di Erika Scafuro
I’m going surfing in Switzerland! It sounds like a paradox, but thanks to technology it’s all possible and you can surf in Alaïa Bay, the first wave pool of its kind in contintental Europe. Inaugurated less than a year ago, the surfers’ paradise in the heart of the Swiss Alps is achieving great success.
Giovanni Piro, through a series of fortunate coincidences having to do with his professional training and surfing, works at Alaïa Bay as surf operations coordinator. We asked him to tell us how it works told us about it.
From Sardinia to Switzerland, via Bristol. What was the path that led you to Alaïa Bay?
«It’s been a bit of an odd path because I started out as a mechanical engineer. I’ve always had a passion for motorcycles and basketball. Then I fell in love with surfing, I discovered it thanks to my girlfriend at the time and I was blown away by it. After studying engineering I did a master in Sport Management in Barcelona and thanks to this master I met a person who had contacts with Wavegarden, who are the leaders in technologies for artificial wave systems. Thanks to this I became passionate about this world and I ended up working in Bristol as one of the managers of the customer service team. So I was totally in charge of customer service: reservations, emails, phone calls, but also training my team members. I could do very easily my job in Bristol also thanks to the experience I had previously because, in addition to my education, I worked in tourism, so in contact with the public: I was a basketball coach in a resort in Sardinia where I also managed a sports center. From Bristol came the opportunity to get to Alaïa Bay with the chance to join the surf operations team and thus be more inside the technical side of surfing: teaching, organizing sessions etc…even though I initially didn’t know French they took me in thanks to my experience in artificial wave pools. I was lucky enough to find myself in the right place at the right time, and so began my journey to Alaïa Bay, which has lasted almost a year. I started to work in January 2021 when the pool was still not completed, we had to do a lot of work at the organizational, marketing, sales level more than operational. Then there was the opening and a fantastic summer season, a resounding success».
What is your role in Alaïa Bay?
«In Alaïa Bay I am a surf coach, but I am also the surf operations coordinator. This means that we have several departments, the one of surf operations deals specifically with the management and organization of everything related to the phases of the management of the surf experience. It starts from welcoming the client to the surf pool, where we have a team of 40 people working in the middle of the season. I take care of the planning of the colleagues, I support them in the management of the sessions, we organize with my other managers the waves that we will do during the session and all the equipment (gloves, boots, boards, wetsuits …). The great thing about my job is that the next day is never the same as the day before. Which is a great thing because I’m a person who tends to get bored a little bit, so this dynamism and having different days, stimulates me a lot: one day I have to fix wetsuits, the other I have to fix the boards, another we have to organize a new session and offer private surf lessons…So many activities and surfing of course is never missing. When I have time I’m in the water on my own, with colleagues or I teach others how to surf».
You learned to surf in Sardinia. How do you find the compromise between technology and nature, in surfing artificial and not natural waves?
«It’s kind of weird because I’m also so used to surfing in artificial pools because I started working in Bristol in 2019. The feeling in the sea is completely different, you have to abide by different rules. It’s really something you do to disconnect, at least what I do, to be connected with nature and the waves that I can’t control, but I can play with a little bit. Whereas surfing in wave pools takes that away a little bit, you see it more as a workout. A session in a wave pool, even from a physical point of view, is quite tiring because in the sea you have time between waves coming while in a pool there are waves every 8 seconds. So you catch the first wave and you have to go back to the peak, and then you repeat, so there’s a lot of physical activity. So the surfing experience in a wave pool in my opinion is more geared towards training for surfers and improving speed in the paddling. Which doesn’t happen in the sea because, for example I who started surfing when I was older, when I surfed in the sea I noticed that my progress was much slower, I was struggling more. But once you start surfing in the sea and you use the pool as a method of improvement, then you go back to the sea and you feel comfortable, you can do things that you never dreamed of doing before. For example I do longboard, here I also started surfing shortboards and I have a lot of fun and I probably wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t in the pool. So the wave pool is definitely worth a try especially for anyone who got into surfing late and wants to try and get better at maneuvering and learning quickly. During a session in the water in the pool you can catch something like 12 waves, something that in the sea you can do only if you are alone in the sea or during a surftrip».
Can you describe how the wave pool system works on a mechanical level? What kind of waves are formed? Water temperature etc…?
«There are generally three types of wave generation technologies in the world. One is pneumatic, it uses chambers that fill with air, creating pressure gaps, the water entering them creates a wave. Then there is the dynamic system known as ‘Kelly Slater’s wave’ as it was developed for his surf ranch. While the most common technology, and in my opinion the most versatile, is the electromechanical Wavegarden. I’ll try to explain it in a simple way: imagine a spinal column with 40 very large vertebrae placed side by side and driven by a motor; these blades move in a harmonic way as if it were the movement of a snake, pushing the water first to the left and then to the right and vice versa. This water that is pushed bounces against the walls of the pool and thanks to the interaction with the bottom of the pool, designed to reproduce a backdrop, this technology can create waves. It is a very simple technology that, compared to others, has very low energy consumption. Here we compare its power consumption of one hour to that of a four-seater chairlift. So it’s a very simple operation. Obviously we have a small computer, depending on the force that you impart to the water according to the movement of these panels, we can generate waves more or less small, more or less high, we can vary a lot. The water temperature, as the pool is small, is very variable depending on the air temperature, in summer it is very pleasant, in winter you need to cover yourself with integrated wetsuits with hood, boots, gloves because we get close to zero. But it’s not something that discourages us, I tell you that it’s very possible to surf with such cold water. At the beginning you have to get used to it a little bit, more than anything else because maybe you are not used to surfing with all these accessories on».
What advice do you give to someone approaching surfing for the first time and deciding to try the wave pool?
«What I recommend everyone to do is to surf the first time in the sea because it’s a 360° experience; it’s not only the fact of sledding on the surfboard and playing with the waves, which is a beautiful thing and it’s true that you can also do in a pool that makes artificial waves, but the fact of being immersed in the sea, surrounded by nature, by elements that you control and a little bit not; an experience to do for the first time in the sea. While wave pools in my opinion are a great complement to surfing. They’re never going to be something that replaces surfing in the ocean, because that’s not an option. I see the wave pools as a kind of gym where you can go and always find the waves, you can predict them in detail and work on the most technical aspects even on a single maneuver. You can try different types of boards, fins and there you realize how much these changes have an effect on the board and the surf. That’s something you can do in the sea, but you should live where there are always waves. Which instead in a wave pool you press a button, decide the size of the wave and catch a hundred waves, you can work on repetition, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the fundamental aspects of surfing to learn. I always say to start from the sea because in Alaïa Bay you’re actually in a very controlled and protected environment where you don’t have to worry about currents, rocks, jellyfish, so you’re a little bit spoiled you know that the wave always comes in that point and even a better wave initially. And maybe when you go in the sea you find yourself a bit lost, so in my opinion you have to learn in the sea and then the wave pool is used to test and perfect your technique and your surfing».
Environmental sustainability aspect of a wave pool, how does the water utilization system work?
«As I said before, in Alaïa Bay the energy consumption is so low that we could manage to give the electricity to the machine also thanks to solar panels. The Canton of Valais, where we are located, is one of the sunniest cantons in Switzerland with an average of at least 250 to 300 days of sunshine per year. Therefore, the system would also be powered by solar energy. As for the water we put into the pool, we treat it and then we don’t put it back into the public network because we would first have to evaporate all the chlorine and then empty the pool; which we do once a year for maintenance. So we have a water treatment unit specifically designed for this pool and for our needs that, through filters, uv rays, ozone, chlorine, treats and cleans the water that is put back into circulation and continues its course in the pool».
Tell us about a typical day in Alaïa Bay
«The first thing I do, once I get there, I have a coffee at the restaurant which is Italian; I love the guys who work there so I always have breakfast at their place. After that I look at the schedule for the day and based on that I plan what I’m going to do during the day, I check my emails a little bit, then maybe there’s something to clean, fix, I organize with my team of guys. Especially in this period my job is more administrative than operational, there are many meetings during the day to plan the next season. At the same time, if some coaches are absent or need to give some rest, it happens that I do some lessons. Recently we also hosted the first competition and I was a manager of the event, I took care of the organization of the competition, athletes, I was also the speaker. So every day in Alaïa Bay is really different from the other, but the surf is never missing, it’s a constant; at the end of the day I always try to do a session!».