Wave of jubilation

Since time immemorial, or thereabouts, surfers have been searching for the perfect wave. The earliest documented find was South Africa’s Cape St Francis, a loooonnnggg peeling right-hander featured in the 1960s classic The Endless Summer. Inspired by the film, surfers from around the world made a beeline to the Cape only to be met with one small problem: turns out it’s actually flat there for roughly 99.99% of the year.


Oh well, as the old adage goes if you want something done properly, and nature refuses to cooperate, then do it yourself. About two months ago, after year or so of hints and short videos dropping across social media, an artificial wave pool opened just near Melbourne Airport in Tullamarine promising the perfection that surfers have been after.


The Urbnsurf (it would’ve have killed them to include the ‘a’?) pool offers three levels of wave, starting with a beginners’ section with small 0.5-1 metre waves, through intermediate (1-1.5 metres) and advanced (up to 2 metres, known as ‘The Beast’ mode) choices. And it’s not small. The whole park sits on around 5.5 hectares with the fan-shaped pool, divided into two left- and right-hand waves, taking up a hefty 2 hectares,.


In fact, the pool – dubbed the Tulla Tub or Tullawatu (after Uluwatu in Bali) – is the largest recycled concrete structure in Australia. It also uses 100% renewable power from a mix of hydroelectricity and solar farms, with the water a combination of harvested and recycled stormwater from Melbourne Airport.


The waves themselves are driven by vertical panels moving in sequence, creating a wave on one side of the pool, followed by another four seconds later for the other side, thereby offering the left–right wave choice, as many as 200 per hour. The shapes of the waves are then influenced by the bottom of the pool, using the same principles of bathymetry that shape waves in the real life ocean.


This technology differs from Kelly Slater’s rectangular wave pool in California, which uses a ‘train’ to pull a hydrofoil through the water (and only has one wave every four minutes). Another more recent experiment out the back of Yeppoon drops a giant plunger in the middle of a circular pool to create waves in concentric circles. They also helpfully have a picture of a menacing shark on their website, just to remind us of one advantage of not being in the ocean.


Expectations before the pool opened were mixed. Some purists swore blind that they would never dip a toe in something so obviously against the spirit of surfing, which, let’s be honest, could be anything from enjoying the wonder of unbridled nature, to cursing onshore winds, rips and waves breaking exactly where you don’t want them to (i.e. on my head). Others decided to reserve judgement until they’d actually given it a go.


Perhaps the most telling comment since it opened was one I read online: ‘It’s simultaneously nothing like surfing and exactly like surfing.’


Although another favourite followed an encounter with the bottom of the pool: ‘Became another victim of the Beast copping three stitches and a trip to the hospital with mild concussion. Still, I’d love to go back.’ Go on, see how bodacious it sounds when read with a Keanu Reeves accent!


The reason that the pool is exactly like surfing is because of the small variety in the waves caused by wind direction and how the water, trapped in a relatively small space compared to the ocean, reacts once a few sets have gone through. And the reason it is nothing like surfing is because you know exactly where it’s going to break and exactly how big the wave is going to be – not something the ocean, in Victoria at least, is famed for.


Early results suggest the naysayers may regret their words, with the most common word in reviews being ‘fun’. The only questions that remain concern the impact wave pools will have on surfing in the future.


Will they lead to more people in the ocean, confident from skills either learnt or improved in the pool?


Or will the frustration or ‘real’ surfing – cold water, hard paddling, unpredictable waves, angry locals and other things that sting and bite – mean people will stick to knowing what they’ll get in a pool?


Will surfing become like skateboarding on water?


Or will it still be as much about reading an unpredictable ocean?


Do we like waves because they make us wonder about the strength and beauty of nature?


Or we do just enjoy the simple thrill of moving across the top of water no matter the source of its power?


And – the big philosophical question – how soon does perfect become boring? Isn’t one of the joys of getting barrelled the fact that so many things have to come into play at the same time for it to happen, not just pushing a button?


Wave bye bye


Time will tell, of course.


I’d love to provide a bit of insight into these questions using my experience of the pool as a guide. In fact, as I write this I should be trying out the pool but, well, a little history first.


Me and my mate Bernie from Kingscliff have an astonishing ability to de-wave any ocean, anywhere. Bali, Hawaii, Bells, there’s not an iconic surf break on the planet where we haven’t turned up, boards under arms, only to be greeted with bemused locals, most definitely on land and most definitely not in the water where they’d usually be, telling us, ‘Yeah, it’s unusual getting wind this strong at this time of the year’ or ‘Yeah, it’s never been flat this time of the year before’.


We often argue over cynical bragging rights: I’m convinced that I’m the source of the curse, whereas Bernie swears blind that the universe hates him.


Well, the argument is now settled. Yesterday I got an email from Urbnsurf (I mean, it’s just one tiny ‘a’) advising me that the red mud downpour that hit Melbourne was still being cleaned from the pool and therefore my session, that I’d booked back in December, had been cancelled (with a full credit though).


That’s right, Bernie, I’ve actually managed to make an artificial wave go flat!


Bragging rights claimed.



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  1. Thanks for this piece Patrick. I’ve had a good look at this and will certainly be booking a session with a group of mates. We decided to wait until the pool operators had ironed out any wrinkles so will be looking at around April.

    I’ve heard that the beast really packs a punch. I won’t heading up to that end of the pool. The intermediate section will more than suffice for me.

    This pool will never replace surfing in the ocean but I see it as a good place to practice without the uncertainty of conditions, the wind, wankers and swell. Oh, and sharks. ,

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    Wave rules apply?

  3. Patrick, if you haven’t already, check out the great William Finnegan’s piece in the New Yorker on Kelly Slater’s wave machine here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/12/17/kelly-slaters-shock-wave.

    The most interesting aspect for me as a non-surfer is the idea of Olympic surfing, which Stephanie Gilmore spoke about:

    ‘Gilmore was thrilled that surfing will be in the Tokyo Olympics, and hoped that the competition could be staged in a Slater pool. “It’s once every four years,” she said. “And for it to come down to sitting at a flat, no-swell beach in who knows where—this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you don’t even get a wave to surf—that would be really heartbreaking.”’

    It’s a fascinating idea – with a machine, the luck of the waves would be totally removed from the competition and it’d be down to pure skill…and Gilmore thinks that’s appropriate for a once-in-every-four-years competition. But ‘purists’ would likely think otherwise…

  4. Paul Spinks says

    Entertainingly written piece, Patrick.

    I remember a news report about this in the idea stage – on the Yarra or something?

    Surprised it’s up and pumping, muddy rain allowing. I’m not a surfer, but like watching exponents. Not sure how a wave pool will match-up spectator wise without the natural backdrop, but I guess it has all sorts of potential as a competitive sport venue that might draw a crowd.

  5. Brilliant, Patrick. A great read.

  6. Patrick OBrien says

    Thanks for the comments.

    I also think the ocean is best, just wondering about people who start in a pool, what will they think when they first encounter a big sweep at Steps as the wind suddenly turns south-east? Is happiness the absence of pain, or is pain the absence of happiness? Either way, I’ve booked in for a session mid-Feb, so if Melbourne gets wiped out by a meteor on Valentine’s Day you’ll know who to blame.

    And personally I don’t think surfing should be considered a sport. Too many variables and too subjective – and it’s the variables that make it both frustrating and rewarding. If I recall correctly, it was a bunch of Australians who wanted surfing to be taken as seriously as ‘real’ sports who started the tour. Surely being taken seriously is anathema to the spirit of surfing?

    As for wave rules, it’s a queuing system, relatively well observed by all reports.

  7. Patrick – interesting comment about surfing being a sport. Not sure if it is or isn’t, but I do think that the best surfers are probably the best athletes in the world. And amongst the bravest.

  8. Patrick OBrien says

    Hi Dips

    No doubt about that, probably just thinking more along the lines of something subjective being judged as opposed to you objectively score more points than me so you win, that’s all.

    Overall I reckon it’s like rock n roll, it all went downhill the moment they started wanting to be taken seriously.

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