The Swimming pool
Trent Munro’s back foot sits in ankle deep water in a Malaysian pool, the other is balanced on the deck of his board. Both hands hold the towrope attached to a jetski skippered by Joel Parkinson. He stares toward the wall at the end of pool, concentration ruffling his brow.
“I am way more scared than any heat at massive Chopes or Pipe,” he says, barely looking up. “The nerves are freaking out my gut.”
Pressure? A two-foot wave is about to be coughed from under this wall? What’s the problem? A wave breaks only every three minutes. There are three people to share the waves between. Fall and you’ve got another nine minutes to wait for your shot. There are only 20 waves to be ridden in the hour before the pumps get too hot and they send down the last swell down the pool.
It’s day two, the tide – yes, the tide – has been pumped up overnight and the wave is breaking closer to the end of the pool. There’s less time to tow in and more chance to blow it. In a few moments, Parko will see a swell rise from under the wall, there’ll be a collective “go” yelled from onlookers, he’ll push the throttle to 11 and Trent will need to momentarily ride on one leg before planting his back foot on his board, back fin scraping along tiles on the bottom of the pool. Parko will swing toward the wall and a second later Trent will slingshot within a metre of the wall and into the right. Fifteen seconds later the wave is over. It will be three minutes until the eight 50,000 litre vats will refill with water to create another wave.
“This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. Forget macaronis as a skatepark. This is the skatepark. It’s a joke.” Taj Burrow
What are we doing in Kuala Lumpur in a wave pool with a jetski? We’re here for a two-day trip to test out the world’s biggest wavepool, Sunway Lagoon. Two days earlier, Taj and I arrived before the pack to check out the pool: the way it breaks, its surfability and to see if this was glorious waste of green. Entry into the park was exactly like going to Seaworld or Dreamworld, complete with tigers and pirate ship rides and rollercoasters. Ceramic lions stalk the park walls and the Jeffreys Bay wave pool. The park and complex sits below hotels, a mall and a faux volcano in the crater created in an old mine spanning over seven million square feet. The wavepool is the centrepiece of the park. An Olympic pool-sized swimming pool with a fanned opening at the base: No opening in the walls, no grills, no sign of any wave-making device.
Waxing a board in a theme park felt like attaching an ash tray to a motorbike. And paddling out into a lineup without a single ripple felt more ridiculous. Staff and local lifeguards gathered around as the water in front of the wall started bubbling. The world number three was in the pool! Expect aerials! Expect big spins! Expect high performance surfing on the streets of KL! The huge silos of water behind the pool thumped and a swell rose from under the wall.
Taj paddled. He kicked. He dropped his chin to the board for more momentum. And the chubby two-foot swell passed underneath him before lapping into the bay. Crunch time. Oh boy, this was going to be interesting. Three minutes later another wave emerged from under the wall. It had two wedges: one on the left side of the pool and another on the right side. It looked three foot, maybe.
Taj paddled, stood up, and knocked out a little backhand reo and low-fi reverse as the wave died. The lifeguards looked on unimpressed. The wave is like a weak left running into pier at, say, the Spit on the Goldie or, Huntington Beach in California.
Eight waves later, the pool was empty, there had been a few lame wash climbs and I was emotionally shaken. Things needed to improve quickly. It was time to meet the management. Time to climb the chain of command and go beyond the man controlling the levers of the pool out the back.
Can we pump up the wave size? It’s at capacity.
Can we lift the tide to give it more push? You can only fill the pool overnight.
Can we change the wave shape? This is the best shape we can create.
Can we use a quadbike to tow down the side of the pool? Too risky, we don’t have any insurance.
Can we use a jetski to tow in with? It pollutes the water. It’s dangerous for the customer’s health.
We’re using a four-stroke ski, we can use biodegradable oil. We need a two-stroke.
But, we can use a two-stroke? It’s not safe, there’s not enough room.
These guys are professionals, all three own a ski back home. We’ll be safe. They can ride it in the lake, not in the wave pool.
You can’t perform world-class surfing in a lake, we need waves. The jet will rip the tiles from the bottom of the pool.
We’re not ripping round like fools on a ski, all we need is a tiny little squirt of power so we can do manoeuvres. Let us call the managing director.
“I am way more scared than any heat at massive Chopes or Pipe,” says Trent Munro, barely looking up. “The nerves are freaking out my gut.”
Twenty four hours later, the wave was predominantly a right, the tide was high, there was a jetski in the pool, Parko was banking full rail turns off the whitewash with the ski and I was running down the shoreline picking up the tiles he’dblown from the bottom. Behind a fenced-off area, Muslims swam in head-to-toe lycra bodysuits.
Our first attempt at towing was fruitless. Taj and Parko prefer towing into a wave rather than towing out because it’s more like surfing as opposed, to say, skiing. You make more out of a wave. You can hit the section where you’d typically be paddling in. The ski was set up in the far corner of the pool and a quick squirt into the wave was used. For the driver, the edge of the pool came just too quickly. For the surfer, getting into the wave was awkward and there wasn’t enough time to throw down anything decent. It was time to take on the tow out. The ski was set up in the shallow end of the pool and the surfer whipped toward the wave. Taj and Trent used the typical stand-on-your-craft style of take-off and their fins were being graunched along the tiles. Parko adopted the one-foot approach.
Every session, the level of performance improved. Looking at the photos, you’ll see there are two sections of the wave. There’s the opening section where the hacks are laid down and the second section where you get to turn up the volume a little. Trent owned the first section of the wave. You’ve seen shots of him surfing in mags but his surfing and power in real time would probably shake you (and so might his boardies – he has to own the title of highest pants on tour). He would approach the first section, low and tight, bury his rail and throw his lower body into the turn while stabilising with his arm and upper body. Taj predictably, put his focus on the end section, working on shove-its and air variations. After a week in Bali with Wade Goodall, he was inspired. “You’d lose your fucking mind if you saw the shit that kid pulls,” he said. “He’d be a mad dog in the pool. We couldn’t let him in, he’d show us all up. I’m not joking. We’d look like kooks.”
Between sessions, Joel dewaxed his craft and ripped up his tailpad. He stuck down one of those footstraps and kicker you jam your back foot up under. They worked, and he laid down some seamless airs and carves, but he was surfing with straps! He might as well have been tandem surfing! Or riding a longboard! A kid with his skills didn’t need help, and I cringed every time he caught a wave, comparing his surfing to Rush Randall. “You’ve got to open your mind,” he said. “You could do something amazing.”
“This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. Forget macaronis as a skatepark. This is the skatepark. It’s a joke,” frothed Taj, mid-session. “It’s not possible to have more fun.” Every session was frantic. And predictable. An hour of waves, followed bythe obligatory begging at the end of the session for more waves. Just 10 more. No. Just five more. No. Just three more. Come on. Please. And the pool would deliver just a couple more. Fear of the axe coming down from management above meant the pool operators played it safe. Then it’d go completely flat. Not a ripple. And the countdown for the next session would begin. And the last session arrived. There was a flight to catch. Ten, nine, eight… There was begging for more waves. Not this time. The time keeping was over. Besides flight times and the odd heat and maybe the tides, pro surfers don’t typically have to worry about the time too much. Seven sessions in the pool, 140 waves every three minutes. A wave every 180 seconds. Two waves were missed during the whole trip. None by the pros.