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The Pipe Dream—Surf City Texas

Posted by James Fulbright on

Disclaimer: This blog is neither witty nor humorous.

It doesn’t happen very often, but on occasion, someone will come into the surf shop and ask, “Whatever happened to your wave-pool project, Surf City Texas?”

I will quickly give them a short synopsis of what happened, but it’s a sore subject, to say the least, so I always try to condense my response by saying as little as possible.

About a year ago, I noticed a local surfer lambasting me on a public forum, claiming I hoodwinked people out of money during my attempt to introduce the world’s first wave park, designed exclusively for surfers.

Well, dear reader, that could be no further from the truth! The entire project was funded by me and me alone. Any monies that exchanged hands, aside from my own life savings, were done so during a fund-raising party, where you could buy a T-shirt, poster or a music CD. Your purchase bought you admission to the party and any one of those items and bought me a little more time to drum up investors.

Those investors were supposed to help me take the entire concept from a 1/12th scale model (12 actually) to a full-scale wave pool. I damn near pulled it off too.

Allow me to give you the not-so-short version of what happened. I will first have to go back in time to 2002: Three years after Dana Brown and crew filmed myself and a few of my friends riding tanker wakes, for his 2003 film release, "Step Into Liquid."

"Step Into Liquid" had been in production since 1999 when the film crew initially came to Texas and was nearing completion when I received a phone call from one of the film’s investors.

He told me that he had a copy of an early, rough draft of the film! He wanted to fly here and go tanker surfing in exchange for giving my friends and I a rare, sneak-peek preview. I said yes, of course. It had been so long since they had been here to capture the footage, we had started to wonder if the movie would ever come out at all.

The investor flew in that summer and I called my friends who were also in the segment and set up the showing at my house, the night after I took the gentleman tanker surfing. The tanker surf adventure went great.

That night we all gathered around the TV and watched the rough draft and saw our footage for the first time. It was surreal! He was very protective and secretive of the tape and kept it locked up in his briefcase. It felt like real, cloak and dagger stuff…top secret! It was even cooler since, at the time, the film production company was named Top Secret Productions!

The next day the wind had come up and there were little waves along the beach so I took him surfing again. That time, though, they were beach waves: about knee to thigh high.

We had fun on the tiny beach waves and after we came back to shore, and were hanging out on Galveston’s Seawall, I noticed a light bulb go off in his head and he immediately got very excited when he told me, “I’m good friends with Tom Morey and he is working on a project that would be a perfect fit for Texas surfers!”

I was intrigued and asked for more information. He went on to tell me Tom had been researching artificial wave generating technology and wave pool designs. With Texas having a rather large surfing contingency and a lack of consistent waves to ride, it would be the perfect place to launch the concept of a surf park.

I was sold immediately and, within a month, flew out to California for a meeting with Tom Morey and one of the wave cannon technology inventors, Richard C. I was all in! It hit me like a bullet between the eyes. I saw into the future: a future where wave pools were an integral part of the surfing culture; a place to go practice, like a gym, a driving range or the like.

For the next two years, after that fateful meeting with Tom Morey and Richard C, I did nothing but pursue the wave pool project. I bet every dime I had saved to that point on the success of the project. I burned through both of my kids’ college funds and all my savings.

The first year was spent buying rights to the technology, buying all of the wave cannon hardware, renting a warehouse, building 12 working models (1/12th scale) and researching any and all other concepts and patents.

I hired my long-time mentor, Freestyle Fins’ Donn Leva to help me. He has a brilliant mind like Tom Morey and was with me every step of the way. Together, we proved the pool concept and determined that the technology not only worked but seemed to be the best wave generating mechanism out there. We documented everything. Wave Cannon technology used submerged pipes filled with the existing pool water and it used compressed air at 95 psi to fire a 1/10th of a second valve opening, which pushed the water out of the pipes and created a ground-swell.

We gave presentations to both the media and to potential investors. 18 months into the project, after not taking a dime from anyone else, my funds had gone from roughly $160,000 to $30,000. I was running out of money. I decided to have a fundraiser to generate whatever funds I could muster up, just to keep the project alive a little longer, while I continued to pitch the wave pool to angel investors, bankers, business owners or any others who were willing to offer either sweat equity or cold hard cash.

In the meantime, "Step Into Liquid" had been released. The worldwide attention it received gave me a temporary pulpit of sorts.

SURFER Magazine did a two-page spread on my project, I aptly named Surf City Texas. I then went to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) for help.

I had hoped that they would simply endorse the project. The CEOs of every major surf company sat on that board. They refused to endorse the project, citing liability concerns. That temporarily took the wind out of my sails. Another interesting occurrence was that soon after I had launched the project website, I started getting numerous phone calls from a certain individual who was also pursuing a surf park project in Florida.

Remember, I had studied every patent pertaining to wave pool designs and wave generating technology already. I had also purchased licensing rights to the wave generating technology to protect myself as well. From that moment forward, Donn and I agreed to publish every modification and design element we had perfected and implemented directly into the public domain–immediately!

We both knew we neither had the time nor the money to apply for, and maybe receive patent protection for our designs and findings. By publishing it to the public domain ASAP, nobody else would be able to secure a patent for the specifics we had already made public: namely the pool design.

The folks in Florida allegedly had applied for patents pertaining to specific aspects of their pool design, like their movable bottom and their pool’s wedged outline. They had pending patents. From what they could see in our published photos, they evidently had a shallow opinion that we could potentially be in conflict with one of their pending patents.

They never said that directly, though… They first suggested that we abandon our research and potentially license their concepts. I had studied their project at great length and saw what I thought to be a fatal flaw in their design ( movable pool bottom) and remained focused on our own pool design and wave generating technology. Even at 1/12th scale, we too experienced problems with liner rips: among other problems caused by wave energy, like you would see on the beaches around the world…erosion and chaos.

I was so focused and naive, I didn’t realize that we were smack dab in the middle of a global race to be the first group to build a successful surf park/wave pool at full scale. Rumor had it that whoever successfully launched first would win wave-pool world domination.

Hell, all I ever wanted was a wave-pool nearby. Of course, Donn and I knew full well if we were successful, more people would take note and franchise opportunities would soon follow. That’s why I bet the farm…We still had one major obstacle to overcome: find investors who were willing to take the risk on a project that had yet to be proven at full scale.

As I said before, my exposure in the film "Step Into Liquid" gave me a bit of international notoriety—just as the SURFER Magazine spread about Surf City Texas had done, but in both cases, it turned out to be a double-edged sword.

First, I received a tremendous amount of negative backlash from the local surf community when the film came out. Why? Well, evidently they missed the point of the entire film.

"Step Into Liquid" was about the surf stoke. Whether you are a surfer on the Great Lakes, a tanker surfer in Texas, a surfer like Dale Webster or Laird Hamilton, surfing is about the stoke more so than perfect waves in a tropical paradise. Your average surfer doesn’t get to surf perfect waves in a tropical paradise every day…but they are still stoked to ride a wave: any wave.

Many surfers in Texas missed the point of the film and bitched that SIL showcased tanker surfing in Texas instead of showing local surfers riding Texas waves on the beachfront. Texans seemed to like the wave-pool idea, however, but the wave pool project and all the publicity associated with it caused a national stir.

The surf chat rooms and forums, as well as my inbox, were filled with criticism pertaining to an artificial surfing environment. The critics eloquently pointed out how sacrilegious it was to artificially fabricate something as sacred as waves produced by King Neptune himself! They were all shouting, “how dare you, sir!!” Some comments I received made it sound like they wanted to literally burn me at the stake!

So there I was, two years into the project, flat broke, no investors, hated by many in local surf community due to the tanker surfing exposure we received, was accused of being the surfing anti-Christ nationally, because I wanted to create my own man-made waves. That didn’t stop me.

I devised a last ditch effort to put everything into the proper perspective and potentially get the funding I needed…I made a surf documentary with the last of my money: a film highlighting other sports and past times that were invented by desperate and inventive surfers, in an attempt to capture the same stoke and feeling of surfing.

The film traced skateboarding back to a surfer at Windansea Beach, California, in the 40’s. I traced the beginnings of wakeboarding to a land-locked surfer, documented wake-surfing behind modified boats in Austin, river-surfing around the world, tidal bore surfing in South America and France, the ancient art of He’E Holua Sled Riding in Hawaii, tanker surfing in Texas and finally, what I still consider to be the future of surfing…wave pools.

The film, "Miles To Surf," launched in late 2004. It would be my final $25,000 advertising campaign of sorts, to promote Surf City Texas.

Then, out of the blue, I got a whopper of a phone call. The man on the other end informed me that he was, in fact, the person who owned all the wave cannon patents and that the gentleman who sold me the territorial rights to the technology had no authority to do so and was being sued by him. It turned out that the agreement I signed was not worth the paper it was printed on.

After some legal wrangling and renegotiating (as well as the kindness of Mr. Johnson), we were eventually able to come to an agreement…he honored my original agreement, thank the Lord!

By the time I had moved out of the warehouse, where we had conceived and built all those scale models, it was going on three years and now, nearly $200,000 out of pocket, in trying to make the surf park concept become a reality. I had 3,000 surfers signed up to join, had succeeded in modifying the technology and developing a successful pool design, devised and presented a solid business plan, made an award-winning surf documentary and had 4 solid investors ready to proceed with what was estimated to be a 10 million dollar project.

Then, I got another phone call. On the other end of the call was a surfer friend of mine who was one of the sons of a billionaire. He sounded excited when he invited my investors and I to a special event with a guest speaker who specifically asked him for us to be there.

I already knew who the guest speaker was, as he was one of the guys on the Florida surf park team: a heavy hitter in both coastal conservation, erosion, offshore artificial reef construction and a developer of wave pool designs. He even had a PhD attached to his name.

We all attended the presentation and met him afterwards. He walked up to Donn Leva and I and introduced himself and immediately looked at my posse and asked me if all of my investors were there? I proudly said yes they were. He then retorted, “if you continue to proceed with your project, I will sue the lot of you because you are infringing on my “pending” patent”…pending mind you.

I knew what it had to do with and I knew we would have prevailed in a court of law but also knew I didn’t have the money it would have taken to defend myself. Their pool design was based on the pretense that since all previous wave pools started narrower where the wave generating mechanism sat and fanned out, as the wave traveled, they were losing energy as the wave traverses the length of the pool.

The previous pool perimeters started narrow and then fanned out. It was partially designed to dissipate wave energy quicker. Their pool design went from wide to narrow. Hence the name “wedge”. Our pool walls did not wedge. We used bathymetry to contain and direct the wave energy instead of wedged pool walls. He was blowing smoke and rattling cages.

After Dr. K walked away (wow that rhymes), my largest investor patted me on the back and said, “you are playing with the big boys now and that was just a typical scare tactic. I wouldn’t worry. Call me tomorrow and we will keep moving forward.”

I was relieved when he said that. Unfortunately, neither he nor any of the others would ever take my calls or return my messages again. Check Mate.

Not long after that meeting, pro surfers, the media, and hundreds more attended the grand opening of the surf park in Florida, where they had claimed to be able to produce 6’ barrels and mimic a half a dozen breaks around the world with their “moving bottom”…the one that the good DR. had designed. After a couple of firings, the wave (which was about waist high) ripped the liner out of the pool. Check and Mate. Karma is a dish best served cold.

With Surf City Texas, I gave it everything I had, literally, figuratively, financially and physically but that was a death blow to me personally.

I had never been a man that risked everything like I did with the wave pool project. I lost big-time. My hair started falling out and I ground through my teeth enamel from worry and angst.

Within 6 months, I had to liquidate and relocate my surf shop, lick my wounds and start all over again. No biggie. I’m over it now. If I had it all to do over again, I would still do it.

Wave Cannons, coupled with the pool design that Donn and I had perfected after 12 attempts… still, to this day, supersedes anything out there. I will say that our project seemed to be a catalyst for the idea of a wave-pool designed specifically for surfing finally coming to fruition.

Soon after that fateful meeting and my grand failure, the first footage of the Wave Garden project in Spain mysteriously went public. Within a year or two, the first Wave Garden technology wave pool built for public use opened in England.

Soon after opening, they had serious problems with their liner. It ripped! Donn and I had researched that aspect at length. We had found a very strong and textured environmental liner used to contain extremely toxic waste!

A year or two later, we all heard about the 10 million dollar wave pool project in Austin, Texas. It took a couple/few of years to build it. I wanted to contact them and offer to consult or help in some way, but to this day, I still feel the sting of the whip. I should have, though.

Using the same Wave Garden technology (a plow I believe they call it), within a couple of months of opening, the media reported that the Austin wave pool closed due to a rip in the liner and the subsequent flooding of a nearby neighborhood. Considering what had already happened in England, that was quite surprising to me. Same song…different day….another liner problem. It baffles the mind.

Everyone really got trumped (sorry for the pun…not really) when Kelly Slater went public with his own wave pool version: a beast of a peeling, hollow artificial wave!! Nothing comes close. Even Kelly and Company had numerous hardships to overcome: even lawsuit threats. Sound familiar?

Evidently, Australian surfer/shaper Greg Weber alleged Slater’s designs conflicted with his ideas and patents. Somehow they seemed to reach an amicable agreement. I was really glad to hear that.

Now, another Australian surfer, Peter Drouyn turned Westerly Windina turned back to Peter Drouyn has come out about the possibility that Slater’s designs are a knock-off of his ideas that were, until recently, patent protected. The drama continues…

It seems to me that everyone involved in wavepool and surf park technology is still fighting to be “the man”. There’s always been room for everyone at my table as far as I’m concerned. My position has always been to share ideas and work together (like Weber and Slater have seemed to do). Share the pie instead of eating the entire thing! It seems that I will take everything I have learned and designed to my grave.

Obviously, I was slightly ahead of my time. Someday, a wave cannon project will be built at full scale. People will see…mark my words- Surf Parks and Wave Pools are an exciting part of the future of surfing. Unfortunately, it won’t be Surf City Texas. But you never know… maybe…….:)

Surf City Texas Wave Parks Wave Pools

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