Into the Swim
Submerged in the life aquatic, Tom Lochtefeld is riding high
by Barbara Davenport

photo K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune

Tom Lochtefeld is poised on the edge of a monster wave — one he’s been building since 1980.

You see, his company manufactures wave machines: Flowrider for mortal sorts, and Bruticus Maximus, which shoots 125,000 gallons a minute up a 10-foot wall, resulting in a 30-mph wave that inspires respect from surfing pros. He’s built Wave House, a surfing theme park at San Diego’s Mission Beach, where Bruticus and Flowrider pull in crowds who watch both surfers and sunset while wriggling their feet in the sand.

By any measure, Lochtefeld is a success. He’s been the leaseholder for the mammoth Mission Beach indoor swimming pool known as the Plunge since 1992, recently completing major renovations on the historic space. On top of that, he’s built a great hometown business that has MTV, game developers and music video producers begging to be part of his action. And investors are catching a ride on this wave: Bruticus rocks at the Wave House in Durban, South Africa, and a second franchise opens on the Isle of Jersey, a British resort, in 2007. Other Wave Houses are in development for Las Vegas, Phoenix, Honolulu, Sydney and Singapore.

Lochtefeld agrees that he’s living the dream, but he has his own yardstick for success. At the Mission Beach Wave House’s open-air bar, he’s dressed in T-shirt, cargo pants and flip-flops, looking more lifelong surfer than international developer.

Growing up in La Jolla, surfing every day, he can’t remember a time when he didn’t have an intense emotional connection with the ocean. “I’ve always followed my passion. I wanted to find work that would keep me close to the ocean. I went surfing this morning. Every day I get up and say, ’What’s next?’ I come to work charged.”

Now, that’s success.

So, how did Tom Lochtefeld make his way out of the ocean and up the hill to earn his J.D. from USD in 1977? And why law school? “It was like riding switchfoot [surfing with your non-dominant foot forward]. I thought law school would help me learn to write better. You learn a lot when you force yourself to do things you think you can’t do.”

That sort of work ethic has aided his two-decade quest to build a machine that creates waves “the best surfers in the world would want to ride.” A logical planner, Lochtefeld bought a minority interest in the Raging Waters water park so he could learn the business model. After he sold his interest in 1989, he spent a year — and most of his capital — with local hydraulics engineers, figuring out how to push 30,000 gallons of water per minute up an inclined ramp. The result was Flowrider.

He now sells 20 Flowriders every year, and profits are surging. With Wave House up and running, he’s working on a “surf ranch” where the water will cover several acres, and surfers will paddle into waves on full-size boards.

Though it’s still a sand castle in the sky, making that ranch a reality is Lochtefeld’s current passion. And judging by his past, he’s likely to ride that creative surge all the way in to shore.