Gimme a break

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In the worldwide community of surfers searching for the perfect break, artificial reefs are making waves ...

Might surfing utopia be a perfect wave peeling left or right whenever you ventured to the beach? Maybe, but then you wake up, blow your nose, and either go to work or back to sleep. Over the years, various attempts have been made to fiddle with nature by building artificial reefs to fashion a surfing break where a wave might not normally, or regularly, exist.

The odd wreck or scuttled ship sometimes provided an accidental set. However, green concerns prevented this ‘scrap yard’ approach from taking off. Local councils, scientists (oceanographic and environmental), and no doubt surfers too, saw the potential in a more thoroughly planned and tested artificial construction. Unstable coastlines could be corrected, marine life might multiply while a more consistent surf break are just some of the possible benefits.

One of the first artificial reefs in the world was literally thrown together at Queensland’s Bargara beach, near Bundaberg. In early 1997 a band of energetic locals waited until low tide to smash some existing basalt boulders into shape with an industrial-size excavator. They then moulded a reef of their own making producing an acceptable though smallish wave at high tide.

Sydney was the scene of another planned reef the same year. But community and political fears of overcrowding plus environmental uncertainties at the time prevented it from ever having a wave break on top. The proposed site at Harbord was to have been an underwater ‘extension’ to the existing submerged rock platform adjacent to the northern headland off Freshwater beach.

But the most audacious and expensive of such man-made constructions is literally still taking shape on Queensland’s Gold Coast at Narrowneck, between Surfers Paradise and Main Beach. Completed last Christmas at an estimated cost of $2.3 million (and still counting), the reef forms part of a multi-million dollar beach regeneration and dune stabilisation strategy fostered and financed by the local council.

So, has there been a sudden rise in weekend surfers taking midweek sickies? Not yet, at least. The council’s PR campaign is quick to point out the reef is in a “monitoring phase”, meaning they’re assessing the aftermath of the summer storm season. Initial reports suggest there is much to do over the winter as the reef continues to “settle”.

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Geotextile artificial reef on the Gold Coast, Australia


“Settle,” you say? Try “sinking”. The reef is comprised of sand bags. Big mothers too. Made locally of a geotextile material and weighing between 150 and 300 tonnes, about 400 such bags were filled with sand pumped to the site and dropped from a dredge according to precise global positioning co-ordinates.

Visually, the reef is actually two separate structures. Two concave arms, similarly shaped like the hull of a boat but of differing lengths, and set approximately 20 metres apart, aim out to sea like two giant pointy toes. The inshore end of the larger arm is meant to provide a beginner’s surfing section while the channel between the two allows surfers to more easily paddle back out. That’s the theory.

Professor Kerry Black is the CEO of New Zealand-based ASR Ltd, the company behind the project’s ground breaking design. Much of their computer modeling and wave tank testing was based on underwater measurements gathered from some of the Pacific Rim’s best surfing reefs, including those in Indonesia, Australia and Fiji. More than 25 years of coastal research went into Narrowneck’s design.

However, having been left out of the construction phase, Black says there appear to be two main contributing factors to the surfing reefs less than expected performance to date. “There may have been an underestimation on the part of the engineers of the need for a proper foundation. And the fact that construction commenced on top of a storm bar, which migrated shoreward by natural processes, meant the reef has sank into the seabed.” But as with most of these types of projects, coastal management is usually the first priority; wave generation comes second. Warren Day, director of the council’s engineering services, told the Gold Coast Bulletin that the overall beach protection strategy was meeting its objective. He did concede, however, that “Construction was constrained by weather conditions and available finances. Ratepayers don’t have bottomless pockets but there will be further work to improve the reef”.

No such qualms have yet emerged from a similar initiative in California. Again, geotextile sandbags, but on a much smaller scale, are being utilised by the local Surfrider Foundation and the Californian Coastal Commission at El Segundo. After a decade of negotiation, Pratte’s artificial reef is an attempt to restore a surf break that was lost with the construction of a breakwater. Completion is not due until mid 2001. A surfing purist might well ask: “where’s the challenge if every wave is the same?” The confluence of weather, oceanographic and environmental factors to produce the ultimate surf break is rare. Those sites where such elements come together are so crowded that the addition of artificial reefs could go some way to relieving such congestion.

It was this thinking, as opposed to any coastal management imperative, that drove the development of Western Australia’s Cables artificial reef in 1998. As Greg McLennan of WA’s Department of Sport and Recreation, says, “we saw a need to relieve the pressure from the few but crowded surf spots in metropolitan Perth.” Built on an existing limestone platform at South Cottesloe, Cables Reef – comprised of granite armour stones – has so far lived up to the developer’s modest expectations. It’s V-shaped configuration generates both a left and right hand break in appropriate swell conditions.

With plans in place for artificial reefs at Noosa Heads and several in New Zealand (see table), is Australasia about to be dotted with all manner of man-made surf breaks? Hardly. Except for Bargara Beach, the handful built to date around the world took years of planning and consultation. Though artificial reefs may be the wave of the future, albeit it in limited numbers, east coast board riders seeking endless curling barrels from sun-up to sundown will have to wait until at least next summer.

Beach, Qld
$10,000 Basalt
“It blows people away,” Greg Redgard, local surfer, Time, 1998.
Beach, WA
$1.5m Granite
armour stone
“The original criteria of 50 surfable days per year has consistently been exceeded,” Greg McLennan, WA Dept Sport and Recreation.
Narrowneck,Qld May
Dec ’00
$2.5m Geotextile
“It’s going sick up there. Light westerly winds and a 1.5m SE swell is making Narrowneck find some wicked form.” A posting to the Burleighcam web site last year before the reef sank.
Reef, El Segundo, California
started Sept, 2000 – due for completion mid 2001
“If a problem arises, the reef can be removed from the water quickly, easily, and without damage to the surrounding
ecosystem,” Chad Nelsen, Surfrider USA
New Zealand
for completion early 2002
$1m Geotextile
sandbags with a rock core
“A great surfing district will have a world class wave in the main bay of the town,” Kerry Black, reef designer.
Beach, Qld
$2.5m Geotextile
“Apart from retaining the First Point Break, the artificial reef should turn the short gnarly ride off Noosa Woods groyne into a longer surf break.” Rod Williams, Director of Public Works, Noosa Council