Surf’s up in the suburbs as Australia’s first wave pool competition gets pumping

Tullamarine is not Tahiti. But on Saturday, some of the most promising young surfers from across the region took to the water at a wave pool on Melbourne’s outskirts. With big turns and stylish aerial manoeuvres, the wave and surfing quality were on par with some of the world’s best line-ups. Only the concrete backdrop and planes overhead hinted that this was not some far-flung coastal paradise.

Welcome to the first-ever World Surf League-sanctioned wave pool surf competition in the southern hemisphere.

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“This is really cool,” says Jessi Miley-Dyer, an ex-pro surfer and head of competitions at WSL, as she surveys the scene. The sun is shining, the smell of sunscreen lingers in the air and spectators have packed into a cafe overlooking the wave. It’s not Teahupo’o, Tahiti’s wave of consequence, or even Bells Beach, home to one of the iconic events on the WSL’s elite tour and barely an hour away on the Victorian coast. But it might be the future of surfing.

“The idea that someone can be here in Melbourne, surfing so close to the city, having the chance to learn,” Miley-Dyer says. “Wave technology has a place and will be a big part of developing our next generation of stars.”

UrbnSurf opened in Melbourne in early 2020 (a venue in Sydney is also in development). The pool offers a left and right-hand wave, with different difficulty settings. On Saturday, the level is cranked to advanced – with a special aerial setting being offered for a freestyle session during a break in competition.

It’s not the first time UrbnSurf has hosted competitive events, but Saturday’s competition is the first endorsed by the WSL – forming part of the regional qualifying series. UrbnSurf now joins Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch wave pool in California, which has held a leg of the WSL’s elite tour on three occasions.

Unlike an ordinary WSL event, with timed heats and surfers able to surf as many waves as possible, at UrbnSurf the four surfers in each heat are given four waves apiece (in both formats, the top two scores count). Despite the novelty, surfers aren’t being judged lightly – the WSL has flown in its global head judge, Pritamo Ahrendt.

The artificial wave offers speed and a taut wall, with ample opportunities for carving turns. Jarvis Earl, 18, paddles out for the first heat wearing a red rash-vest; the Cronulla local is leading the regional qualifying series and is considered one of Australia’s top young talents.

Notwithstanding the unusual location, Earl is clearly stoked to be making history with the first wave – perhaps a little too-stoked, taking off on the first wave in the first set, minutes after the surfers had been instructed to wait for the second wave of the set, for maximum quality. “It was honestly pretty nerve-wracking, first wave in the first heat,” he says afterwards. “A unique experience.”

The field is mainly composed of Australians – 32 in the men’s field and 16 in the women’s – with a handful of international competitors, from Japan, England and an Indonesian-based Frenchman. (Australian WSL star and Olympic bronze medallist Owen Wright has also come along to spectate). Whereas ocean surf competitions pit surfers against the sometimes-fickle conditions, a wave pool offers a singular blank canvas – luck goes out the window and talent comes to the fore.

“All your competitors have the same wave, there is no priority, you know you’re going to have four good waves,” adds Earl. “It evens the playing field.” After an average first attempt, Earl recovers on his second wave with an eye-catching 360-aerial rotation. It’s a heat-winning move, rewarded with a score of 7.50 from 10.

Mia Huppatz, 17, is watching on as she prepares for the women’s side of the draw. Now based on the Gold Coast, Huppatz is originally from Victoria and has ridden the UrbnSurf wave before – although she downplays any local advantage. “I feel like out here it’s very levelling,” she says. “Surfing a comp at a wave pool takes out all the other factors – time, whether you’ll catch the wave, what it’ll be like. Here you know exactly what you’re getting.”

Saturday’s event may be the first WSL competition at UrbnSurf, but it’s unlikely to be the last. There’s a clear value-alignment between wave pool surfing and WSL’s desire to make the sport more accessible, including through reforming the qualifying series and pushing towards gender equality in the sport. “That really mirrors UrbnSurf’s approach to surfing,” says James Miles, the pool’s head of partnerships. “We’re constantly asking: how can we provide more inclusive access to surfing?”

For purists, the increased use of wave pools in the sport can feel sacrilegious. But Miles highlights the numerous upsides. “There are some real advantages that wave parks can bring to surfing,” he says. “While waves might be an infinite resource, quality waves are a finite resource. A lot of the line-ups around the world are very competitive and the atmosphere that comes with that isn’t conducive to newer people entering the sport, gender equality and a more diverse cross-section of people enjoying surfing.”

While UrbnSurf’s right-hander cranks out waves for competitors, the left-hand ride on the other side of the pool goes unridden – wave after wave of artificial perfection. That is until a cheeky surfer cannot bear the sight and paddles out. With all eyes on the right, including a healthy crowd and WSL’s international live-stream, a lone surfer makes the most of the empty left. It’s not Tahiti, but there are few places on earth that a surfer would have the line-up to themselves on such a perfect wave – competition or not.

“This is not the ocean and we’re not trying to replace the ocean,” Miles adds. “The ocean will always be the home of surfing.” But as Saturday’s event showed, the wave pool is not a bad second home.