Making Hay Of Haymakers (2022)

Tom Lochtefeld's wave machines are catching on everywhere. And he's just getting started.

At San Diego's hopping Mission Beach, Thomas Lochtefeld charges $40 an hour to ride Bruticus Maximus, a 30mph wave that gushes 125,000 gallons of water per minute. But why should surfers pay when the genuine stuff--SoCal surf--is so close and so free? "My wave is better," laughs Lochtefeld. "Out there you can have bad surf. Not here."

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"Here" is WaveHouse, an outdoor restaurant and bar complex covering two-thirds of an acre and featuring a 10-foot-high, 30-foot-wide wave machine--the zenith of Lochtefeld's 20 years of hydrodynamic tinkering. He is capitalizing on a spurt of surfing froth his other company, 15-year-old WaveLoch, helped create. Fifty Flowriders, costing $700,000 or so apiece, already dot the globe, from Wisconsin to Norway to Texas. Last year the company netted $1 million on sales of $4 million. Now Lochtefeld, 53, hopes to sell a souped-up $2 million system via franchising, of all things.

His are not your average wave pools or waterslides for throngs of splashing kids. Lochtefeld's machines are built for enterprising daredevils. They blast a 3-inch-thick sheet of water up a 30-foot-wide incline, which can vary from a slight ramp to a full-on barrel curl. A bodyboarder or an adept surfer can ride the torrent by playing gravity against the flow, staying suspended in the wave while weaving back and forth across the curl.


WaveLoch profits helped fuel the construction of San Diego's WaveHouse and the R&D for the Bruticus Maximus, which cranks out four times as much water at speeds half again as great as on Lochtefeld's past machines. Bruticus, which focuses its flow up a curving 10-foot wall, is for experts only: Riders must provide a certificate documenting their mastery of the smaller machine. Only one surfer can ride at a time, but the entertainment value of near-at-hand surfers and the prospect of violent wipeouts have kept the San Diego WaveHouse busy since it opened in early 2005. (One customer sued after suffering a concussion. Lochtefeld won when the jury decided that the rider, who had been served with numerous warnings and waivers, had signed off on the risks.) Aside from the wave machine, WaveHouse consists of a surfboard rental shop, boardwalks, Hawaiian-style tiki bars, hammocks, stores and restaurants. One eatery, the Busted Board BBQ, gives a free meal to any wipeout victim who can produce surfboard fragments and a story for the Busted Board Wall of Fame. Lochtefeld expects WaveHouse to net $1 million next year on revenue of $5 million.

Lochtefeld has habitually stacked bigger business plays on top of smaller ones, letting one feed the other. It's an admittedly odd racket for a guy who started at KPMG in 1976 as a junior tax lawyer soon after law school at the University of San Diego. Lochtefeld wasn't a company man long; he left a year later to run his own practice, specializing in real estate. In 1979 he analyzed leases for Bryant Morris, who was planning to open a water park, Raging Waters, in San Dimas, Calif. Lochtefeld liked Morris' plan so much that he signed on as a 5% partner. From there he ran water parks in Salt Lake City and San Jose--among the first dozen or so of their kind to offer waterslides, waterfalls, tubing rivers and roller-coaster-like rides that tore down steep tracks and splashed through shallow pools, drenching riders. Today North American water parks number more than 1,000, with 70 million annual visitors.

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After selling his 25% stake in the two parks in 1987 for $2 million, Lochtefeld chased his obsession: building a true stand-up surfing ride that took skill and practice--and would drive repeat visits. That required creating a controllable flow that could be ridden for minutes at a time, offering what amounted to surfing-on-demand. He started by damming a river ride from Raging Waters park, directing its turbulent flow at massive sheets of linoleum draped across a plywood ramp reinforced with concrete blocks. "When one of my contractors--hard hat and all--was able to get up and surf that, I knew I was on to something," he recalls. That experiment cost him $30,000.

During the next three years he spent $1 million developing a machine that could mimic, in a more confined area, what he had achieved at Raging Waters. He had to sell his oceanfront house in La Jolla for $950,000. "My wife wasn't so thrilled about that," he recalls. He spent his days in the hydraulics lab at UC, San Diego brainstorming with engineering professors on how to tame a torrent into a uniform, uphill sheet of water. "We made more than a hundred models," Lochtefeld says. He paid $200,000 to patent lawyers, protecting his designs in 40 different countries.

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His funds down to a trickle, in 1990 Lochtefeld sold plans and the licensing for his first machine, the Flowrider, for $50,000 to the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in New Braunfels, Tex. The standard design has two pumps cranking out 30,000 gallons of water per minute at 20mph up a concrete incline covered with a 2-inch polyurethane pad. Newer ramps are made of a trampoline-like textile. By the mid-1990s Lochtefeld was selling the hardware, too. He contracted with a Swedish company to make the submersible pumps; he manufactures the jet nozzles and tubes himself. Today he sells Flowriders for $450,000 each; gross profit, $200,000 or so. The buyer faces another $150,000 to $1 million in construction costs, such as for the foundation, reservoir and ramp.

Why spend $700,000 when you can get a gargantuan waterslide for $150,000? "Totally worth it," attests Jared Keeling, parks-and-recreation director for Republic, Mo. The city opened its own water park in May with a Flowrider that drew 63,000 people during the summer. Nonresidents made up 64% of visitors. "We consistently had people from 100 miles away coming in," he says. "You don't do that for a waterslide." Pro surfers agree. "It's an insane amount of fun," says Jamie O'Brien, a Pipeline Masters Champion.

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For Lochtefeld it was an easy climb from the Flowrider to the WaveHouse. He's already sold one package--four wave machines, plus restaurant and bar--to a franchisee in Durban, South Africa, who paid a one-time fee of $3 million, plus 5% of gross revenue to Lochtefeld. The next WaveHouse franchise will open in 2007 on the Isle of Jersey, a British resort and tax haven. Lochtefeld hopes to rope in franchisees in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Honolulu, Sydney and Singapore.

Lochtefeld's hype machine is just getting into gear. His Flowrider will be the vanguard attraction on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, which, when launched in May 2006, will be the world's largest cruise ship, at 160,000 tons. Lochtefeld is unveiling a WaveHouse line of clothing with Sun Diego, a chain of eight surf shops in California that will carry the brand exclusively next year. Plans for the first WaveHouse hotel, on Mission Beach, are also being hashed out--30 rooms to start, up to 300 at some point.

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Mere ankle-busters compared with the "surf ranch" Lochtefeld envisions. Three-acre pools will roar with underground reef activated waves; surfers will have to paddle into the wave and out of the froth, just as with the real deal. The difference, of course: dependability. "Like clockwork," he says. "Totally radical."


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