Legend: Getting paid to surf the world’s best wave pool (and dress up like an animé character)

In wave pool lore, Ocean Dome is a mythic beast. It dished perfect, clear, hollow peaks that were leaps and bounds better than comparable artificial surf technology at the time. While other pools dribbled, Miyazaki’s Dome peaked, slabbed and pitched.

It was the artificial wave equivalent of Pipeline producing waves with genuine power. And judging by video clips from the era, it would rival present-day Waco on the fun scale.

The entire facility was covered with a retractable roof and adorned with fiberglass palm trees fastened in special no-stick sand.

As part of the Sheraton Seagaia Resort, the Dome also offered the kind of theatrical storytelling only dreamed up by someone who builds a no-stick sand beach. The shows were a mix of Polynesian dance, folklore, fabrication and featured jugglers, dancers and “live” surf demonstrations.

The Ocean Dome in Miyazaki was located close to a real beach and had a retractable roof and non-stick sand.

But the performance the world remembers most is the story of the French prince Sabu, played by Aussie pro surfer Matthew Pitts. Matt would enter the wave pool adorned in a white unitard, blue shoulder pads and a medieval gold helmet festooned with a tinted visor to rescue the kidnapped princess. This nightly show sealed Ocean Dome as the coolest place in the world – at least to us.

Matt first appeared on our radar when surfboard artist Jeffery Meyer shared the wave pool lore. “Matthew was the resident pro hired to wipeout every show for the crowd,” said Meyer through excited Instagram texts. “He married the resort’s princess – the owner’s daughter! He had the whole wave pool to himself.”

Ocean Dome closed in 2007 while the Sheraton resort underwent renovations. Ten years later it reopened and operated for one year before closing for good.

What else happened in the glory days of the Dome? Were the rumors of mafia involvement and the world’s biggest bankruptcy true? We tracked down Matthew Pitts who was kind enough to share his wave pool war stories from the Ocean Dome era.

Snappy regularfoot Matthew Pitts put on this outfit each night for 15 minutes to act out the role of Prince Sabu who surfed ashore to slay the dragon and rescue a princess.

As a pro on tour in the ’80s, why did you decide to jump ship in Japan?
The reason why I jumped ship and went to Japan, it was my “mum’s spaghetti moment.” I was presented with an opportunity from my then GAP wetsuit sponsor to come live with him in Japan and join the Japanese domestic surf tour and make some real money, which was only made by the world’s top 10 back in those days.

How did the gig at Ocean Dome come about?
I befriended a Japanese pro Shogi player (Japanese chess). He was very famous amongst the local government and the Kyushu island Yakuza family. He made a phone call and the next day we were at the Dome confirming my work roster.

Can you run us through a typical day of work at Ocean Dome, and the character Sabu.
I worked five nights each week. I would arrive at 8 pm and showtime was at 8:15. The show went for 45 minutes. Sabu was a French prince that had washed ashore on a Polynesian Island and then went to rid the village of an evil sea monster who had captured and held Shilfy, a beautiful princess/hostage. I took on the dragon and saved the princess all in 45 minutes. And rode a few waves to boot! Then I got changed and jumped in my car and headed off. I would get 90 bucks for one hour of work each night if you can call it work. It was an awesome gig.

In its day, Ocean Dome produced some of the best artificial waves in the world with a long peelers along the shore. What separated the Dome from other waves of the day was the punchy, hollow nature of its rights and lefts.

It’s hard to find footage of you as Sabu. Believe me we tried. It’s not like today where each performance would be posted to Instagram Stories.
I remember Ripley’s Believe It or Not did a story on me at the Dome but the cameraman missed all the good waves. He was a know-it-all and could not be told where to point his camera! Anyway, they did a story.

How was the wave at Ocean Dome?
The waves at the pool were really good. You had to be a pretty good surfer to even ride them. There was a left barrel and a center peak along with a right barrel in section one. Section two had a long left from one end of the pool to the other followed by a similar right.

Why did the wave pool at Ocean Dome close?
The Dome closed because it cost way too much to run. Just the upkeep and electricity alone was huge. It was pretty dead attendance-wise outside of holiday periods. Ocean Dome is in the Guinness Book of Records as being the most costly bankruptcy in history.

What are you doing these days?
Right now I work at Kirra Surf selling surfboards. I’ve been there 10 years now.

Do you think with the proliferation of wave pools globally we might see Sabu return?
I don’t think SABU will return. But I’d love to surf a heat against Rick Kane at the Kelly Slater Surf Ranch.

Photos are from the collection of Matthew Pitts. Main image screen grab of shot by Tor Johnson.

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  • Wave Pool Graveyards: What happened to the Big Three?


    […] and perform a deft tuck-n-roll to avoid concussion. Part surfer, part stuntman, unitard-clad Matt earned $90 for a 45-minute display. “It was an awesome gig. The waves at the pool were really good,” says Matt, “You had to be a […]

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