Yeppoon Diaries: Notes From A Lone Booger In The Latest Landlocked Wave Utopia

 Photo:  Dan Taylor

Photo: Dan Taylor

In case you’re a surf purist who’s been purposely averting their eyes from the burgeoning world of artificial wave-making, there’s a new mechanical contender in town – this time, residing eight hours north of Queensland’s notorious Surfer’s Paradise, far away from the glitz and glamour in the quiet beachside town of Yeppoon.

With a name akin to a retirement village for ageing surfers and donning the physical characteristics of a post-apocalyptic war machine, Surf Lakes is the latest wave pool on the scene and the first legitimate contender on (sort of) Australian shores. Rumours had already spread of its ability to churn out multiple waves at a time in different shapes and sizes that would cater to both standing up, and out, craft preferences... and something about a giant plunger. But nothing was yet concrete; until about one week ago, when the company opened its gates to the surf world elite – and one lonely bodyboarder, by way of Ben Player – to road-test their prototype pool.

By now, you’ve likely seen the videos spreading across social feeds of guys like Joel Parkinson and Mark Occhilupo tearing apart clean, waist-high lines born from Surf Lakes’ sprawling machine-laden pond. But what about a bodyboarder – could this finally be the pool that produces perfect slabs? Before he took the plunge, we asked Player to take notes during his three-day wave-pool junket at Yeppoon, to find out whether Surf Lakes’ creation will make waves in the surf world, or fall flat to the likes of competitor pool technology. These are his stories…

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[All words below by Ben Player]

01-06–17-10
I met with the guys from Surf Lakes about four months ago. [APB CEO] Alex Leon was invited to a meeting with Surf Lakes founder, Wayne Dart, to discuss the possibility of getting some bodyboarders in the pool. I had heard of Surf Lakes from the clips of Occy and Barton that were doing the rounds, but I was really surprised to hear how far along they were with building it. And even more surprised that Surf Lakes had custom built a slab-style wave with bodyboarders in mind. Wayne is a great guy and was amped on getting us up there for a media day and possibly the opening demo day and mentioned it would possibly be finished in October, which was only a few months from when we met.

I next heard from Wayne I was in Indonesia – he let me know that the following Sunday they were going to get first waves and wanted me up there. I was pretty shocked when he invited me for so many days. I felt pretty privileged and started fantasising about how I was going to be surfing six foot waves and ripping the pit, which I was pretty amped about, because Indonesia was horse shit and tiny, and my mi goreng gut was starting to create bigger ripples than the ocean gave us.

I arrived a few hours later to see Alex with a mixture of excitement and anxiety on his face. He goes on to explain that they didn’t get rideable waves going that afternoon as they had planned, and he was going to need to leave for Bali the following day. I was still optimistic; I thought that just meant more waves for me.

21-10
I was meant to fly out to Rockhampton on Sunday, but when I checked the flights I was a little rattled by the $850 price tag attached. I’m a bodyboarder, not a venture capitalist. So I hung with Jenna, my fiancé, and pretended like the anxiety of missing six foot reelers wasn’t getting to me.

 The post-apocalyptic plunge spectacular, in all its glory. Photo:  Surf Lakes

The post-apocalyptic plunge spectacular, in all its glory. Photo: Surf Lakes

23-10
On Tuesday, Jenna got fed up with my pacing around our Avalon apartment and booked a frequent flyer airfare for me. She’s a hustler and found a seat for 20,000 points and $150. That’s a hit I can take. I had 90 minutes until the flight left. Luckily my gear wasn’t really unpacked from my trip to Indo, the waves were bad for the week I was home and my mi goreng gut was now a hot chip gut.

Before I boarded the flight, I thought I should check in with Alex Leon to see if he was heading up but had to turn my phone off for take off. I arrived in Brisbane to transfer to my next flight to Rockhampton and was greeted with a blue message in my inbox from Alex which read “Here we go”, and a video showing a giant plunger that kicks out steam followed by one of the most perfect one foot waves I have ever seen. He offered to pick me up from the airport a few hours later. I head to the food hall at Brisbane airport and filled up on some plastic food – I figured that I will be surfing for three days straight so I can eat whatever. I arrived a few hours later to see Alex with a mixture of excitement and anxiety on his face. He goes on to explain that they didn’t get rideable waves going that afternoon as they had planned, and he was going to need to leave for Bali the following day. I was still optimistic; I thought that just meant more waves for me.

The last time I felt like that, I was at a Da Hui party at Turtle Bay Hilton in Hawaii and I was called a ‘fucking dick dragger’ and chased out of there. So, I was hoping that that wouldn’t happen here; it would be far more embarrassing in broad daylight.

24-10
I woke up at 6am and peeked out of the ‘70s-style hotel window at Yeppoon – it looked like a nice beachside town with a few cafes and restaurants. A few hours later, we were driving down a bumpy dirt road and the rusty tower emerges from the blackened trees and dry blonde grass. It looked like a expensive, industrial-chic piece of art that could decorate the Louvre. Alex introduced me to a guy named Warrick – who was standing against a heavy duty fence – then greets him with a warm welcome. It looks like Warrick is the gate master, so I do the same. I figured that it might pay to be extra nice so I could squeeze a few more days in if it’s pumping. I was then asked to sign a 10-page form and hand over my ID for authentication. At that point I was pretty stressed – it was 8:28am and we were asked to arrive at 8:30 and all I could think about was missing perfect waves in a fresh-water pool. Luckily, we got through a few minutes later and arrived to see a pool as big a four football fields and a giant plunger in the centre that is more akin to a supersized mining digger. I couldn’t believe my eyes – witnessing a piece of machinery that could make history. Alex, myself, and a group of 20 other surfers, were sat down and briefed on the day ahead. I have to admit, I felt slightly uneasy being around so many high profile surfers at the same time. The last time I felt like that, I was at a Da Hui party at Turtle Bay Hilton in Hawaii and I was called a “fucking dick dragger” and chased out of there. So, I was hoping that that wouldn’t happen here; it would be far more embarrassing in broad daylight.

I remember thinking, Shit, did I just sink because of the extra weight I had put on, or is this wave weak?

We were told that three-to-four-foot waves were predicted to run today and that we were to take it in turns to surf. A few seconds later all of the surfers were in the water, waiting metres from the 1400-tonne central plunger, staring at it like it was some kind of god. The Director of Surf Lakes got on the loudspeaker and gave us a five second warning. A few seconds later, the first wave spilled out with the whistle that sounded like the intake of the world’s biggest turbo fan. Bobbing up and down, I shat myself as the wave passed by. I caught one on the next set and went left. At first I thought I was too late, but it took longer to break than anticipated, so I turned off the bottom and tried to do a reverse and sunk to the concrete depths. I remember thinking, Shit, did I just sink because of the extra weight I had put on, or is this wave weak? I caught a few more waves, and fast realised it was a mixture of the two. It felt like I was riding an eight second period, two-foot wave wave at my home beach.

I looked into it as he scooped up and I was blown away – there was a defined ledge in this wave; even a step bubbling on the inside. I could not believe that I was watching a wave like that in a freshwater pool.

I caught another right which felt like it had a bit more power, and then decided to paddle around the corner to the spot they call ‘The Island’. There were four guys already there. I knew I was being a little naughty by going out, as the rules stated only four people were to be on each wave at any time; but I had been hearing hoots from this spot all morning so I asked if they would mind if I joined them, and they were all cool with it. A set approached. The first wave looked fun; Cronulla surfer Connor O’Leary caught the second one and went left. I looked into it as he scooped up and I was blown away – there was a defined ledge in this wave; even a step bubbling on the inside. I could not believe that I was watching a wave like that in a freshwater pool. I waited for the second wave of the next set, hoping to get one like Connor’s. The 10-minute wait was killing me, and all of my insecurities were bubbling to the surface, making the water boil around me. I went over the first wave and the second wave filled up my field of view. For a moment I freaked out and wondered how much more the wave would grow as it bulged out from under the plunger. I turned and paddled, my legs gripping the face as I slid over the ledge and rode through a wide tube before I sunk into the shockwave. Guys were hooting, but I felt like a kook for not making it.

‘That wasn’t good’, said Occy. When I looked up, I saw the owners gathering together in a group in a tight discussion. They turned to us and said ‘Guys, we’re going to take a breather and check out what that sound was’. A few minutes later, it was confirmed that a metal seal had popped and it wouldn’t be fixed that day.

Suddenly, we were called in to shore on the loudspeaker. For a second I thought I was going to get in trouble for not abiding by the rules of only having four guys per spot; but luckily, it was because the owners just wanted to test it at a bigger size. The surfers were divided up into groups from that point onwards. Occy and his son were first up, I was in the fourth group and was going to be placed on the heavy left. Stoked. Maybe the decision to gate crash earlier to get that left paid off. Occy and his son, Jay, waited patiently as the machine was dialled in to increase size. “Five seconds out”, was yelled and the machine raised and fell with more power; but on the second pump, there was the same whistle of the air pressure releasing as before, followed by a cracking noise, pumping out the biggest wave we had seen. I tried to match the volume of the machine and screamed in delight. “That wasn’t good”, said Occy. When I looked up, I saw the owners gathering together in a group in a tight discussion. They turned to us and said “Guys, we’re going to take a breather and check out what that sound was”. A few minutes later, it was confirmed that a metal seal had popped and it wouldn’t be fixed that day. Immediately, Joel Parkinson yelled an idea to head to the pub to drink the remaining hours away, I stood there, wondering if I was a part of that universal invite, or if my attendance would result in the same outcome as that Da Hui party a few years ago. So I stood there, hand against the chair and stared at the towering, god-like plunger deity and waited for an answer. Luckily, Alex asked if I could drop him to the airport, or I might have stood there all afternoon. After I dropped Alex to the airport, I ate a burrito the size of a forearm by myself, within earshot of the 20 or so surfers raging in the local tavern.

Immediately, Joel Parkinson yelled an idea to head to the pub to drink the remaining hours away, I stood there, wondering if I was a part of that universal invite, or if my attendance would result in the same outcome as that Da Hui party a few years ago.

25-10
We were told to return at 6am; I arrived at 5:50. I figured that I needed as much time on that wave pool as I could to try to burn my mi goreng, hot chip, burrito bulge away. Warrick wasn’t at the gate, so I signed in and entered to find a private meeting being held amongst the owners. A few glanced over at me and then went back to their conversation. There was no one else on site; so I did what you always do when you feel awkward and got my phone out and pretended like I had something important to do, carefully back-stepping to the car in the process. I waited another hour until more people came; Parko, Hippo and Dingo turned up. I briefly wondered if I called myself Benno if I may have been invited last night. But then I noticed that they were pretty hung over, and was glad that I wasn’t called Benno. They signed in with Warrick and I did the same, except Warrick turned to me and said, “I don’t have your name on the list for today”, looking over my shoulder at the next person in line. I felt like an 18-year-old trying to get past the velvet rope of a nightclub all over again. Nothing makes you feel as rejected as that, especially when it happens in front of some of the world’s most famous surfers and they enter without you – like my date did at the nightclub all of those years ago. I was rattled – I thought I won Warrick over on my first day with my niceties but then I remembered how I gate-crashed the four-surfer session the day before and wondered if I had got myself banned. Warrick must have seen that I was puzzled and said that I should try and call Wayne to see if I can get in. I called him, and a few seconds later he met me at the gate and invited me in and explained that they had fixed the plunger and we were all systems go.

Parko returned to shore and yelled ‘Benny, you’re going to rip that wave, it’s custom made for a boogie’ in front of all of the surfers, the entourage and the owners.

A few minutes later, we were sat down and the mood felt completely different. It was game day. The director of Surf Lakes explained that only a select few surfers would be allowed to go out. My name was included, and they were going to pump the pool to 100% power. With that, the plunger lifted to a whole new level and a wave surged out and peeled down the reef with dimensions that were wider than they were tall. Parko and Occy paddled out a few seconds later and swung into the first wave that broke, the right that Parko surfed dropped out and ran perfectly down the reef. I looked up at the plunger and noticed that it was spewing steam like it did the night before. Parko returned to shore and yelled “Benny, you’re going to rip that wave, it’s custom made for a boogie” in front of all of the surfers, the entourage and the owners. It was pretty amazing to get that kind of recognition in front of so many well-respected and important people. However, the elation was only short-lived, as Rueben confirmed that it had broken again and would need to be fixed. “Next check will be at 5pm and we will be running at 50% the capacity for the rest of the day to give you guys plenty of waves”, he said.

 The slab that pounded Parko but garnered praise for Player. Photo: Surf Lakes

The slab that pounded Parko but garnered praise for Player. Photo: Surf Lakes

I could imagine Kirra would have been a lot like Yeppoon before the surfing industry took it over. I wondered if Yeppoon was heading for the same fate if the surf lake will prove to be successful.

I went back to my hotel in Yeppoon. It really is a beautiful town, situated about half of the way up the Queensland coast and bordered by the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the kind of place where you can have a half-hour conversation with a stranger and their smile infects you with happiness. I could imagine Kirra would have been a lot like Yeppoon before the surfing industry took it over. I wondered if Yeppoon was heading for the same fate if the surf lake will prove to be successful.

When I returned to the Surf Lakes site I noticed that there was a bit of energy in the air. I wondered if it was because the temperature had chilled from it’s highs of 35 at midday, or if it was because the pool was fixed. “Benno, the plunger is fixed” yelled a surfer as he ran through the gates. I grabbed my gear and arrived at the pool to find everyone getting ready, the guys yelling names out for who was surfing and when, explaining that it would be two people at a time. I didn’t hear my name and figured that I had been cut due to the reduced numbers in the pool, but asked when I asked out of curiosity they pointed to the third line from the top and told me to get ready.

Shortly after I was in the water and waiting at the right at ‘The Island’ for the plunger to lift. I looked into shore and saw all of the famous faces staring back at me and immediately felt my man hood shrink with nerves. What if I kooked it? What if I can’t catch the wave? What if I didn’t rip the right like Parko thought I would? I tried to lull my nerves by pretending I was in Arica for a world title event and I needed an eight-point ride to make my heat. A few minutes later the plunger raised and stomped down. I took off and tried to backdoor the whole peak, but despite my positive thinking and Parko’s belief in my ability, I kooked it and sunk prematurely into the shockwave. The Burrito Bod has let me down again. I stayed underwater for as long as could to try and hide from how bad I rode that wave. I cursed myself felt embarrassed and like I let myself and my sport down.

But a few minutes later came redemption – I was invited to have another go, this time at the left at ‘The Island’ which I rode the day before. The surge of swell came and I took off and scooped into a nice tube but started to sink into the shock wave again, but managed to lift myself and push out of it. I know it sounds stupid to get excited over a two-foot wave, but for me, making that wave meant more than the act of riding it. There was so much that went into getting that wave, let alone riding it. People have invested millions of dollars into this project, and the owners invited me. Pretty rad that the sport got the recognition it deserves.

Above: BP nabbing his slice of the plunger pie. Photo: Dan Taylor

26-10–29-10
The next day, I jumped on a flight and returned home. I felt like I needed to sleep for days – I was totally overwhelmed by the rollercoaster of feelings. When things came felt back to normal, I posted a shot that I got on my Instagram account from the last wave I rode from the wave pool. Some people were intrigued, others were excited, and some straight-up hated it and were quick to judge the size and scale of the waves.

After I posted it, I spent some time reflecting on the comments and thinking about the pool… and I have come to the conclusion that our sport is in for a very exciting future because the of the design of Surf Lakes. The genius of their design means that each pump of the plunger actually uses the backwash from the previous wave which makes the following wave bigger. So if they get it to six waves, the final waves will be a lot larger and more powerful than the previous wave. When I visited the pool, the maximum the plunger went to was 50%, and they only created two waves per sequence. The second wave was close to double the size of the first and about two foot; so if that trend continues, hopefully the third wave will be four foot, and so on. They might make a wave consistent enough that I can finally get rid of this burrito bod. Who knows?