November 8, 2000 "Hey, did I tell you about the guy who nearly drowned in there today? The lifeguards had to pull him out and give him oxygen."
Brad Gerlach's animated feedback served as my introduction to Miyazaki, Japan's, mythical Sea Gaia Ocean Dome wave pool. Unnerving as it was, it left me feeling equal parts of apprehension and wonder en route to my own session in the pool.
Making my way through a maze of hydraulics, I stepped onto the pool deck and into a Truman Show micro-universe. Palmed faux-hillsides, plaster volcanoes, a bleached-white beach and starlit tropical sky all framed the mirror-like pool that shimmered before me. Would my virgin session be broadcasted on Sony big-screens throughout Tokyo?
Foregoing the traditional pre-surf conditions check, I paddled directly to the designated lineup markers and awaited the twinkling synthesizer that would announce the impending set.
On cue, the wave suddenly jacked upon me, requiring a late takeoff before I went flying down the line on a head-high, sparkling blue left. Three off-the-tops later, I kicked out in the shallows and a spontaneous hoot floated up into the artificial heavens.
The wavepool concept is not a new one. In fact, Allentown, Pennsylvania's, Surfworld pool even hosted an ASP event back in 1985. Conceived to sell pro surfing to the "sleeping giant" of Middle-American consumers, it featured knee-high ripples and the spectre of lanky Wes Laine's fins scraping the bottom before he could stand up. In its wake, Middle America turned to monster truck rallies and the WCW instead.
Later attempts like Disney's Typhoon Lagoon and South Africa's Valley of the Waves showed enthusiasm but lacked in shape, size and power. And the recent Flowrider publicity is a whole 'nother ball of foam -- better suited to wakeboarders, skimboarders and freaks of nature like Kelly Slater. But to all who have surfed it, the Ocean Dome has restored any hopes for a chlorinated surfing future.
The wavepool's magic and mechanics are housed within the Sea Gaia Ocean Dome complex, the world's largest indoor water park. Designed by the Mitsubishi Heavy Industrial Group and opened in July 1993 at a cost of 200 billion yen ($2 billion), the pool has yet to turn over profits, despite catering to daily throngs of tourists.
Australian Matthew Pitts has performed in the Dome's wavepool shows for eight years now, admitting: "I have the best job, surfing all day in the ocean, then getting barrelled every night in the Ocean Dome. Plus, I'm getting paid for it!"
The pool, holding 13,500 tons of water, has a depth of 3.5 metres (about 10 feet) along the 70-meter-long back wall. This cushion, however, abruptly ends as it approaches the ultra shallow football-field-length shoreline.
The wave-making pump mechanisms are housed behind the back wall, consisting of 20 large pumps that supply the 1,800 tons of water required for each surfable wave.
Water is sucked up into vertical storage tanks and then dropped, somewhat like a toilet flushing, to form a downward surge. The released water compresses and rebounds off the bottom of the pool, surging upwards and forwards. When coupled with the abrupt bottom contours of the pool, this surge forms a jacking 6-foot wave with groundswell-like strength. Surfable waves up to 8 feet and a 10-foot closeout are possible, although surfing quality suffers beyond the optimum 6-foot size.
The released surge is directed through five outlet sections, which are alternated to regulate the shape, size and direction of the waves, offering all the variety of a regular ocean beachbreak. Quite ingenious, really.
Despite the Las Vegas atmosphere, most elements of ocean surfing are still evident in the Dome: the same equipment, the same lines drawn and the added exhilaration of tuberiding.
Unlike its predecessors, the Dome's waves do boast equivalent power-to-size ratios as their oceanic counterparts. But with limited pool depth, shallow bottom turns become the norm. The wave zips down the line as if it breaks on a shallow, lateral sandbar, which eliminates the possibility of cutbacks. And while airs and closeout floaters are tempting, launching them in shin-deep water is not advisable. I learned this the hard way, courtesy of two smashed tails.
In the end, though, I left the Dome convinced that the long-awaited promise of a perfect mechanical wave does indeed exist -- and it's existed for years. Even if I'm wrong, there's one thing I do know: I scored the best available waves in Japan that week with only five buddies out. -- Duncan Scott
[Special thanks to Sea Gaia Ocean Dome's PR Chief Mr. Takahashi-san, with assistance from Mathew Pitts.