South Straddie: The castle made of sand
It's arguably the best beachbreak on the Gold Coast, a hollow sand-bottomed A-frame that's a swell magnet like no other. And it's got the scenery to match: to the north the beach vanishes into the distance empty except for wild casuarina growing on the dunes, and behind the dunes lays an expansive waterway. A trip over there can feel like a trip back in time, back to the Gold Coast of yore. Ignore the pipe and you can almost convince yourself it's an untouched natural habitat. How many eons has South Straddie been breaking with such incredible quality?
And yet the wave as we know it has only existed for a scratch over thirty years. South Straddie's blink of an existence isn't the only thing that surprises. This classic Australian wave is the unplanned byproduct of a project developed 15,000 kms away in a European university.
To understand how South Straddie came into being we have to jump back to 1962. That was the year the New South Wales government, without any consultation, increased the length of the Tweed River training walls. When they were first built in 1880, the training walls only extended mid-beach, which fixed the ever-shifting rivermouth to one spot yet still presented a navigation hazard when boats crossed the shallow bar. By extending the training walls out into the ocean the Tweed River bar was shifted offshore into deeper water.
The side-effect, however, was that the beaches of south-east Queensland, which begin just one kilometre to the north, were slowly starved of sand. The conveyor belt of sand that begins around the NSW mid-north coast slowly increasing in volume as the great northern rivers empty their sediment loads was being trapped behind the new southern wall of the Tweed River.
But all this was unknown at the time.
Responding to increasing beach erosion, the Queensland state government approached Delft Laboratories in the Netherlands to prepare a report on the state of Gold Coast beaches including recommendations to fix them. The 'Delft Report' was commissioned in 1964 and delivered in 1970. For a study that's almost fifty years old the report makes for fascinating reading. Almost every major project undertaken on the Gold Coast is mentioned in its pages: the rudiments of the Tweed River Sand Bypass System are there; the Palm Beach groynes; the Currumbin breakwalls; the Spit and the Seaway. One agency conceived of them all. Reading the Delft Report is akin to finding out the Illuminati is real.
In the report, a north to south recovery plan was drafted that would secure each section of coast before moving 'upstream' - i.e against the sand flow - and working on the next. This meant the Southport Seaway would be the first major project off the rank. Yet before any work could happen the 1972/73 cyclone season tore at the southern Gold Coast beaches and the long term plan was reduced to short term action. First Kirra groyne was built, then the Miles Street groyne, and after that a succession of stop gap measures on the southern Gold Coast took the focus away from the Seaway.
However, by the mid-80s Queensland's Bjelke-Peterson government needed to do something about the Southport Seaway. When the Delft Report was written the population of the Gold Coast was approximately 65,000 people, but by 1985 it had doubled to 130,000 and the northern suburbs were sprawling. The Gold Coasts's notorious 'white shoe brigade' - gaudy, middle-aged property developers - were divvying up the land abutting the Broadwater into premium waterfront properties and safe access to the Seaway was a selling point for cashed up buyers. When the white shoe brigade lent on Premier Bjelke-Petersen they met no resistance.
Local politics aside, the Seaway project had a second purpose: it would, as the Delft Report recommended, fix the northwards migration of the Nerang River. In 1840 the mouth of the Nerang River lay many kilometres to the south near Broadbeach, where the casino now stands. By 1927 it was where Sea World is currently located - the bar was shifting north at an alarming rate. The northwards flow of sand built up the southern side of the entrance - the lack of vegetation on the Spit testament to its reclamation from the sea - while the north side was continually eroded away. In the 1930s the township of Moondarewa on South Stradbroke Island was lost to the ever-shifting bar. When it was surveyed, Moondarewa was 500 metres from South Stradbroke's southern tip, yet before long it was surrounded by water and then lost altogether. The flooded town a reminder of how little settlers knew of coastal processes.
Moondarewa visible on the tip of South Stradboke Island. Built a distance from the southern edge of the island, two years after this photo was taken it was lost to the Seaway.
Greg Kenafake grew up in Labrador and by his own admission he "would've quit surfing a long time ago" if it wasn't for South Straddie. As a kid in the late-60s, Greg remembers standing on Straddie's southern tip and watching vegetation fall into the sea as currents ate into the leading edge of sand. "Right through the seventies and early eighties," says Greg, "I bore witness to the constant cycle of erosion and deposition which made the bar dangerous, yet beautiful."
Tony 'Doris' Eltherington was raised in nearby Southport, roughly opposite the Seaway. As a 10-year-old he'd paddle down Loders Creek, across the Broadwater and out through the bar where he'd hang a right and paddle a kilometre down the coast to Main Beach. "The Southport bar used to go out near where the Sea Cadets at the Spit are now, so it's moved north a lot in fifty years," says Doris. "The channels were always changing on the old bar. It was a treacherous stretch of water."
"On the south side of the bar there would be a left hander like Ulus or mini G'Land," recalls Doris. "It was a really good wave on east or southeast swells and northwest winds or glass. It broke way out to sea and on its day was all time."
Wayne McKewen is a state champion, national champion, and if it wasn't for one T. Curren he would've been the 1980 World Amateur Champion too. Wayne's a north end surfer who recalls the pre-construction era of Southport Bar. "I used to know the chippies that’d work at Bayview Harbour and they'd have their dumpy levels and would ring us up when the left would be on. You could go up there and look out straight across to this lefthander. We used to do surf checks from up there."
Greg Kenafake also used elevation to scope the bar. From the verandah of his parent's house at Labrador the whole bar was visible and he recalls days watching huge perfect rights peel off the outside of the bar. One day Greg borrowed his dad's binoculars and, says Greg, "I was stunned by the ridiculously perfect walls that were reeling off. It would have to have been eight to ten foot and doing an insane imitation of Jeffrey’s Bay. Today it would be slaughtered by tow-ins, but in the late seventies I may have been the only person to see it."
These before and after photos show how much the bar changed pre and post construction.
In 1984 construction work on the Southport Seaway began, yet unlike later Gold Coast projects such as Narrowneck Reef or the Tweed River Bypass System there was no consultation with surfers. Mild concern was registered in the pages of Tracks, yet unlike Kirra, the bar wasn't a noted break being fooled with. The fellas above can all attest to great waves breaking there, yet its status remained mythical. No-one fought to protect it. In fact, Greg Kenafake, who had some training in coastal processes even sensed good things were on the way.
The final design proposal for Southport Seaway. The new channel would be 700 metres south of the existing channel and the project would include the creation of Wavebreak Island.
Many designs were proposed for Southport Bar but the arrangement settled on had the new Seaway located 700 metres south of the existing entrance. Engineers had to dredge the sand and place a million tonnes of quarryed rock across two breakwalls. The breakwalls faced 15° north of east, the northern wall 150 metres shorter than the southern wall, and the sand that built up around the southern wall was sucked up by ten jets, then pumped under the Seaway and onto the beach at the other side. Many stakeholder groups were consulted but surfers weren't amongst them. However, despite the lack of input it could scarcely have been planned better.
"At first it it was wind protection from northerlies that we were most excited about," says Greg. The southern wall extends 600 metres offshore and provides respite from the seasonal winds that plague the Gold Coast through spring and early summer. The Seaway was already a win for North End surfers but there were many more surprises to come.
"Just prior to the breakthrough," says Greg. "when water flowed through the Seaway there was an incredible left hander that broke off the tip of the northern rock wall and back into the Seaway itself. Very few people surfed it and it only existed for a few weeks but it was the first real wave to be ridden on the Straddie side."
The Seaway under construction. North End groms used to scale the cyclone fence and roam the 'construction site' looking for new waves.
In May 1986 the project was finished and immediately Greg and Wayne, and others such as Thornton Fallander and Mark Bennetts began exploring around the bar as new currents formed and deposited sand in unexpected ways. By 1987 an excellent lefthander had formed inside the northern wall about 150 metres down from the tip. "It was an incredible dredging left," says Wayne McKewen. "A really serious wave that broke in cyclone swells or big east lows.
"Oh, it was mentally good," says Doris. "A radical drop that was super hollow and ran for a bit. Darren Hill, Brimmsy, and Wick Wack ripped the bag out of it." But the wave was limited. "Ebb tides only" says Doris with a laugh, "Otherwise you'd be sucked out the rivermouth. The current was outrageous."
The Seaway left was a design anomaly, a result of the entrance channel "finding equilibrium" according to Professor Rodger Tomlinson who did his PhD on the Seaway. The bank was at its best for the first 3 to 4 years and by the mid-90s it only broke in huge swells. Tropical Cyclone Violet in March 1995 was the wave's last stand, though we're geting a little ahead of the story.
Wayne McKewen slotted at the shortlived Seaway bank (Photo Luke Sorensen via LiQUiFY Magazine)
With one great wave already created the North End crew paddled and crawled over the northern breakwall to see what was happening on the other side. This area was the old channel so it took about 18 months for the sand to fill in the hole and create first a beach, then the banks. Meanwhile the outside bommie was being ridden on bigger swells.
Only ridable in clean south or southeast swells over six feet, the bommie isn't a rockshelf but a shallow bank of sand that builds up due to a mix of tidal flows out of the Seaway and natural longshore drift. It's a great wave in its own right but it's also one of the reasons the inner banks at South Straddie get so good: swell lines bend and wrap as they pass over the outside bommie then focus on the inside banks.
Although barely capping, this image of the bommie shows how the swell lines wrap around the shallow water before moving inside.
As the sand began to assemble on the northern side new waves formed then disappeared just as quick. "By early 1988 there was a great left breaking into the rock wall," says Greg. "Very soon this sorted itself out and the amazing right handers that still peel off the wall - which some fools call Kiddies Corner - began to fire." And all the while the sand pipe down the beach was incessantly spewing its sediment load into the hole.
Greg Kenafake places the first great Straddie sessions - the beach, not the Seaway - as happening in early 1989. "It took a while for the sand to sort itself, but on the right days the pipe would go berserk...it was a literally perfect, heavy, hollow peak." As the wave established itself, it dawned on the local crew that the wave off the pipe wasn't a fluke, that it was the end result of the Seaway engineering project. This meant the wave wasn't going to disappear the way the other waves had. Incredibly, these shallow water A-frame peaks were the new normal for South Stradbroke.
"Thank God Straddie happened in the 80s before iPhones and GoPros," says Greg while reminscing about early efforts to keep a lid on the place. "My friends and I would be getting ready in the carpark for a pre-dawn paddle and if we saw headlights approach we'd jump back in our car and hide. On many occasions guys got out, checked the situation and because nobody was around got back in their cars and drove away."
1989 to 1995 were the glory years for Straddie. "At first it was just the North End crew and the Main Beach crew," says Wayne. "We surfed it for about a year by ourselves and had so many good days. Maybe a dozen guys knew about it during that first winter. Then despite everyone's efforts the word sort of got out. First the Burleigh guys heard about it, so the next year the Burleigh guys were there too. Then by about the fourth year some photographers started coming over and more guys from the Coolangatta end were coming over."
The first time south Straddie was mentioned in the surf media was an oblique reference to the Seaway left in a 1988 issue of Australia's Surfing Life: "...the bottom end of South Straddie began to beat up the boys." Yet thankfully there was very little transmission in the years that followed. "It was before mobile phones so you could kinda control it," says Wayne McKewen. "We'd be over there telling people, 'Don't tell other people about it!'"
"Local radio stations were forbidden to include its mention in daily surf reports," says Greg. The media ban might've slowed the crowds but surfers, even against their better judgement, are fantastic networkers and the numbers inevitably grew.
A teenage Mick Fanning makes the journey from the other end of the coast during the pre-digital days (Andrew Shield)
Despite the growing crowds, South Straddie was still a mission to access. Unless you had a tinnie or knew someone who did, then you'd have to nut up for the 250 metre paddle across the Seaway, often in the dark with dangers present above and below the surface. "We would carry a little torch to wave at boats as they approached because getting run over in the dark was a real concern," says Greg. "Angry trawler men would run you down in the Seaway."
The North End crew did their bit to discourage visitors spreading rumours of a toothy local - Tommy the Tiger Shark - who lived at the northern breakwall, blue ringed octopus lurking amongst the rocks, and even stonefish with their poisonous barbs. By the late-90s cashed up Gold Coast surfers could dodge all those dangers with a simple twist of the throttle. In five minutes a jet ski can cross the Seaway and skirt the breakwall, and with the Broadwater accessible from many suburbs, all of a sudden many more people were within easy reach of Straddie. The numbers skyrocketed.
In more recent years a water taxi service has been established to ferry surfers across the Seaway for a fee. At first this created an instant pecking order as surfers seen coming off the ferry bore the brunt of drop ins. Far from being accidental, the interlopers were sending a not-so-subtle signal about effort and reward. The animosity has dwindled as the service established itself and even hardened locals (though not all!) occasionally opt for a seat across the Seaway.
As one local said: "Anyone who paddles the Seaway deserves to catch waves, anyone who catches the taxi should remember the above."
A contemporary scene at South Straddie with jets skis parked above the tide line (Andrew Shield)
It's been just over thirty years since the Southport Seaway was opened. In that time Kirra surfers have had to stare down proposals for a marina and a ship terminal, Big Groyne has been re-jigged, the Miles Street Groyne too, while millions of cubic metres of sand have been dumped on the southern beaches then just as quickly washed away, and the Superbank has come to life. All the while South Straddie has been steadily pumping out waves during every swell from the right direction.
Surfers are often slow to give bureaucats their due, and it's not without due reason, we've lost a few waves along the way, yet South Stradbroke is an example of where they got it right. The scientists and engineers who crafted the Delft Report created a project that not only imitates nature but, at least where surfers are concerned, improves it.
A number of people I spoke to believe it's possible to copy the blueprint for Straddie and apply it elsewhere to split up the crowds. Just as Straddie has the outside bar to bend the swell lines, so too would artificial reefs placed offshore from the Gold Coast's beaches refract swell into focus points. The reduction in swell energy hitting the beach would even create a salient - a small jutting bend in the shoreline - that would benefit beach nourishment.
However, that's a conversation for another day. Right now we'll leave the last word of this discussion to Greg Kenafake, they guy who's arguably surfed The Other Side more than anyone.
"Thank God for Straddie."