Red Bull Unleashed, one of the first international surf competitions on man-made waves, was held last weekend at the Surf Snowdonia wave park in North Wales. Hawaiian Albee Layer took first place out of about 20 competitors.
Surf Snowdonia is the world’s largest and first commercial Wavegarden, a technology that involves an underwater plow moving back and forth, creating constant, 6.5-foot waves, according to Red Bull. More than 2,000 people showed up for the inaugural event, many of whom stood a few feet from the waves, creating a stadium-like atmosphere that broke from the surfing tradition.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming here,” Layer, a 24-year-old Maui native, told Red Bull. “Surfing so close to so many people, music playing, heaps of energy in the air, to get the win is crazy.”
Brodie Carr, the communications manager for the event and former CEO of the Association of Surf Professionals (ASP), told Outside that the idea for the event emerged from conversations about the future of surfing.
“There’s been a lot of talk about surfing going to the Olympic Games, [and] that surfing is not fair in the oceans because one surfer wins because he caught the best wave,” Carr said. “We wanted to do an event with a wave pool, where the conditions [were] the same for each person, so we [could] determine who’s the best.”
But, Carr emphasized, the idea wasn’t to make a better contest, just a different one.
“You’ll never replicate the ocean. The ocean has wind and tides and waves that aren’t consistent with frequency, height, [and] direction,” he said. “There are so many variables, and you need to be able to use all of those factors to win.”
In the wave pool, the wave is the same for everyone, which levels the playing field.
The event also featured a new scoring system. Whereas traditional surf competitions typically run half-hour heats and then score the best two waves, Unleashed pitted riders against each other in head-to-head contests to determine the best out of five.
“It’s a lot quicker and a lot more exciting,” said Carr.
The event organizers were concerned surfers might find the competition format or wave too unusual, but Carr said the response from riders was overwhelmingly positive.
According to Red Bull, when asked how the event would stack up next year, competitor Ian Crane said, “What do you mean? It’s insane right now! Can I sign up for 2016 yet?”
Because Surf Snowdonia is currently the world’s only commercial Wavegarden, Carr said the contest doesn’t currently have plans to expand. But Surf Snowdonia might not have the monopoly for much longer. This morning, Surfer Today announced that Portugal just signed on to install a Wavegarden in Vila Nova de Gaia in the north of the country.
UPDATE: September 22, 17:30 MDT: A previous version of this article stated this was the first international surf competition on man-made waves, but the World Inland Surfing Championships took place in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1985, according to Surfer.