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The stoke is real at Hawai‘i’s first artificial wave pool

The author, Honolulu Star-Advertiser surfing columnist Mindy Pennybacker, rides a standing wave at The LineUp at Wai Kai surf park in ‘Ewa Beach.

Under the scorching June sun on O‘ahu’s ‘Ewa plain, the clear turquoise waters and churning swells at The LineUp at Wai Kai, Hawai‘i’s first artificial wave pool, looked cool and refreshing—but also a bit daunting—as I prepared to give it a try.

Okay, I was terrified. At the deep end of the 100-foot-wide pool, divided on this day into 30- and 65-foot lanes, industrial pumps forced water down a spillway to noisily shape a 4-foot-high wave.

To be clear, I grew up in Honolulu and have surfed ocean waves 3 times that size, but this was a different beast. For one thing, it was a fixed (or standing) wave that didn’t break, so theoretically you could ride forever, turning back and forth. For another, instead of paddling into the wave, you start out standing on your board, holding on to the edge of the pool—already on the wave, as it were.

I began by sitting on the pool’s rubber-padded concrete edge and, following instructor Ollie Fix’s directions, planted my feet in a wide surfing stance atop the soft foam deck of the round-nosed short board he held on the water’s surface. “Push down hard, especially with your back foot, and then push off,” Fix said.

I took a deep breath and pressed down with the soles of my feet. I felt the wave push back beneath my board—an entirely novel sensation. I mentally prepared myself to stand and, fingers crossed, carve a turn—or crash and burn.

The wave pool phenomenon

Most wave pools are situated inland in places like Texas, California, Europe, Japan, and the Middle East. Located only about 600 yards from the Pacific Ocean, The LineUp at Wai Kai resides on an island surrounded by some of the world’s most renowned natural waves.

Yet it’s generating buzz.

Wai Kai is the largest user of fixed-wave water-pumping technology by Citywave, the company that also powers wave pools in Madrid, Spain, and Lake Chelan, Washington. Considered a deep-water wave pool, its 3-to-5-foot depth allows the use of standard surfboards with skegs (or fins), unlike shallow-water fixed waves, which require finless—and less maneuverable—boards.

In contrast, the world’s most famous artificial wave pool is approximately 500 feet wide and imitates the real thing. Developed in 2015 by champion surfer Kelly Slater at Surf Ranch in California’s Central Valley, the hydrofoil-plow model produces replicas of ocean waves that are up to 6 feet high in water 4 feet deep that accommodate regular surfboards with fins.

Designed for high-performance maneuvers, the Surf Ranch wave (often referred to as “Kelly’s wave”) forms barrels as well as steep, fast-breaking walls. While the Citywave provides room for radical turns and acrobatics, including aerials, it does not barrel.

Mindy Pennybacker wearing a helmet and carrying a surf board at the artificial wave pool.

The use of a helmet and a foam-topped, round-nosed board are required for first-time Wai Kai surfers.

Asked how he’d compare them, Gerry Lopez—famed Hawai‘i surf champion, Pipeline pioneer, and yoga master—gave a characteristically balanced reply. “There aren’t tube rides at Wai Kai, but there are literally a million turns to be had, and anyone from first-time beginner to pro-level surfer will find it very fun to ride and quite simple to figure out,” Lopez said. “Kelly’s wave is so close to a perfect wave in the ocean that one has to pinch themselves.”

The latter is also quite expensive, if you can get in at all, since access is mostly limited to World Surf League events and private parties that rent the entire facility for at least a day. According to a 2023 roundup by Wavepool Magazine, Surf Ranch’s daily rate for 10 surfers is $5,000 to $7,000 per person, or about $625 to $875 an hour. Wai Kai’s standing wave, on the other hand, costs $60 to $100 an hour for kama‘āina.

“If we’re talking apples and oranges, Wai Kai is an orange grove and Kelly’s is hoping for the golden apple from a single tree,” Lopez said.

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A place for beginners

Author Mindy Pennybacker taking notes while talking with a Wai Kai instructor.

The author completes an orientation session by head surf instructor Jules Nichols (pictured at left).

Back at Wai Kai, my time had arrived. I let go, feeling the board rise beneath me, bucking as the wave pushed it upward—quite unlike an ocean wave, where gravity pulls you down the breaking face. I felt disoriented by this wave-in-reverse, as if I had entered a looking-glass world. I pushed harder and the board stabilized a bit. This, I realized, was a non-boring way to build core and leg strength.

Head instructor Jules Nichols stood facing me on another board, hovering in one spot on the wave’s face (impossible for longer than a second in the ocean). She held out her hands for me to take and, facing the wave, guided me forward as she moved backward.

“Eyes up; look at the wave ahead of you,” Nichols said, and I saw her eyes widen as she fell back and was sucked up and over the wave. My board had struck hers. I immediately followed suit, falling backward and flat with my arms and legs splayed to avoid injury, as they’d taught us during orientation. Good thing I wore the required helmet and had a foam-topped, round-nosed board (which all Wai Kai first-timers must use, regardless of experience and skill).

Author Mindy Pennybacker seated at the edge of the wave pool as an instructor holds her board.

Surf instructor Jules Nichols (in the wave pool) preps the author for a ride.

For subsequent sessions, you can rent a pointed-nose, high-performance epoxy board or bring your own. The LineUp requires boards in the 5- to 6-foot-long range; longboards are not allowed.

After I landed in the deep basin behind the wave, the strong current swept me into the shallow end, only 2½ inches deep. I picked up my board and climbed the steps to the Wave Deck.

Then my husband, Don Wallace, was up and riding the wave, letting go of Fix’s hands and performing far better than I had. Don has always been a bodysurfer, never a board rider, but today he’d come along for the adventure. “The wave allows beginners to quickly progress in their learning,” General Manager Greg Champion told me.

While waiting for my turn (apart from instructors, only 1 person is allowed per wave), I watched other surfers carve smoothly back and forth and up and down on the glassy waves.

“I love it!” said 12-year-old Honolulu resident Asanna Wilson, an experienced ocean surfer who was making her second Wai Kai visit. “It’s a little bit harder than a wave on the ocean, but I think that’s improving my surfing.”

“I feel like I’m getting better,” said her 10-year-old sister, Isla, who demonstrated amazing sticking power on the wave, turning near-falls into acrobatic stunts that drew cheers from onlookers.

Tessie Ford, Pua Avaeoru, and Kelli Wood, all dance performers at Wai Kai, executed sophisticated maneuvers, turning at the top of the wave and throwing spray as they practiced for a dinner show about the history of Hawaiian surfing. Ancient Hawaiians, Champion pointed out, board-surfed standing waves on O‘ahu’s Waimea River.

“I love surfing here because it evens the playing field,” said Wood, 29. “I see guys who surf all the time come here for the first time and get humbled.”

Author Mindy Pennybacker balances at the wave pool.

Instructor Ollie Fix (far left) surfs in place as the author finds her balance on the artificial wave.

During our second session, Don and I moved up to the 65-foot-wide wave, and I felt more relaxed with more space to maneuver. Once I let go of Nichols’ hands, I gradually found the sweet spot, adjusting my weight and pressure to harness the power under my feet and ride the waves with my arms wide, as instructed, until I turned back to glide the other way.

I spent more time falling than riding, though, and I scraped a lot of skin off my forearm in the shallow end. Nichols quickly cleaned and bandaged the wound, and I finally made it across the pool and back on my last few rides.

Here, at last, was the familiar rush of speeding down the line, until, exhilarated, I tried a cutback off the cement wall and fell, striking the back of my head. Grateful for the helmet, I realized I was tired and called it a day.

“You were going really fast; you were flying!” Fix said with a big smile. Smiling back, I knew I’d savor the brief, shining moments when the artificial wave felt as hypnotic and thrilling as the real thing.

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Water use at Wai Kai

In Hawaiian, wai means fresh water and kai means ocean. Wai Kai uses 1.7 million gallons of potable water in its wave pool. This has generated some controversy in our state, where fresh water is a limited resource and contamination from a U.S. military oil spill has closed some drinking water wells in Honolulu.

Wai Kai General Manager Greg Champion said the wave pool’s water is continuously recirculated and treated according to Department of Health standards for commercial swimming pools.

A second and far more extensive 5-acre wave pool that would use breaking-wave technology is being planned for a new development called Honokea Surf Village in nearby Kalaeloa. It received a permit in May, but the developers are being sued by environmental and Hawaiian culture activists.

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Visiting The LineUp at Wai Kai

Parking and entry to The LineUp at Wai Kai are free and open to the public, but admission to the wave pool is restricted to paying customers (guests can watch from seats on the Wave Deck).

Hour-long surf sessions are $90 for general admission; $60 for kama‘āina and military for the 30-foot-wide wave; $140 for the 65-foot-wide wave (kama‘āina, $75); and $175 (kama‘āina, $100) for the 100-foot-wide wave.

Surf day camps for ages 8 and up and further instruction for surfers of all levels can also be booked.

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More water play at Wai Kai

Employee working on a small watercraft at The Dock at The LineUp Wai Kai.

The Dock at The LineUp is Wai Kai’s water sports outfitter.

Additional water sports at Wai Kai revolve around its enclosed lagoon. The Dock at The LineUp rents stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, outrigger canoes, surf skis, and a whimsical pedal boat. Here, you can learn how to navigate watercraft in Hawai‘i’s windy conditions without being carried out to sea.

Equipment can be rented individually, or you can try them all, swapping them out over 4 hours in a “Play Your Way” package: adults, $50 (kama‘āina, $40); children, $20 (kama‘āina keiki, $14).

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Dining options on the menu at Wai Kai

Wai Kai Mai Tai cocktail topped with whipped cream and an orange slice.

Wai Kai Mai Tai from Kitchen Door Plaza Grill

The LineUp at Wai Kai has 4 restaurants. The LookOut Food & Drink overlooks the surf pool, and Foam Coffee & Bar is near the Wai Kai lagoon beach. The Kitchen Door Napa houses Plaza Grill, whose Asian-influenced menu by renowned chef Todd Humphries includes Korean short ribs with shoyu glaze, furikake fries, a chicken báhn mì sandwich, and ramen, in addition to burgers and a mai tai with caramelized pineapple and whipped cream. Boardwalk Café is located on the Kitchen Door Napa’s lower level near the lagoon.

The LookOut bar has live music daily and also hosts evening DJs and dancing on weekends. Cocktails such as the blue Wai Tai and orange Lava Flow are a treat to behold and sip.

A dinner show that incorporates live surfing takes place on Mondays.

Mindy Pennybacker’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Surfer’s Journal, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere.

Book highlight: Surfing Sisterhood Hawai‘i

By Lorna Corpus

Surfing Sisterhood Hawai'i

Photo by Lori Anderson

In Surfing Sisterhood Hawai‘i: Wahine Reclaiming the Waves (Mutual Publishing, 2023, $21.95), Honolulu Star-Advertiser surfing columnist Mindy Pennybacker, who wrote the feature story above, pens a love letter to her wave-riding sisters past, present, and future. The longtime recreational surfer posits that wahine figured greatly in birthing the Hawaiian sport of he‘e nalu, or wave-sliding.

Among ali‘i who were expert surfers: Queen Ka‘ahumanu, wife of Kamehameha I; and Princess Ka‘iulani, the last heir to the Hawaiian throne. Female commoners of old Hawai‘i also took to the waves with gusto.

Ensuing years proved less kind to generations of women who faced hostility from male surfers in and out of the lineup, yet the sport continues to evolve. This past winter, 6 women (Hawai‘i’s Makani Adric, Paige Alms, Emily Erickson, Keala Kennelly, and Andrea Moller; and France’s Justine Dupont) surfed the 2022–2023 Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational on O‘ahu’s North Shore, the first time women competed in the tournament.

Pennybacker’s heartwarming prose, buoyed by photography of sistahs of all ages shredding, evidences the power of going fo’ broke in our love of the sea.

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