The Slab Whisperer: What’s it take to be a test pilot at Surf Lakes?

To those non-indoctrinated in the ways of prone surfing, Ben Player is the Mick Fanning of the flipper set, claiming three IBA world titles. He’s also a media mogul, running the much-celebrated bodyboard publication Movement Mag. But to wave pool fans he’s known as “that one guy in the barrel at Yeppoon.”

Part of the reason is that early incarnations of the Surf Lakes slab were difficult to surf – remember that clip of Parko getting pitched? Without having to pop-up to your feet, bodyboarders have an edge in thick, backless waves. Ben Player was a natural choice to test Surf Lakes. He’s now surfed in Yeppoon close to a dozen times.

In the interview below we learn that there was more than one version of the Yeppoon slab, and what lengths Surf Lakes went through to create the biggest waves yet at a surf park.

Ben Player
Ben Player (right) and a heavy crew wait for the machine to switch on. Image by Surf Lakes

How many times have you surfed Yeppoon?
Hmmm, good question. I’m not exactly sure, but it would be around 10 times now.

Share with us your biggest moment of triumph out there.
Although the quality of the waves keeps getting better and better at the Yeppoon facility, my most memorable moment would be the first time I surfed the slab over at the wave they call The Island. The reason being is that the power of the waves completely blew my mind. I never knew that a wave that powerful would ever be created in a wave pool in my lifetime. And there I was surfing it all by myself. I felt so fortunate to have that opportunity. But then again, the second to last session we had in 2019 was also pretty memorable. Kit Sidwell (Lead Mechanical Engineer at Surf Lakes) was dialing in the timing of the machine and we surfed perfect waves the whole day at Occy’s Peak. We all had so much fun that day and could see the positive changes that Kit was making to the waves with each set. By the end of the day, most of us were getting 8-10 second tubes every wave.

Ben Player deep in the tube
Ben says he’s had about 10 sessions at the Surf Lakes demo facility. Image by Surf Lakes

Conversely what was your biggest disappointment (machine failure, weather…)?
Nothing is perfect. That is true to all parts of life. There will always be ups and downs, and when you’re dealing with the first prototype of a wave pool, you’re going to have some downs. That is why you make a prototype, so you can test it and work out ways to make it better. I think the hardest blow that the Surf Lakes team had was in the early days when the central rod buckled. That would have been hard for those guys as they hadn’t achieved their goal of creating the biggest waves in a wave pool yet, and they had only run the machine a handful of times. But the team turned the negative into a positive and assessed why it buckled and re-engineered the rod so it is stronger and fixed it so no future issues would happen. When I saw the way that they reacted and overcame the problem as a team, I knew the Surf Lakes guys were going to be successful. It was only a matter of time.

below the water line ben player
The waves at The Island often dip below the water line – ideal for bodyboarders but super tricky for stand-up surfers. Image by Surf Lakes

What natural world breaks would you compare The Island too?
I’m not sure if many people know this, but there have actually been two versions of The Island. The first version was the version that I talk about earlier in this interview, and a second version is the current version, and the same one that you would have seen Occy and Cobi Perkovich and myself surfing recently. The first version was pretty nuts, kind of like a mini version of Cyclops. When the shock wave hit you, it would hit you with so much force that it would give you air and sometimes even throw you into the roof of the tube. It was a pretty tricky wave to ride as a result. So Aaron spent some time redesigning new bathymetry that had a slightly different rise in the takeoff and made version two which feels like The Box with a little chip in from behind it. The new version is different in that it uses the energy to of the machine to create a wave that is taller and a little easier to ride but still has enough power to keep you on your toes. When the shock wave hits you now, it gives you a bump to know it’s there and you need to correct your line to compensate, but it won’t throw you into the ceiling as it did before.

Ben’s testing grounds looking like a stoked post-apocolyptic tropical postcard. Image Surf Lakes

In a recent interview, Wayne Dart of Surf Lakes said there’s heaps of variety on offer for the waves given the plunger’s stroke height and velocity. Can you really tell the difference in the waves that come through?
Hugely, and the team are always learning. This is what I was talking about in an earlier question where I mention the changes that Kit was making on one of the most memorable experiences I had at the Lakes. It is amazing how much difference the stroke height, weight and velocity can make to the wave quality, and to be honest, it has made me reevaluate what I thought of the way waves interact with the bathymetry. I used to think that longer period waves equaled faster and heavier waves, but what Kit showed me through his adjustments to the plungers stroke and velocity was that longer period waves don’t equal faster and heavier waves. It made me think about another dimension of waves which is speed. I know some engineers or mathematicians will say I’m crazy for saying this, but I think speed is another factor in waves that need to be addressed. Especially in circumstances where your working with waves in a confined space, such as a wave pool. Speed isn’t a factor that is talked about in ocean waves at all. In ocean waves, you talk of the size of waves and distance between them, and it is assumed that period equals speed. And that may be true in ocean waves as there would be an equation that the distance the wave travels equals a wave period, which equals wave speed. But when you’re dealing with waves in a confined space such as a pool, I’m not sure if those equations would be relevant and I’m intrigued to learn more.

Kelly’s smells like cow paddock, The Wave Bristol has a calming ocean sound, share with us something about Surf Lakes that doesn’t come across in the curated videos and photos.
You’d be pretty surprised with how similar the experience of Surf Lakes is with the ocean. I think partly because you’re in a valley with these beautiful old mountains around you, and partly because there is a natural-looking shoreline with trees. Kind of the same environment that you would be in when riding waves in the ocean.