Reflections on the Tulla Tub
Signing off on his latest Beach Grit article, Steve Shearer recently wrote: “Surely we’ve all got wavepool fatigue now?”
But it depends, I suppose, on where you sit.
There ain’t no wavepool fatigue around Melbourne at the moment - the very opposite in fact. I know two Melburnian surfers and they both say their surfing friends are crossing off the days until the opening of the Tullamarine Tub. A gesture that suggests they’re energised not enervated.
Though, construed another way, you could say that I have wavepool fatigue right now: I feel like I’ve done ten rounds with Tyson, can’t lift my left arm above the horizontal, a gash in my head has been superglued shut, and if I laid down I could sleep till next week.
All because of a few hours in the tub.
But rather than sleep I want to get my thoughts down while they’re fresh. Apologies in advance if what follows is discursive or less than coherent.
Like Charlie, I got the golden ticket to the chocolate factory; an email with an invitation that was RSVPed ASAP. Ben Matson got one too, as did a few other media folk, surfing and otherwise.
So it was car, train, plane, taxi, taxi, taxi to arrive at the gates of URBNSURF, just beyond Melbourne airport which explains why I had to sit in three taxis before one would accept the fare. I’ve given up defending the industry - Uber all the way.
Sign a waiver - more on that later - and the first person I see is a famous Sydney shaper dripping wet and jogging from the pool. He also received a golden ticket, only for the morning not the afternoon, and he’d come unstuck near the wall and buckled two fins. What followed was a board exchange that’d make a CT surfer proud. Not much fatigue there either.
Later I overheard him in animated conversation with one of the staff about customising a board to the curves of the pool. It’s an exciting time for board designers who will shortly be able to shape boards specifically for a wave with endless repetition.
The staff rotated the morning group reluctantly out and introduced themselves to the newly assembled who, though chatting amiably amongst themselves, all faced the pool which demanded attention even when lifeless.
URBNSURF CEO and music maker Andrew Ross appeared in his wetsuit and introduced himself. “This afternoon you’ll all get 100 waves,” he said magnanimously, sounding every bit like Willy Wonka himself. “But first I’d like to take you on a tour.”
I exchanged glances with Ben and we read each other's thoughts: Couldn’t we do this after the session? Augustus and Veruca in cahoots.
We bit tongues and followed Andrew around the pool and into the engine room where cameras were off limits under threat of a lifetime ban. Unlike Slater’s invention or Webber’s conception, Wavegarden tech doesn’t use a hull to displace water. Instead, 46 vertical panels move side to side in sequence, first creating a wave on one side, and four seconds later a wave on the other side.
Stay tuned to Swellnet for a more detailed look at the Wavegarden tech.
Swellnet lost the paddle battle for first wave of the session to Beach Grit with an Up The Fucken Swellian in third, however we were all beaten by the wave itself, which unbeknownst to us was set on Beast mode. All eight waves of that first set were ridden with none of them completed, and it wasn’t wholly due to the gormless pilots.
With no clues as to what the wave will do down the line, no draw off the bank or Raimana to gently instruct, then you’re essentially flying blind; if you’re not at the very base of the wave when it lurches then there’s no chance of getting down there - not connected to your board anyway.
Word is the pool will open to the public with an electronic board to show the wave schedule.
The trick, once you’ve been pitched by the Beast a few times, is to stay low on the face when the section hits, angle the board towards shore and keep your nose clean. From there work up to speed management: stalling going into the section and accelerating through it.
However, exact repetition won’t work as each wave is marginally different to the one before it. On the Beast, and the other barrel settings, the first wave is cleanest, though not as hollow, they then get incrementally rounder, till random glitches mar the last waves of the set, the current working up a head of steam and affecting them in unpredictable ways.
The pattern stays the same but the details change.
On most settings the waves came in sets of eight with three minute intervals between sets. It’s possible to ride two waves in a set if you go early then gun it for one of the later waves, but good luck if you can maintain the pace.
The crew who’d surfed Lemoore said they got seven or eight waves in a day, with long anxious waits in between, and each wave safely ridden like the cherished jewel it was. Which sounded like an austerity program against the sheer gluttony of Wavegarden where you rarely stopped moving and were able to throw yourself at each wave with the abandon of Jackson Pollock in the studio. Didn’t make that wave? Here comes another one…
It’s a place to cleanse yourself of petty grievances. Surrounding me were media peers who at times have pissed me off, at other times made me jealous, yet I don’t doubt any of the hoots from the tub were genuine, and they shouldn’t second guess mine. It’s a manufactured environment where jubilation is authentic.
Separated by the wavemaker it’s easy to forget there’s a mirror-image wave on the other side, and that you’re only seeing half of the park, till you hear the odd hoot from that side. Fuck, there’s a party over there too!
If our crew was representative, there’s still more natural footers then goofys in the world as most people opted for the right. So I slid over to the less populated left which, while still on Beast mode, was putting out a scaled down imitation of Blacks, the barrel section creating an angled gutter along the base of the wave.
When the wave setting went from Beast to Turns the shortcoming of my board became obvious. The wave doesn’t generate down-the-line speed, and without the push of the ocean, open face turns require extra floatation. EPS they say. Wide-tailed too. A good rhythm is essential and you can see how the float would help.
Yet whether they’re EPS or PU, boards will take a beating. At the tub, everything happens in close proximity. Wave action butts you up against the chain link fence on one side or the concrete wall on the other, while a wipeout places you in the impact zone where it’s too shallow to duckdive and there’s someone steaming through on the very next wave, and the one after that, and the one after that.
While on the left I got hung up on a reo and had to ditch my board almost decapitating Willy Wonka who’d ridden the wave before me, taking out his board instead. A collision with the owner! I’d written controversial things about Andrew in the past, things he hadn’t appreciated, how was this going to play out?
I rose slowly from the water, extended open palms and a sincere apology. “No worries,” said Andrew. “I’ve had way closer calls than that.”
Might be worth talking about that waiver now.
Before setting foot in the pool everyone signed a waiver about surfing being an inherently dangerous activity. It’s a formality of course. I expected as much. But it takes on significance when you realise the danger.
Yeah, the danger.
Allow me to provide some perspective.
Last time Swellnet ran a video of the tub people were holding a tape measure up to the wave, but in hindsight that’s all nonsense - there’s no grovelling here. There’s no stand up pits either, but you sure ain’t wanting for size. The first time you hit bottom is a shock. It’s hard concrete and maybe thigh deep where the lip hits. Fall on take off and you’re trying to find a place to hide in knee deep water as the lip of the next wave pitches and the rider and board pass overhead.
My session ended after two hours when the toe side rail caught during a layback and I went over leading with my head and shoulder, each making contact and hard. The lifeguards, who’d just stitched up another punter, were quickly onto me, sitting me down and assessing damage. They decided on glue and steristrips, and an enforced end to the session. Tail between my legs, I went poolside to dry off.
“Well, what’d you think of it” asked Andrew, who was clearly keen to know.
One of the narratives surrounding the rise of wavepools is that they’ll offer much but deliver little. That the owners will avoid the risk of litigation and wrap us in cotton wool with a powered-down product. Sitting poolside, bandage around my head watching the session continue on, I bounced between disappointment at missing the end of the session and elation at what went down.
The tub is great fun, and without getting all hairy-chested, that’s largely due to the equation of shallow water = hollow barrel. Ergo, it was fun because there’s an element of danger, even if it’s not apparent.
“It won’t always be like that,” said Andrew. “We’ve got other settings, for learners, for people who want to do turns.” I smiled meekly. Andrew sensed the indulgence and continued. “But so far everyone wants to get barrelled.”
I resolved that next time I surfed the tub I’d wear a Gath helmet. Sounds silly, right? And I’ll be the first to admit it’ll look even sillier. However, three people in our crew got hurt, and all of them were head injuries.
Since I got home I’ve had numerous people ask me how it was. Everyone is curious, though not everyone is sold on it. “You only enjoyed it 'cos it was free,” countered one mate, and it caused me to consider the point.
Yet two days after the session I keep replaying moments in my head. I keep flashing on mistakes I made, how I could’ve got deeper, what boards I’d ride next time, where I’d place my turns next time.
Next time, next time.
Admission may have been waived, but the infection is real.
(All photos URBNSURF/Jarrah Lynch)