Smart watches and artificial waves: surfing enters high-tech era | Kieran Pender

With new technology in the line-up, a streaming series making waves and artificial breaks in the mix, professional surfing is rapidly reinventing itself

The Pipeline Masters, held at one of the world’s most iconic waves on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, is a competition embedded in surfing folklore. It has been held almost every year since 1971 and was a marquee event in the inaugural men’s surfing world tour in 1976.

For many years Pipe was the final competition of the season, often anointing the world champion. The fearsome wave of consequence is a fitting arena for the world’s best; Kelly Slater has won the event eight times and the Irons brothers hold five Pipe titles between them.

For an event steeped in history and tradition, Pipe offers a study in contrast as the 2023 World Surf League begins this week. Surfing, long a sport associated with its counter-cultural roots, is entering the future.

With new technology in the line-up, a blockbuster TV series making waves and renewed emphasis on artificial surf breaks, professional surfing is rapidly reinventing itself. The juxtaposition is jarring: a raw battle between human and ocean on one hand, an innovative multi-million dollar global sporting entity on the other.

Surf watches are the most recent development. On Saturday, WSL announced that the Apple Watch is now the “official wearable equipment” for the world’s best surfers.

Before each heat during this year’s WSL, surfers will receive a smart watch preloaded with a special app. According to the WSL, the app has been tested over the past two seasons to calibrate it for in-competition use.

The tie-up between the WSL and a Silicon Valley giant is less strange than it may seem at first glance. Dedicated surf watches have become common enough over the past decade.

The purpose-built app will solve the information difficulties often faced by surfers mid-heat. Wave scores and the allocation of priority (which surfer has right of way on the wave) are typically communicated over loudspeakers, a hit-and-miss solution in heavy conditions.

In a press release, former WSL champion Italo Ferreira described it as “total game changer”. This may be hyperbolic PR speak, but he has a point.

“Challenging conditions can make it hard to see the beach and a priority penalty could cost you the heat, so not needing to rely on seeing the beach or hearing the announcers makes a huge difference and prevents guesswork,” he said.

Apple also commissioned the Make or Break series for its Apple TV+ streaming platform. The first season was released to acclaim last year; a second season will be released in mid- February.

Produced by the same company behind Netflix’s Drive to Survive, which substantially boosted the popular appeal of Formula One, WSL are hoping for a similar effect. With behind-the-scenes access during the year-long surf calendar, the series combined stunning aesthetics at waves across the globe with heartfelt personal tales.

Although it is early to gauge a Make or Break effect, the early signs are promising. Last year’s WSL finals, won by Australia’s Stephanie Gilmore and Brazilian Filipe Toledo respectively, was reportedly the most-watched surfing competition in history, with a reported 8.3 million views across WSL digital channels. Not everyone is so positive, though, and the veracity of WSL’s numbers has been questioned.

2023 will also see the WSL return to Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch wave pool in California after a short absence. The artificial wave made its WSL debut in 2018; its return to the calendar underscores the world tour organiser’s decision to double-down on artificial waves. In December, a WSL regional qualification event was held at Urbnsurf in Melbourne; more such venues are under construction across the globe (including in Sydney).

While a wave pool will never offer the natural atmospherics of Pipeline, the iconic vista of Bell’s Beach or the intensity of Teahupo’o in Tahiti, artificial breaks bring certainty – which in this commercialised era is no small benefit. Organisers can be guaranteed a high-quality wave on demand – missing swells and unhelpful winds be damned.

But for all these technological innovations, the essentials of Pipe are unchanged. Men – and now women, after the first women’s WSL event was held at Pipe in 2020 – charging one of the best waves in the world, as giant Pacific swell explodes onto shallow Hawaiian reefs.

For Australia, young guns Jack Robinson and Ethan Ewing will be hoping to build on their breakout 2022 season; Margaret River local Robinson came agonisingly close to winning the world title and will be right at home at Pipe. In the women’s draw, Tyler Wright won at Pipe in 2020 and reached the semi-final last year. Reared on heavy slabs on the New South Wales south coast, Wright is no stranger to waves of consequence.

A high-tech watch might help keep track of scoring and a TV series may draw more viewers to the live-stream, but when Robinson, Ewing and Wright pull into Pipe’s heavy barrels this week, it will be them against the ferocity of the Pacific ocean. In that respect at least, nothing has changed since Quicksilver co-founder Jeff Hakman won the first edition at Pipe in 1971.


Kieran Pender

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The new generation of Australian women planning on world surfing domination | Kate Allman
Molly Picklum and Sophie McCulloch are part of a formidable field of six in the world’s top 18 this year

Kate Allman

03, Apr, 2023 @3:00 PM

Article image
Owen Wright: ‘Surfing is always going to be a part of my life’ | Kieran Pender
The retiring Olympic medallist bows out at Bells Beach this week but says he will never stop chasing waves – just slightly more ‘mellow’ ones

Kieran Pender

06, Apr, 2023 @6:21 AM

Article image
Evergreen Kelly Slater on surfing at the age of 51: ‘I’ve kept myself in good shape’
The 11-time world champion has been competing at the highest level for over 30 years and is aiming for a golden swansong at the Paris Olympics

Kieran Pender

03, Mar, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Surf’s up in the suburbs as Australia’s first wave pool competition gets pumping
It’s not Teahupo’o or Bells Beach, but the World Surf League-endorsed wave pool on Melbourne’s outskirts might just be the future of surfing.

Kieran Pender

10, Dec, 2022 @5:40 AM

Article image
Surfing goes inland: Kelly Slater's artificial waves push pro tour into uncharted waters
Putting a wave pool on the calendar might just change everything from coastal treasures to how we define surfing

Alex Dick-Read

01, Dec, 2017 @9:00 PM

Article image
From bricklaying to Bells Beach: Australian surfer Jackson Baker plots return to the WSL | Kieran Pender
Since being cut after a narrow loss, the 26-year-old is determined to win back his spot – for himself and in memory of his mum

Kieran Pender

24, Nov, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Tyler Wright falls short of back-to-back World Surf League wins as Carissa Moore gets better of old rival
The pair’s 12th encounter in a final went the Hawaiian’s way at Main Break, her ninth career win over Wright

Guardian sport and agencies

28, Apr, 2023 @6:20 AM

Article image
Daria Kasatkina: ‘Coming out helped me. I just felt much better, I’m happy with the outcome’
Daria Kasatkina tells Simon Cambers about a tumultuous year for the Russian player who has been banned from Wimbledon, spoken out against the war in Ukraine and over her own sexuality

Simon Cambers in Melbourne

16, Jan, 2023 @6:00 PM

Article image
Australia rout Papua New Guinea with 15 tries in Women’s World Cup semi-final
Australia’s Isabelle Kelly and Emma Tonagato scored hat-tricks of tries as their side powered past Papua New Guinea 82-0

John Davidson

14, Nov, 2022 @6:55 PM

Article image
Blow for Australia as Glenn Maxwell suffers freak accident at party
Star allrounder Glenn Maxwell has undergone surgery today for a broken leg, meaning he will miss the ODI series against England and Test tour of India

Angus Fontaine

13, Nov, 2022 @6:37 AM