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Plagued by technology flaws, surf parks are struggling to live up to their hype

Surfers are always in search of the perfect wave. The problem is those moving mountains of water are rare in Florida, so much that dedicated surfers scour the state and beyond to find the right conditions.

Surf parks were supposed to be the solution. They were designed to offer real thrills in an underwater world of concrete and chlorine, delivering a steady supply of man-made waves that would eliminate the waiting for perfect surf.

Now, surf parks are on the verge of wiping out.

Last year, Cocoa-based Ron Jon Surf Shop pulled its name off a proposed surf park in Orlando that touted waves as high as 10 feet and the use of new technology that could alter the contour of the bottom of the pool to emulate some of the more famous ocean breaks. The project was delayed by technology flaws since it was announced in 2004, and developers are searching for other investors to continue.

"We signed on as a bigger scope project," Ron Jon spokeswoman Heather Lewis said. "The developers were wanting to go with a scaled-down version, and that didn't meet our criteria."

Another proposed surf park, the Randall's Island Aquatic Center in New York City, was nixed in January 2008 because of a lack of funds.

Even surf parks that were completed have not stayed open for long. The Ocean Dome in Japan, listed in the Guinness World Records as the largest indoor water park, closed this year because of poor attendance.

The struggle of surf parks to become a mecca for wave-riding enthusiasts comes at a time when the sport is trying to define itself.

Surfing purists have never been fond of surf parks. To them, it makes surfing boring because part of the sport is searching remote beaches for the best waves.

But professional surfers saw the potential of surf parks as a way to reach a mainstream audience.

Competitive surfing rarely gets television exposure because waves are too unpredictable.

The only opportunity for most to watch competitive surfing was the X Games. But it was dropped from the X Games last year after a five-year run. Now, the only way to watch competitive surfing often is via Web cams.

The development of wave pools could serve as arenas to hold large-scale competitive surfing events and help bring the sport to a bigger audience.

"One element professional surfing lacks is an arena atmosphere," Layne Beachley, a seven-time world champion, told the New York Times. "An arena allows the crowd to be right on top of the action. I'd like to see professional surfing staged in an arena like that."

Kelly Slater is working on that. The 10-time world champion said in Sports Illustrated last month that he's working with engineers to develop a wave pool that could help surfing join skateboarding and snowboarding not only as staples in the X Games but also in the Olympics.

Even Ron Jon has not written off the concept.

"We like the idea and think that it's something that could eventually work," Lewis said. "We just have to find the right fit."

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@sptimes.com.

Plagued by technology flaws, surf parks are struggling to live up to their hype 06/29/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 4:58pm]
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