My full and unbiased review of The Wave, Bristol wave pool. Written by a surfer, for surfers, including those burning questions like can you get barreled?!
Wave pools are all the rage these days, ever since Kelly Slater unveiled that perfect reeling man-made barrel. And now the idea of artificial perfection has reached the shores of England in the form of The Wave in Bristol – and the Bristol wave pool the flagship surf facility by the crew at Wave Garden.
After years bouncing around the globe in search of perfect waves, has perfection ended up being built an hour’s drive from my home town?
With boards in tow, I headed to The Wave to see if the dream has become a reality, whether it’s worth the price tag or if you’re better off still heading to the coast!
The Wave – What The Bristol Wave Pool Is Really Like & What To Expect
Where Is The Wave?
Ok first off, let’s put everything into perspective – the wave pool at The Wave is situated in a village called Easter Compton, just outside of the city of Bristol.
It’s actually super easy to get to from most parts of the country, about 10 minutes off of the M5.
As well as a pumping wave pool, The Wave also has an awesome club house area – which contains everything you need for a pre/post surf feed (their menu is pretty epic!) and of course plenty of space to keep parents/non-surfing partners happy whilst you hit the water!
- Cafe and bar – perfect for a post surf feed or cold beer!
- Education centre for school and teaching courses
- Surf shop
- Full range of surfboards and wetsuits, which are included in surf session of all levels
One thing I would point out with the facilities side of things is that the changing rooms and lockers are all outside – so if you’re heading there in the winter months (like I was) be prepared to get a little chilly when getting in/out of your wetsuit.
Eventually, they’ll also be offering on-site accommodation (they have some epic surf and stay packages coming soon) in safari tent style, which are expected to launch by summer 2020.
Not only will this mean you get to stay close to the wave pool, but they will also offer exclusive dawn patrol and sunset sessions too.
Advanced Surf Sessions
If you already surf, the chances are that you’re looking for info on the advanced surf sessions at The Wave.
Well you’ve come to the right place as that’s exactly what I focused on during my sessions there, and fresh off the back of a year of waves across South Africa, Bali, Australia, and the Solomon Islands I was keen to see how a man-made wave compared!
How It Works
Ok first things first, how does a session at the wave pool work? Well it’s pretty simple in that respect – you line up along the central pier, sweeping around to the take-off spot one at a time to catch your wave. In regards to getting back to the peak for a potential second wave in the set or for the next one – well that’s down to paddle power!
There are usually 15-20 waves per set (depending on group size) with around 1-2 minutes between sets – so once you’re ‘out back’ again you can chill out and wait for the next round of waves to start.
The Take Off
Honestly, the weirdest and most difficult part of surfing The Wave is the the take off!
You’re sitting close to a huge concrete wall and instead of paddling around to meet the peak of the wave and looking behind you to adjust and get in the right spot, you’re instead trying to line up with two markers on the wall and relying on the motion of the water to time your paddling.
Sounds odd right? It does take some getting used to!
Ideally you want to get into a rhythm where you use the forward motion of the wave being caught by the person in front of you to move you across and into position, lightly paddling to stay in place. Then, as the water draws backwards, begin paddling to catch your own wave.
Generally speaking, the closer to the wall you are, the steeper the wave, so if you’re a little bit out you’ll need to smash in those extra two or three paddles to lock yourself in.
The Wave Itself
Assuming you’re up and riding – let’s talk about the wave itself.
As you come out of your first bottom turn you’ll find the wave does fatten out slightly and lose a bit of power – so you’ll need to put in a little check turn to readjust yourself back into the pocket and line yourself up for the next part of the wave.
Over-cook this turn and you’ll definitely bog a rail.
Forget to bring yourself back into the pocket and you’ll simply fade off the back or the wave will run away from you in the next part.
However once you’ve mastered this bit, you’ll find the rest of the wave walls up beautifully and reels right into the wave pool – allowing you to smash out a good 3 or 4 fun turns. There’s even a little wedge section where you can try and squeeze into a cheeky cover up or head dip…which I totally relished!
What’s It Like Power Wise?
Settings-wise, at the moment the first few sets are on M3 (Malibu 3) with the remainder on M4 (Malibu 4) – for me, the M3 setting felt a little bit sluggish and I actually found it more difficult, especially on the take-off where I did mess up a few times under-paddling.
The M4 setting on the other hand definitely packs a bigger punch, resulting in an easier takeoff and also that first turn is easier to manage. From then on it’s a case of “whack, whack, whack” until you’re done!
As you’ve probably read in a few reviews, it’s equivalent to a medium sized beach break or small swell on a reef – around chest high and overall pretty fun!
…read on to find out if I think it’s worth the price tag!
Wave height = 1.2 – 1.9m
Wave length = 12 – 15 seconds
Intermediate Surf Sessions
Unfortunately, when I headed to the Wave their intermediate surf sessions were currently on hold as apparently they were tweaking settings to create a better intermediate wave.
What they realised through their early testing phases was that the wave pool didn’t have the capacity to run both advanced and intermediate sessions at the same time. As a result, they’re currently looking into splitting the sessions – so they run at different times.
After surfing The Wave, I think this is definitely a good move – cutting down the amount of surfers in the water and allowing both levels to get a much better experience.
Wave height = 0.6m
Wave length = 12 – 15 seconds
Beginner Surf Lessons
The Wave also offers learn to surf sessions in the wave pool – which are ideal for those who don’t like the ocean (I know there are a lot of you out there!), or who would prefer to learn in a more structured, controlled environment than the beach.
These two hour sessions are taught by certified and experienced instructors – combining both land based and in water training.
You’ll run through all the standard surf lesson protocols, such as equipment talks and paddle and pop techniques – followed by putting it all into practice on the inside section of the wave pool, which provides soft, white-water waves.
Unlike a standard surf lesson you wont have the option to head out back to larger or unbroken waves if your skills allow, but it’s the perfect environment for anyone learning to surf.
Surf lessons cater for all ages from 6 upwards and I can easily see how it’s going to be a preferred option for parents who want the added security and safety of a wave pool as well as being able to watch the lesson with a cold beer or hot coffee at the club house!
Wave height = 0.5m (white water)
Wave length = 12 – 15 seconds
I’ve got a full review of learning to surf at The Wave coming soon – so keep an eye out for that one!
Skill Assessments (And Bigger Waves!) Coming Soon
When I got to chat to the crew of The Wave, one of the things I obviously brought up was the fact they’re still running a smaller wave than the wave pool can handle.
One of the biggest reasons behind this is the fact they’ve quickly noticed that a lot of people vastly over-estimate their surf skills!
Just because you’ve done a week’s surf camp in Bali doesn’t mean you’re an advanced surfer!
It’s also worth keeping in mind that just because the wave is technically ‘perfect’ in the fact that it has the same shape and breaks the same way every time, does NOT mean you’ll suddenly be able to surf a barrel.
As part of the whole red tape, health and safety, risk assessment side of things, The Wave has to be pretty careful about who surfs which waves – which is totally understandable.
Because of all this, they’re currently planning to implement pre-session skill assessments. The basis of this being that you’ll get an assigned level based on your performance and can then only book certain sessions until you’ve reach the required standard of the next level.
Sure this is going to tread on a few egos and annoy a few people, but overall I definitely think its the way forward – not only from a safety perspective but also from an enjoyment side of things too.
Jan 2020 Update: Barrels Are Here (Well Almost!)
Following on form the above – in Jan 2020 The Wave have announced they’ll be I implementing their “License To Ride” programme which will allow you access to their heavier wave settings which will be running soon.
You’ll have to participate in a skill assessment session to make sure you meet the requirements to surf the heavier, barrelling setting that The Wave will be able to offer.
To gain your License to Ride you’ll have to be able to demonstrate the following skills;
- Comfortably ride waves above 2.0m
- Paddle in large waves and strong currents
- Take-off consistently
- Generate speed
- Perform turns
- Negotiate sections
- Demonstrate respectful surf etiquette
According to the website the new settings will produce a wave face of 1.6m-2.0m high and offer surfers “performance surfing, including clean open faces and steep barrels”
UPDATE: This has now been scrapped! See the Aug 2020 update!
Aug 2020 Update – Advanced Plus and Expert Sessions (YES – BARRELS!)
With the re-opening of The Wave (following all the COVID chaos!) they’ve scrapped the License to Ride system (which I think was a really good move!) and brought in the new Advanced Plus and Expert Session.
One of the great updated with these two is that during these session the rest of the wave pool is empty – so you’ll only be sharing the water with other surfers of the same ability – capped at 17 people for Advanced Plus and 14 for Expert.
Please note these are for advanced surfers only, so be honest about your experience before booking!
The Advanced Plus setting offers a solid, punchy face which runs all the way through, so plenty of opportunities to whack the lip from the word go.
It has a small barrelling section which is apparently really easy to read and then lots of space for more open face turns afterwards.
Wave Height: 1.7-1.9m
Wave Length: 12-15 seconds
The Expert session offers the biggest, most powerful and most challenging wave currently available at the Bristol Wavepool.
At 2.0m high it’s a solid wave which offers performance sections from the word go – with multiple barrelling sections. Again apparently the barrel is pretty easy to read, so if you’re a seasoned surfer getting a barrel at the wave pool shouldn’t be much of an issue – especially with the amount of waves you’ll be catching
Wave Height: Around 2.0m
Wave Length: 12-15 seconds
Following the backlash over pricing of the higher levels they’ve also repriced the Advanced Plus and Expert waves – which is a solid decision for everyone involved!
The Advanced Plus session is now £55, with the Expert session now £60.
What’s The Cost
Currently, a one hour session at The Wave will set you back £50, or £40 if you’re under 16 (lucky buggers!).
If you’re booking a surf lesson this will set you back £65
All sessions and lessons include all the gear you’ll need, including a range of surfboards – which is awesome.
Sure it’s a chunk more expensive than a day’s car parking at Saunton – but the trade-off is perfect guaranteed waves!
Read on for my thoughts on if it’s worth the price tag…
How many waves will I get?
At the moment, The Wave is pumping out sets of 15-20 waves, with about a 2 minute break between sets.
With the system they have in place you should be easily able to score about 10-15 waves in an hour long session, more if you can paddle out quickly or nab a slot in a small group!
How many people per session?
Currently, the max capacity of The Wave (across both sides of the pool) is 62.
For the advanced surf sessions there’s a max of 15 at each peak, but grabbing a mid-week session will certainly mean less people in the lineup. My 8am slot on a Thursday only had 3 other people, which certainly made for a much better experience than my later session which had 9.
For surf lessons, there’s a max capacity of 16 on each section of the wave pool.
What board should I take?
With the current Malibu settings I’d suggest taking whatever you’d surf at a chest high beach break.
For me, that’s my 5’8 Firewire Seaside or 5’11 Firewire Chumlee. Don’t panic if you didn’t bring the right stick though, you can help yourself to a huge range of boards free of charge and can even swap them around mid-session – its also a great place to test out a range of surfboard shapes and setups incase you’re looking at getting a new stick anytime soon!
For the new Advanced Plus and Expert session you can hire a performance shortboard, but these are £10 a session. To be honest though if you’re tackling these waves you’ll want your own kit anyway.
Will I Need A Wetsuit?
Simply put, YES! Well in the winter months at least
The temperature in the wave pool when I surfed in December was around 6 degrees so you’ll need at least a 4/3 suit, probably a 5mm steamer (plus gloves and booties) in the colder winter months.
However all sessions at The Wave include gear and they have a solid stock of toasty warm Ripcurl wetsuits you can use.
Unlike the ocean, the water at The Wave tracks the air temperature pretty closely – but this also means in that during the summer months you can even sneak in some board short sessions too!
Can I switch between left and right handers?
Unfortunately not, you’ll have to stick to the same wave direction as per your booked session. So if you want to practice forehand and backhand you’ll need to book 2 sessions.
How does it compare to the ocean?
It’s an entirely different experience and has a slightly odd, industrial feel to it.
You’ve replaced open ocean, sprawling beaches, and palm tree fringed islands with metal and concrete.
An odd combination to combine with such a flowing, nature infused sport – but the trade-off is more waves than you know what to do with!
What About Spectators
Spectators are allowed at The Wave and there are plenty of spots for them to relax or watch the action from. As well as the boardwalk which runs down the middle of the wave pool (a prime spot to direct your partner to if they bring a camera along!), there’s also the cafe and rooftop.
The Rooftop area has some amazing views and although it wasn’t where I’d be heading in the rainy English winter, I can see it being the prime spot for a cold cider during the summertime.
Can You Get Barrelled?
Ok so this is the big question for a lot of surfers eyeing up a session at The Wave – can you get barrelled?
Well unfortunately at the moment the answer is no, you can’t.
And I know that’ll be a big disappointment for a lot of people and also a deal breaker too.
So why can’t you and didn’t you see it throwing some epic barrels in their promo and launch stuff?
Well yes you did, so I can see why you’re confused! However, at the moment only one wave setting (known as Malibu) has been risk assessed so they can only crank up the tube rides for media days and pros with the correct waivers.
Even more of a bummer is the fact that they’re not sure when the other settings will be signed off either – so if you’re looking to fine tune your time in the green room you’ll have to wait.
That being said, if you love a good cheeky head dip (like I do!) the end section does hollow out enough to squeeze yourself in!
JAN 2020 UPDATE: As per the above info, The Wave have now announced that a barrelling wave will soon be on offer early in the year, however surfers will be required to pass a surf assessment to be able to book these sessions.
More Than Just A Wave Pool
Even though The Wave is obviously marketed at surfers – it’s actually a much bigger project than just producing perfect waves for people to perfect their hacks and airs.
In fact, The Wave was built to support a whole range of really inspiring community projects.
They’re working closely with a whole heap of charities and foundations to pass on the stoke to disadvantaged children, both in the local area and around the UK, which I for one think is epic.
And then of course there’s the adaptive surfing and surf therapy side of things. From the very launch, these were at the forefront of what The Wave stood for and the entire wave pool complex has been created with disabled access, allowing everyone to enjoy the waves.
The advantages of surf therapy – both for people with disabilities as well as psychological issues like depression and PTSD – have recently begun to emerge and again if sharing the stoke and riding some waves can bring a smile or become an alternative to heaps of pharmaceuticals, thats truly inspiring.
They’re also being super conscious about their impact on the environment too – with the whole complex being run on renewable energy sources and the roof housing a huge solar setup.
The grounds (which are still a work in progress) will also include some light walking tracks and they’re in the process of planting over 16,000 trees too.
So Is It Worth It?
Ok so it’s crunch time – is all this wave pool hype worth it and should you head to The Wave ASAP or just stick to the beach?
Honestly, a large part of it depends on where you are with your surfing as well as managing your expectations, and also what your motivations are.
For People That Surf
First off, let’s talk about whether it’s worth it for those who already surf.
I’m the first to admit that I’m HUGELY spoilt when it comes to surfing – both quality of waves and also the weather too – but I did enjoy my time at The Wave, despite the fact it’s not churning out stand up barrels, or at the level some of the initial marketing videos showcased.
For 90% of surfers I’d say the size, power, and style of their current settings will be absolutely fine (again going back to how much people over-estimate their surfing skills!), but yes, those in the higher levels of surfing might feel like it does need to be stepped up a notch to be worth the cash.
Let’s face it though, unless you’ve got a big chunk of disposable income, it’s unlikely you’ll be heading here multiple times per week.
However, if your local is flat or blown-out and you want to get in the water, The Wave offers pumping surf and guaranteed waves year round – and you cant really argue with that, especially if it’s been 1 foot for the last few weeks!
If I still lived in the UK, with the wave pool an hour’s drive from my house I could certainly see myself heading there once a month and treating it as a training session. Having adjusted to the take off I’d be going in with a clear focus on what I wanted to achieve each session.
Perfecting those bottom turns, throwing some spray on those cut-backs, getting those toes on the nose…
And that’s where I think The Wave comes into its own – as a training centre.
Will it ever replace your ocean surfing?
Nope, not at all. But it will complement it and help you get even more out of it.
And if you approach it like that then yes The Wave is certainly worth it.
The other huge advantage it has – which I’ve mentioned numerous times – is that you have guaranteed, quality waves.
You WILL get a solid amount of waves, you WON’T have to compete or fight for them, and the waves you catch WILL peel beautifully.
…and that’s something none of us can moan about!
For Those Wanting To Learn To Surf
For those looking to learn to surf and who are in a geographical position where Bristol is closer than a consistent surf break, The Wave – and wave pools in general – are an awesome option.
For parents with kids looking to learn to surf, it’s ideal – you can relax in the club house or get really close to the action if you want. It’s safe, structured, predictable, and well regulated.
I know heaps of people out there are scared of the ocean – so The Wave provides a great stepping stone to exploring a sport they might have otherwise written off.
I feel like the natural progression of anyone who has an epic time learning to surf at The Wave will be a lesson at the beach – so I don’t think it’s taking away from that purist experience, just providing a safer gateway to it.
The Bottom Line
I think the bottom line of my whole experience at The Wave is that it doesn’t pretend to be a replacement for surfing in the ocean and everyone I’ve talked to that works there – from surf coaches to marketing and PR – happily admits that there’s no way it could.
Go there and try it out – but go there with an open mind and try not to compare it to your experience in the ocean.
If you do that I‘m sure you’ll have a heap of fun!
Have you surfed The Wave or a wave pool?
What did you make of the experience?