DO YOU CRAVE the waves? Want to go with the flow? Ride the tide? If it's just wave action you're after -- if you can skip the salt air, fabulous french fries, and ticky tacky, sticky wacky boardwalk -- there's a way to get it without crawling across the Bay Bridge. There are two nearby wave pools (three, if you count the one near Williamsburg) for people who like their surf on tap.
At a wave pool, fresh water peaks and crashes in a ten-minute-long fury of fun, described by one wave-rider as a "liquid trampoline." Tiny children toddle near the breakers' edge while their older siblings ride the waves on rafts or body surf, and parents bob serenely at the deep end. When the waves stop, the population shifts -- young children wade out deeper into now-calm waters, and teens leap over the sides and head for the water slides and snackbars nearby.
Developed from German technology, wave pools are a relatively recent American phenomenon. "Europe itself already has over 200 such pools, most of them enclosed," says Don Steele, president of WaveTek, the company supplying most American wave pool technology. "We're really kind of behind the times."
Introduced in 1970 in Alabama, the pools have poured into 60 or 70 different locations throughout the U.S., Steele says. In some places -- such as Wild World in Largo, Maryland -- they're the "hark of the park," he says, the chief draw in a place that also includes fast food/fast ride/hard sell ways to spend your money.
In other places -- such as Cameron Run Park in Alexandria -- the pool is a profit-making enterprise that puts money into park coffers. "This pays for things like nature walks and special programs in other parks," says Paul McCray, manager of the pool park, which is part of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.
Cameron Run, at 17,403 square feet, is small compared with Wild World's 45,000 square feet. That expanse, nearly an acre, makes it one of the world's largest wave pools. But it's still only half the size of number one -- Big Surf, in Arizona, a 98,000-square-foot wave pool called a Tsunami.
On the other hand, the waves are the same wherever you go. At Cameron Run and Wild World, officials say, the waves are up to four feet high ("make that 31/2 feet," one lifeguard says), on top of a maximum depth of eight feet.
"People always ask us what makes the waves," says lifeguard Robert Albarado at Wild World. "They think we shake the pool, or the bars at the end wiggle, or something."
Fact is that the waves come from a row of almost idiotically simple machines that line the back of the pool. Sixty-horsepower engines drive huge, black airhoses that shift between blowing out air and sucking it in. These fans -- eight at Wild World, four at Cameron Run -- alternate their "breathing," and together they create air pockets that push and pull the water into giant waves.
"In some ways, it's like being in the middle of the ocean in rough water," says Albarado. "The waves come really fast, and you can't stand up."
On the other hand, says McCray at Camerson Run, "there's no undertow, and we do turn the waves off every ten minutes" -- something you don't find at too many oceans.
But is it safe? "Our safety record is excellent compared to ordinary swimming pools," says Steele. There have been three wave-pool drownings reported over over the last 15 years, including a nine-year-old boy who drowned at Wild World in 1983.
But there are no comparative statistical studies stacking the five dozen wave pools against the thousands of below-ground swimming pools, points out Joyce Coonley of the National Injury Information Clearinghouse. Her records show some two dozen deaths in such pools last year, as opposed to zero for wave pools. "They really are two different things entirely," she says. "Wave pools are classified as amusement rides."
Managers at the wave pools point with pride to the extraordinary lengths they go to ensure public safety: For instance, the guards, who must meet more rigorous standards than for most pools, all know cardiopulmonary resuscitation. McCray describes the lifeguarding as "very intense, the equivalent of ocean guarding."
But even with that, Jean'yves Ghazi, head of Wild World's lifeguarding section, thinks "public education . . . needs to be improved. People are not educated about this kind of water, and don't realize that water gets them tired."
He, and others, offer the following advice for those visiting the wave pools:
* Never leave small children or nonswimmers unguarded. "We'll have parents dropping off their little ones at the pool and then going to take rides," says Wild World spokesman Amy Ryan, with horror. "You just can't leave them safely."
* Weak or inexperienced swimmers should stay behind the four-foot depth mark, shown clearly on the bottom or side of the pool. "Anything beyond four feet is really dangerous water for most children," McCray says, "because if a wave knocks them down, they can't stand up."
* Take frequent breaks. Most wave pools enforce a 10-ur, in which, Ghazi advises, you should "stay out of the water and the sun -- the combination of sun and water really depletes you."
* Drink plenty of liquids. ''Swimming dehydrates you," Ghazi says -- something that's also true of sunbathing.
* Be wary of rafts. "These can give you a false sense of confidence," McCray says, "and make you feel safe beyond your depth." Rafts are only for experienced swimmers, wave pool managers agree.
* Put life vests on young children. These are available free of charge at Wild World, but not at Cameron Run. "It's the same as the raft," McCray says. "It gives them a false sense of confidence." Children of the age or experience to need a life vest should be securely guarded by a parent, he says.
WHERE THE WAVE POOLS ARE
CAMERON RUN REGIONAL PARK -- 4001 Eisenhower Ave., Alexandria. 960-0767. Park includes 17,403 sq. ft. wave pool, three waterslides, and a baby pool. Open every day from 10 to 8. Admission for those over 12 and under 60 is $5.25 for all day; $4 after 5:30 Monday through Friday. For all others, $4.25 all day; $3 after 5:30 Monday through Friday. Season passes and volume discounts available. Take Capital Beltway to the Telegraph Road Exit, follow the brown signs to the park.
WILD WORLD -- 13710 Central Ave., Largo, Md. 249- 1500. Park includes Wild Wave, a 45,000 sq. ft. wave pool; seven water slides; and a large, shallow pool with activities for young children. Admission is $9.95 for all day; $7.95 for children 4 to 10 and senior citizens 65 and over; free for children under 4. After 4 p.m., all prices fall to $5. Admission price also ntitles you to the park's other rides, shows, games and children's park. Take the Capital Beltway to Exit 15A, and stay on Route 214 to the park.
WATER COUNTRY -- P.O. Box 3088, Williamsburg, Va. 804/229-9300. Park includes a 24,000 sq. ft. wave pool; six water slides; two inner-tube rides (one slow, one fast); two activities pools (one for young children); and a diving show. Admission for all day is $9.75; from 4 to 8 p.m. $7.25. Spectator pool $3.50. Children under 4 get in free. Park open 10 to 8 each day. Take I-95 to Richmond; take I-64 to Williamsburg; get off at Exit 57B. Go 1/4 mile north; park is on the right.