Cove Wars: Bristol vs. Melbourne – who was first?

Competition in the wave pool space. At first, it wasn’t really a thing. The first wave pool opened to the public was Big Surf in Tempe Arizona in 1969. The next wave pool of the new surf-focused generation didn’t start pumping until 46 years later when Adventure Parc Snowdonia in Northern Wales opened on August 1, 2015. Then in 2016, NLand debuted in Austin Texas. Kelly’s wave came out to the world December 2015, but then like Kelly himself, was cloaked in secrecy until the WSL turned it into the shiny gold standard that it is today.

Typically in these early days, if you wanted a wave-making device you signed on with Wavegarden for their first-generation plow design. That was it. All the other wave pool options in the world were still smoke and renderings.

The term “wave pool race” came along as American Wave Machines’ PerfectSwell, Surf Lakes, Surf Loch and Wavegarden’s Cove design pushed buttons across the world sending out their first sets. When the Cove launched, two facilities on different sides of the earth hit the ground running: The Wave Bristol and Urbnsurf Melbourne.

But which one fired off the first waves? Chats, podcasts, press agents, Insta posts, YouTube clips all share conflicting narrative threads. We wanted to know: Who was first to surf a Wavegarden Cove outside of the Basque Country test facility? Here’s what we found.

first wave pool wave
A well-earned hug after the first waves were ridden in Melbourne. Photo Ed Sloane

By March 2019 Andrew Ross and the Wavegarden crew had assembled the Cove machinery in Melbourne and were dry-testing.

“We started moving the pistons of our wave generator in March 2019 during dry commissioning,” said Ross. “But then had a hellish period of several months of rain that delayed us being able to complete the lagoon floor.”

The Melbourne wave pool has a unique gravel lock floor system. One that requires annual draining and maintenance (note: other Coves do not require annual draining.) While they were pushing on through one of the wettest winters in Melbourne in 50 years, The Wave was working long summer hours in England.

“We filled our lake in September 2019,” said Abby Richardson of The Wave. “Then Wavegarden carried out the wave commissioning work in early-mid October 2019 with our official launch taking place on 25 October 2019. I believe that UrbanSurf opened in Jan 2020.”

bristol digs the wave pool
The Crew at Bristol had the advantage of long daylight hours and much less rain than Melbourne experienced

So there you have it. The Wave turned on their generator and pushed out the first waves before Melbourne did. But while Richardson allows some wiggle room (and much fodder for conspiracy cranks) with the “early-mid” October reference, Ross remembers the exact date the first person ever went surfing in Melbourne.

“I rode the first wave in Melbourne on 18 October 2019,” Ross recalled. “The Wavegarden guys pushed out the first set, which we all watched from the shoreline. I then had to run down the dividing wall, jump into the left (I’m goofyfooted), and paddle out the back.”

But while many of us are now familiar with where to lineup in a wave pool, at the time Ross had no idea where to sit to catch a wave. Panicked, he yelled to Oroitz, Wavegarden’s Commissioning Manager who was standing at the pool wall.

“He told me ‘sit here, sit here!’ pointing to a spot along the wall,” said Ross. “They pushed through the first set and I was sitting way too far inside and the thing basically broke on my head. When I came up, Oroitz yelled to me, ‘Ahhh, no, sit here, sit here!,’ motioning to a spot about 5 meters further back towards the corner. I paddled into the second wave, did a couple of turns and kicked out elated.”

After that Ross was joined by four of the crew who worked bringing Australia’s first wave pool to life. Then, the pros hit the lineup and our phones and social media feeds were flooded with scenes from this new wonderland of wave pools.

And that first wave of Ross’s where he ate it?

“Even though I fell on the first wave, I am in good company. Kelly admitted he fell on his first wave at the Surf Ranch as well!”