When breakwaters equal broken water
Late last year Swellnet published an article on breakwaters where we described them as “surfing’s happy accident”. The article in question documented all the great waves unwittingly created by coastal breakwaters. Unwitting because there was precisely zero modelling done to determine side effects and the same amount of consideration given to surfing amenity, and yet somehow a number of great waves were created.
That article had only been published a short time when the emails starting coming in about the flipside, all the waves that we’ve lost. The people sending those emails had a point: when you cheer dumb luck you should also acknowledge the negative impacts of breakwalls - the lost waves and the eroded coasts. The broken water.
To give an illustration we’ll kick off at the same place the previous article began - Newcastle.
In 1846 work on Australia’s first artificial wave inadvertently began when a causeway was built between the mainland and Nobby’s, a small islet near the mouth of the Hunter River. The causeway was shortly followed up with a longer breakwall which redirected the Hunter River and scoured a deep channel along the northern side of the breakwall. Hello Newcastle Harbour! Not the port but the demonic righthander that breaks inside the river.
In 1912 work on the northern breakwall was finished. It extended a kilometre out to sea and combined with the north-eastern orientation it created a large, moderately sheltered bay at Stockton. It also meant that the northwards sand flow completely bypassed Stockton and created a long term erosion problem.
With no natural sand supply to build a buffer zone, each swell reclaims more of the Stockton foredunes and it’ll soon take buildings. Many solutions have been proffered but none followed up. Stay tuned for a Swellnet story on the situation at Stockton.
Satellite image of Stockton showing Nobby's islet at far bottom, and the Hunter River breakwalls that cut the northwards flow of sand. Note the narrow line of sand - all that's left of the beach - in the middle of the image.
Another place that was starved of sand following the construction of a breakwall is the southern end of the Gold Coast. The story there is well known with the Tweed River breakwalls slowing the northwards flow of sand resulting in vast erosion. Surfers, however, benefitted with the creation of Duranbah and the glory years of Kirra from 1974 to 2000, plus the Superbank after that. Despite the ongoing costs it’s hard to consider the Gold Coast a casualty from a surfer’s perspective.
Further north the issue is more categorical. In 1965 the mouth of the Mooloolah River was trained and one of the best waves on the Sunshine Coast was destroyed. Prior to the breakwalls, sand would stack up to the tip of Point Cartwright then fan in a triangle northwards towards where the Mooloolaba Surf Club now stands. Yet what was a stable sandbank before the breakwalls became a deep hole after. Much like Stockton, the northern flow of sand bypasses the corner and only makes landfall further north at Maroochydore.
Eastern view of the mouth of the Mooloolah River in 1964
It’s easy to apply your imagination to this wave that once was. Under a north swell I squint my eyes and see The Platform tacked onto the beginning of Currumbin Alley, and though the old photos hint at the quality, we’ll never know for sure. Surfing was a young sport when the walls went up.
Taken on a small day, lines of swell are still visible running down the sandbank
The aforementioned waves were ruined due to the sand supply being cut off by a breakwall. Sand depletion isn’t the only way waves can be ruined by breakwalls. More dramatic is when a newly erected breakwall simply shuts off swell to a stretch of coast, or when it’s built straight through a wave.
Australia has largely escaped the construction of offshore, swell-blocking breakwalls, unlike the USA which has lost many waves to the single-minded expansion of industry. See Long Beach, Oceanside, Dana Point, and Redondo Beach amongst many others. On Australia's east coast, offshore breakwalls prevent swell reaching the coast at Port Kembla and Coffs Harbour, though it’s unknown if any waves were lost from those projects - you can’t lament what you never knew.
But by the same token, we can breathe a sigh of relief that an 1885 idea to create a deepwater port at Byron Bay was quashed. It involved building a breakwater linking Cape Byron to Julian Rocks and would’ve destroyed Wategos, The Pass, Main Beach and The Wreck.
In contrast to offshore breakwalls, some breakwalls are built to ‘augment’ the existing coastline. They reshape the coast and in so doing destroy known waves. The most recent example of this is Bastion Point in eastern Victoria, where a breakwall and boat ramp now intersects the local point break. Surfrider Australia fought it all the way but they were ultimately out-maneuvered, out-spent, and out-voted against the cashed up fishing and boater lobby groups.
Bastion Point, eastern Victoria, in 2013 (left) and 2018 (right) after the boatramp dissected the point.
Similar coastal remodelling has occurred at Crowdy Head, where old-timers crow about great waves off the north-eastern tip before the harbour walls were extended, and Wollongong, where in 1966 construction of the northern harbour breakwall destroyed ‘The Baths’, a great lefthander that broke in north swells or big souths. These were known waves that were lost. The photos below show Wollongong Baths and were taken by photographer Dave Milnes.
Wollongong baths in a southerly swell, June 1965 (Dave Milnes)
John Skipp pulling in at Wollongong Baths, March 1966 (Dave Milnes)
Six months later the wave is no more. Note the bulldozer and truck extending the new breakwall (Dave Milnes)
Elsewhere on the eastern seaboard we can presume that waves existed where breakwalls now lie. Apollo Bay is one such place, where a photo from 1935 indicates lines of swell running down the point where the marina now lies.
Apollo Bay pier in 1935 with lines of swell rounding the headland behind it.
Nearby Portland is another example. Inside Portland Bay the inner reaches of the headland is dissected by a jutting breakwall (fortunately for local surfers consolation lies not too far away).
Apollo Bay, at left, and Portland, at right, where the breakwall cuts short a long but fickle wave
And then there’s Botany Bay, where old photos show the natural state of the northern shore to be scalloped with sand and rocky headlands conveniently facing into the south-east, yet it’s now been reshaped into Australia’s busiest port.
Many of Australia's best waves are located in the lee of headlands and points. Places where the coastline changes direction to the main orientation. The headland provides wind protection, sand stacks up against exposed rock, and as swell lines spiral around the point they offer a longer, more shapely, ride.
Unfortunately for surfers, these corners of the coastline are often contested zones. Headlands and points provide shelter, and with the construction of a jutting breakwall they can create a safe harbour to service industry. It goes without saying that the needs of surfers pale against any economic metric.
However, even smaller projects where the competing stakeholders are all recreational generally favour other ocean users. It's no coincidence that fishermen and boaters have organised and paid up lobby groups to speak on behalf of their constituents. Surfing has no equivalent group and hence little sway at the negotiating table.
UPDATED: The original version of this article didn't include the photo of Apollo Bay taken in 1935.