private sessions. In the public sessions, you get sets of three with each wave varying only slightly (i.e., no hulking air sections to practice your backflips). Here’s a tip for the pros, though: “Wave #3 is your best chance to get barrelled,” said Schwaab of the public sessions. “If you time it right, you’re perfectly set up to get covered up through the end section. Or get clipped. That happens, too.”

Waco Surf, and its PerfectSwell technology, is powered by American Wave Machines. And while the exact details of the technology are top-secret — “If we told you how it worked, we’d have to kill you,” joked Taylor – it’s understood that AWM uses air pressure to manipulate the water, as opposed to a foil at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore or a giant plunger at Surf Lakes in Australia. That air is stored in multiple chambers, hence multiple options for manipulation.

And what about the bottom? It’s hard. Real hard. Luckily, I avoided a make-out session with the bottom. I did, however, notice how shallow it was when dismounting from a wave. It’s about knee-deep and solid concrete, so it’s best not to think about it when you’re up and riding

“Many visitors aren’t aware that the bottom of the lagoon is solid concrete,” said Schwaab. “Let’s just say the Waco wave can often leave a ‘concrete kiss’ as a souvenir. Make sure to pack a few Band-Aids.”

Luckily, I avoided a make-out session with the bottom. I did, however, notice how shallow it was when dismounting from a wave. It’s about knee-deep and solid concrete, so it’s best not to think about it when you’re up and riding. In fact, throw away most of what you know about surfing during your first couple waves. The takeoff, in particular, is totally counterintuitive. On my first wave, which was a right, I instinctively went left. The angle of the wave was pushing left, away from the wall, but the face was breaking towards the wall.

Paddling for a wave at Waco is different, too. “Logically, most first-timers try to paddle parallel with the wall,” Schwaab explained, “but if you angle your board 45 degrees away from the wall and head towards the far stadium lights surrounding the lagoon, you’re going to save yourself some serious paddle strength and up your wave count significantly. Once you’ve popped up, though, you’re surfing. You won’t even know that you’re not in the ocean.”

As for gear, should you bring a different type of surfboard? Like if a shortboard is your standard weapon of choice, should you consider bringing something smaller like a groveller? Short answers: yes and yes.

“Because there is way less paddling involved compared to surfing in the ocean, seasoned surfers can feel confident bringing smaller-volume boards than they’re used to,” said Schwaab. “I find that shaving a few litres off allows me to work on turns a lot easier. For instance, I probably ride about 28L in the ocean, but my go-to board here is 24.5L.”
Or don’t bring anything at all. Waco Surf has a quiver of boards on hand (and wetsuits, depending on the time of year) for rent. For my session, I rented a Firewire AWT (Artificial Wave Technology), which was designed specifically for wavepools. The model was 5’4” x 19 9/6” x 2 7/16” and 27.1L. I’m 6’0” and 160lbs, and this was plenty of board for me here. 

SOLD!

SOLD!

© 2022 - Waco Surf

So, the verdict? I was sold. After the initial hiccups of figuring out how this thing worked – it’ll take anyone a couple waves to get the feel – by the end of the session, I was loving it. Like a lot of wavepools, there isn’t as much lip to hit once you get to the top. But you adjust. You learn to start your turns earlier, rather than anticipating the wave to push back when you hit it. And the tube section at the end was way too much fun.

The $130 (at the time of writing) I spent for a slot in the public session was well worth the tubes alone. But to really get the full experience and test out all the different waves on offer, the private session is the way to go. Even after just an hour, I started getting bored of riding the same wave over and over. Having the option to change things up at the touch of a button would be next-level. At the time of writing, the price tag for that was $2,750 an hour, but you can fill the pool with as many friends as you like.

Of course, as wavepools continue to grow in performance and popularity, there will always be skeptics out there. There will always be surf purists that say nothing can compare to the real thing, that wavepools are blasphemous, that they’re contributing to the dystopian future of a once-sacred act.

And while the folks at Waco Surf certainly understand their concern, they’re not necessarily sorry.

“We totally get it,” said Schwaab. “The ocean is a magical place, and there are facets of it that simply cannot be replicated. That being said, the art of waveriding is why we’re all in the wave tech space in the first place, our love for surfing and the ocean. Also, it’s true that nearly every surf spot in the world is horribly overcrowded these days. We’re just doing our part by offering another wave to clear those local breaks out for you.

“So, you’re welcome.”