Being a surfer in Melbourne is hard yards.
Not being a surfer in Melbourne but deciding you want to learn is even harder. The 100-plus kilometres to the closest waves, relentlessly cold water and the unruly power of the Southern Ocean are just a few of the elements conspiring to stack the odds against you.
Victoria has amazing surf, but when you live in the city, it’s hard not to resent the work it takes to ride it. Even if your Saturday morning magically aligns with the right tide/wind/swell combination, actually getting waves (especially at premier breaks like Bells Beach) most often involves scrapping with dozens of fitter, better surfers who live close by and are more in tune with the ocean.
Which is all a roundabout way of explaining just how intensely attractive the idea of Urbnsurf is. It’s the Southern Hemisphere’s first public wave park. It’s not open yet – that’ll happen in late summer – but it’s has been pumping out user-friendly waves, hundreds per hour, over the past few weeks for a collection of top-flight professional surfers, staff, investors, friends and me.
The scale of the pool catches you first. On the phone, Urbnsurf founder Andrew Ross said it was like a baseball diamond with a pier running through the middle to house the wave-generating machinery. But despite being told the park covers two hectares, I wasn’t quite ready for the footy oval-sized expanse of water.
The landscaping and infrastructure might be a ways off, but the pool itself is very much operational. From a temporary control room in a shipping container near the shallow end, a team of engineers release waves that vary in size and intensity from gentle and knee high to head high and barrelling. Waves start in the tip of the diamond, way down the other end of the pool from the open “shoreline”. Wade out with your surfboard, paddle down the pool next to the pier, pull up a few metres from the top corner and wait your turn.
A mechanical whine signals the coming set of waves, and an initial lump of water pushes through, which you’re told not to bother chasing. And then, from the corner, an unbroken wave rises up, bigger than the first. Then another. And another. And another. Position yourself alongside the outer wall of the pool, and as your wave appears, put your head down, take a couple of strokes and get to your feet. Depending on the setting, your wave will either be a 70-odd-metre cruise, a steeper face allowing for multiple turns or, at its top setting (dubbed “beast mode” by staff), a couple of quick turns before the bottom of the wave drops out, the lip throws dramatically and you can tuck in to a full-throated tube. Waves peter out past the mid-way point where the pier ends, becoming beginner-friendly whitewater as the pool widens and gets shallower.
My visit coincided with rain and a howling south-westerly wind that would rule out surfing at most Victorian beaches. Like much of our actual surfing coastline, the pool is aligned to benefit from winds blowing the exact opposite direction. But under the protection of that outer wall, and without a long ocean fetch to cover before breaking, wave faces stay surprisingly clean.
On this visit, the differences between incremental settings weren’t immediately apparent. Urbnsurf engineers can dial the wave up or down from one set to the next, but when the whole experience is new, the subtleties between the “turns one” and “turns two” settings are lost. While there’s enough power to see you wiggling along on a waist-high wave without having to do much work, these lower, intermediate-level settings don’t have a lot of push behind them. And there’s something about the speed of the wave that doesn’t quite gel with experiences developed over years in the ocean. These waves feel ever-so-slightly slower – no bad thing on settings designed for developing surfers. Even in beast mode, the wave still feels approachable, and wiping out isn’t much of an issue. It’s definitely possible you might be bounced off the pool floor, but as you get washed into the shallow end you find yourself more concerned with dinging your board by falling too close to the wall than any actual risk of injury.
On my visit, there were 20 surfers in the water at a time, 10 on each side of the pier, according to individual preference for right- or left-breaking waves. But with as many as 12 waves in a set, and sets generated with as little as two minutes’ break between them, it’s easy to imagine the pool holding larger numbers, with even more beginners in the shallow end.
Of course it’s not surfing in the ocean. Nobody’s pretending it is. But once you swing to your feet, it’s amazing how quickly the artifice of the environment drops away and instinct takes over. When you kick out after a ride, you’re still in a freshwater pool in an industrial park, with a concrete wall on one side and a heavy-plastic-lined pier on the other. But if you’ve just been barrelled, well, you’ve just been barrelled. And that still feels as good as you’d expect. How much do these barrels cost? A one-hour advanced surf session will set you back $79. Right now you can also buy a foundation membership for $3500. It gives you four advanced surf sessions per month, two additional surf sessions each year for you or a friend, Urbnsurf Boardriders Club membership, members rates for Amateur Surf League competitions, an unlimited spectator pass and 10 per cent off extra sessions, lessons, hire and retail.
Surfers spend a lot of time looking for good waves, then working out what to do with them once we find them. Urbnsurf is not going to change this, but there is absolutely no doubt it will help with that second part. Like hitting a bucket of balls at a driving range allows you to work on the subtleties of your swing and indoor cricket keeps your skills sharp for play on a real pitch, Urbnsurf will give Australian surfers – including beginners – an impressive-enough version of the real thing to legitimately improve on-wave performance, regardless of ability.
Tim Fisher is Broadsheet’s former editorial director, and the longest-serving editor of Australia’s Surfing Life magazine. He is now an editor of ABC Life.