My first time on the FlowRider

May 18, 2022 | Surfing
FlowRider: you're surfing but it's not exactly an ocean wave | Photo: Surf House Helsinki

It's a surf machine, but it isn't exactly surfing. Here's my experience at the FlowRider, the most popular artificial stationary wave in the world.

I have been surfing for 30 years. Having caught my first wave when I was a teenager, the ocean has always been my playground.

I was fortunate enough to learn how to stand up on a surfboard by myself through trial and error, successes and wipeouts.

I never had lessons, and I guess my love for the ocean and summer days boosted my confidence to try and become a "real surfer."

Like millions of fellow wave riders, I saw surfers for the first time in magazines, walking on water and chasing an open wave face.

It was magical.

Actually, pre-internet era days were fascinating because you had to "organically" find the good waves, i.e., without surf forecasting tools and online swell predictions.

So, in the early 1990s, if you were a beginner or advanced surfer, you almost only had ocean waves to ride.

There were only a few alternative options: Wildwater Kingdom (Pennsylvania), Disney's Typhoon Lagoon (Florida), Sunway Lagoon (Malaysia), and Seagaia Ocean Dome (Japan).

Surf House Helsinki: an artificial stationary wave breaking in the heart of Finland's capital | Photo: Surf House Helsinki

A Paradigm Shift

The artificial wave boom was still in its infancy, and river waves were yet to be explored and discovered.

So, for three decades, I kept my surfing experiences limited to the Atlantic Ocean.

With the advent of the wave pool industry, the paradigm shifted from the coastline to inland areas, deserts, hotels, resorts, and shopping malls.

Freshwater waves started popping everywhere, and you can now find a rideable liquid surface in almost any European country or American state.

To make it simple, we now have two inland surfing concepts - stationary (sheet) waves and artificial, wave pool-like breaking waves.

The former business is dominated by FlowRider; the latter is disputed by several players, including Wavegarden, Kelly Slater Wave Co., Surf Lakes, and a few others.

Until April 2022, I had never had a surfing experience outside the ocean.

So, when I traveled to Helsinki, Finland, I had the chance to give the FlowRider a go. It was a rare opportunity in an unlikely environment.

Although Finland does have surfable ocean waves, this was something truly unusual - surfing in Finland in an artificial wave. How odd is that?

Several questions went through my brain.

Would I be able to mimic my intermediate surfing skills in a different concept? Would I shine as I do in my home break, or would I fail miserably?

To make things easy for me, I started lowering my expectations a couple of weeks before riding the famous surf machine.

I wanted to enjoy the moment; I didn't want to leave the venue with a disastrous memory or even an injury.

Biitsi: beach volleyball in a Helsinki shopping mall | Photo: Biitsi

Surfing Underground

Surf House Helsinki is located in the Mall of Tripla, a shopping mall located in the heart of Finland's capital.

As soon as I got to the shopping center, my heart started racing. I could feel the excitement of trying something new for the first time.

I knew that I was going to do something I love in a somewhat different way.

But where exactly is Surf House Helsinki? I was a bit lost, and my Finnish language skills were limited to "kiitos" (thank you, in English).

After getting lost for ten minutes, I realized I was supposed to have my first FlowRider experience six floors below ground level - that is, P6.

Time to take the lift and then cross the parking space toward the door that led to the Scandinavian wave-riding adventure.

As I walked past the parked cars, everything looked the opposite of surfing. It felt like I was about to embrace a post-industrial entertainment event.

And I was - or maybe not.

On my way and as I got closer to the surf machine center, I noticed something peculiar - a standard door that led to white sand beach volleyball courts.

Yes, you can play beach volleyball six floors below ground level in a simulated tropical environment.

The recreation of the whole California summer experience was about to reach its climax as I made my way to Surf House Helsinki.

Surf House Helsinki: it's always summer in Finland | Photo: Surf House Helsinki

It's Always Summer in Scandinavia

It's April in Helsinki, so the temperature outside is around 47 °F (8 °C) during the day.

However, as you step inside the high-ceiling Finnish surfing center, you're welcomed by the steady warmth of 80 °F (27° C). Strange but true.

On your way down into the artificial beach and its surf shack/restaurant with all sorts of drinks - there's Corona, obviously - you pass by a sauna room and a surf lesson area.

Surf lessons? I see. I might be an accomplished surfer, but I guess I will need to re-learn to surf if I want to succeed on the FlowRider.

Interesting.

I arrived one hour earlier and spent half of the time watching the pros. They were uber-talented and experienced in the super-fast, thin layer of water.

I must admit I was jealous of their prowess. So, what's at stake?

In front of me is the FlowRider Double, a 42,000-gallon (160,00 liters), 53-foot long (16 meters), 32-foot wide (9.75 meters), blue cushioned tank.

And you could feel the tension in the air in a way similar to the ocean's lineup. Of course, everyone wants to outperform their peers.

One of the riders, in particular, wanted to impress girls and first-timers by carving hard near the pool's edges and splashing everyone on the beach.

I wasn't the only one getting annoyed with the exhibitionist, but I guess it's just like real surfing. After all, it's a show-off sport.

Fast and Furious

After the introductory lesson, where the instructor told us what to do, what not to do, how to fall, and how to stay balanced on the board, it was time to get down to the surf.

For the FlowRider surf session, I was wearing a t-shirt and boardshorts.

You don't need much - only (natural) talent. Right? Well, maybe a bit more than that.

A group of eight/ten riders queues by the side of the tank, and everyone gets their chance to surf the ever-flowing thin layer of water.

The instructor helps us get on the board in the pool's center before slowly pushing us into the freshwater treadmill.

Initially, you grab a rope that gradually puts you in the middle of the surf machine, but then the instructor encourages you to let it go.

Believe me: finding a balance is extremely difficult.

Forget surfing - this is something completely different. Compared to the FlowRider, real surfing is definitely easier.

Question number one: could I stay up on the board for at least a couple of seconds in order to get my classic, inglorious social media shot?

Yes, I was able to do it. But it was hard - really hard. One of the main problems for me was the size of the board.

Instead of standing on a wide and long regular surfboard, on a FlowRider, you use a snowboard/skateboard-like, thin, finless board.

As a result, it is extremely hard to find your balance, especially when there's water flowing at high speed under your feet.

So, it's like starting all over.

Forget your surfing skills. You might be an advanced or professional surfer and still struggle with the stationary wave.

I felt that the more shots I had, and the more I got used to the tricky imbalance of man-board-water, the better I got.

However, the learning curve is long and strenuous, meaning that sooner or later, you will fall and be sucked into the back of the blue tank.

On one of the occasions, I wiped out pretty bad and hit the cushioned bottom with my neck. I was in pain for a while. Nothing serious, though.

The first goal is to be able to ride for a few seconds without the rope.

I was able to do it, and I even turned right and left. However, in a FlowRider machine, everything changes quickly.

Surf House Helsinki: the founder of SurferToday rides the FlowRider for the first time | Photo: Reha Discioglu

More Like Snowboarding

The 60-minute experience allowed me to surf around six times.

The riding opportunities always depend on the number of people and the time of the day. At 3 pm on a weekday, it should be less crowded.

Because I always want to improve myself in everything I do, I felt like I need to get back to the challenging FlowRider and practice more.

Standing tall for the photo op is not enough. I really want to carve from left to right but, then again, it will require hours of practice.

One of the most experienced riders in the queue was a Finnish architect.

While we waited for our turn, I asked him a few questions and tried to learn more about the balancing techniques.

He said he is also into snowboarding, which he believes helps anyone who tries the FlowRider.

It makes sense. The FlowRider is definitely more like snowboarding - and skateboarding - than surfing.

But I had no excuse. I was the average guy in the queue which, I have to admit, left a bittersweet taste in my mouth.

I was not the worst, but I was certainly not the best. "In the ocean, I would do much better," I thought to myself.

Right. Just try better next time.


Words by Luís MP | Founder of SurferToday.com

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