- By Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
No sharks, no seaweed and no worries about the moon, tide or wind.
The wave machine at NLand Surf Park fired up this month, and it’s spawning a steady stream of perfectly formed waves, ripe for the catching.
But can a man-made lagoon in the middle of what used to be Texas farmland serve up cowabunga-worthy surf? We decided to head to the park to find out.
I’ve surfed once before, during a half-day lesson in Maui about 10 years ago. The paddling out part came naturally, since I’m a swimmer. The balancing on a board part? Not so much.
Here at NLand, surfers sign up to ride one of three waves: the beginner-sized “bay” wave, the intermediate “inside” wave or the head-high “reef” wave, where you can channel Laird Hamilton while swooshing across a lagoon the size of nine football fields.
It’s not cheap. Guests pay $60 an hour to surf either the bay or the inside wave or $90 to ride the Big Kahuna. At the rate of one wave every 2 minutes, though, an hourlong session gets you up to 30 opportunities to ride.
“It looks like a happy day at Waikiki,” Josh Snowhorn, 45, who’s been surfing for 34 years, drools as we peer at the lagoon while waiting to watch a two-minute safety video.
After the video, I head to a designated “launch pad,” where I’m grouped with three other guests in the beginner section. A lifeguard sets out ground rules: Don’t line up in front of each other; don’t dive forward off your board to get off; keep your board secured to your leg by a leash.
Next, we grab surfboards. I pick a towering red one that’ll make it easy to catch a wave, but better surfers can use smaller, more nimble boards or even bring their own. Then we wade into the water, flop onto our boards and glide out. The bottom of the lagoon, which is 8 feet at its deepest, is covered in plastic, which makes it slippery.
When the clock ticks down to 11 a.m., a cheer goes up. Right on time, the wave-making “foil,” which looks like a snowplow, begins its slow roll across the center of the lagoon, pushing a swell of water in front of it. The better surfers pop up on their boards and slice across the wave, hooting and hollering.
After the main wave breaks, a smaller wave peels off. As it approaches, someone yells “paddle,” and I start pinwheeling my arms. The wave slings my board forward, and immediately I’m tossed into the water. It takes a few tries to figure things out. At first, I’m not lined up correctly. Then I’m too far forward, forcing the nose of my board into the water. I try to stand up too soon, too.
But since the wave unfolds exactly the same way each time, it’s easy to focus on correcting mistakes. The swells roll back and forth across the pool, but it’s easier to catch them going one way than the other, so I alternate waves. If you’re good, it’s a long ride, too. A run on the big wave can last up to 30 seconds; the intermediate wave serves up a 20-second coast.
“The only thing missing is the salt burning your nose,” Cy Huckaba tells me afterward. Huckaba grew up surfing in Hawaii and California. “Compared to the Texas coast, it’s night and day. It’s more consistent, less choppy — it’s a fun time.”
When my session ends, I park myself on the pier that bisects the lagoon so I can get an up-close look at the expert surfers, who surf just a few feet from the viewing platform.
Surfing, it turns out, is good for you, too. It provides a cardiovascular workout, and surfers strengthen their arms through paddling, their legs by climbing on and off the board and their core muscles by trying to stay balanced. Best of all, it’s easy to forget you’re getting exercise when you’re having so much fun.
“It was incredible,” says Chalet Arnold, 25, a nurse at University Medical Center Brackenridge. “Surfing in the ocean is complicated. You have seaweed and sea creatures, and I don’t like saltwater in my eye. This makes it so accessible. You could start here and get a base, then go to the ocean. You’d know the etiquette, know how to catch a wave.”
After just one session, John Petrey, 62, is ready to sign up for more. “It’s absolutely awesome,” he says. “The waves are so consistent — every two minutes and it’s exactly the same. There’s no, ‘This wave looks good but no it’s not.’ It’s always exactly right.”
Doug Coors, a descendant of Coors Brewing founder Adolph Coors, first dreamed of this park 20 years ago. He got serious three years ago, choosing Austin for his dream project because, well, it’s Austin — full of hip young people who love the outdoors and don’t have access to a beach. Flooding rains slowed the project, then the opening was delayed as county officials hashed out details of the park’s water filtration system.
Today, grinning surfers high-five Coors as he watches from the park’s training center, where customers can work with coaches to perfect their technique.
“I’m super excited. I think people are enjoying it, and that was the whole goal,” Coors says.
Sure, the lagoon lacks some of the mystique of the ocean, where surfers spend long hours waiting for the perfect wave to materialize. But the consistency and frequency of the man-made wave, and the lack of dangerous currents and sharks, make it an excellent place to perfect technique, Coors says.
“The great thing about the ocean is the vulnerability and vast expanse of ocean and being out there,” Coors says. “You can’t replace that, but what we have here is the ability to go out and just surf.”
The park, which Coors says cost more than $20 million to create and is the first of its kind in the U.S., employs about 200 people, and can simultaneously accommodate up to 140 surfers in the water at once. Those who’d rather just watch can view from an observation area. Surfers can also lounge on a man-made beach made of native Texas sand.
“It’s a little bit more friendly,” says Coors, who divides his time between Fort Collins, Colorado, and Austin. “To me, the biggest thing this brings is access to more people. You don’t have to live on the coast to surf.”