Lemoore isn't the only artificial wave on tour
If you've watched the Oi Rio Pro the last two nights, you, like many people, may have been surprised by the quality of the waves. The Lemoore wave pool is a hard act to follow for any location, but for Brazil - more known for its bumpy beachbreaks - the feeling was it would be a big let-down.
Which is why the last two days of competition have been so exciting - it just wasn't expected. If you haven't watched any of the contest but want an example of the quality then visit the highlights reel for Round 2, Heat 10, Joan Duru vs Sebastian Zietz, and marvel at Saquarema punching well above its weight.
Saquarema breakwall turns it on for Joan Duru
The other surprise is which end of the beach the contest is being held. Both days have been run at Barrinha, which lies at the western end of the beach. Saquarema has hosted international contests since the 1990s, first on the Qualifying Series, and then in 2002 it featured as a CT for the first time - the Mundial Coca-Cola de Surf, won by Taj Burrow. After the Mundial it went back to a QS event until last year when it stood in for Rio de Janeiro owing to Rio's pollution problems.
The thing is, in almost all instances the contest has been held at Itauna, at the eastern end of the beach. Itauna has a natural rock outcrop around which sand gathers creating a long, semi-pointbreak lefthander. As the sand stacks in a triangular shape against the rocks, Itauna can also hold a fair amount of swell. Traditionally it could hold much more size than Barrinha, as the latter was straight and closed out over a few feet.
Typical shape of the Itauna end of Saquarema (WSL/Smorigo)
However, Barrinha has been the beneficiary of a bit of coastal engineering, and the result is a bloody good wave. Like a lot of coastal engineering here in Australia, the surfing amenity wasn't considered though the waves were improved by the construction works.
Behind Saquarema lies a series of lagoons stretching 12 kms long, and 4 kms across at the widest point. It's a substantial waterway yet it has just one narrow access point to the ocean. The entrance is at Barrinha, and the pinched entrance meant it often silted over. The entire northern shore of Saquarema Lagoon is farmland and with fertiliser run off and a lack of regular flushing the waterway was prone to algae blooms - what scientists call hypertrophication.
Around the turn of the century the first steps were taken to fix the problem. Initially, a short breakwater was built at Barrinha, though the entrance still silted over. See the image below taken in 2002.
Three years later the breakwater was altered to resemble a 'T', which narrowed the channel - forcing the water to flow faster - but also putting the kybosh on any chance of a wedge forming on the beach side. For a decade the breakwater was left in this shape. See image below from 2012.
Much like the lower NSW coast - say from Forster south - Brazil's coast has many long beaches abutted by the ocean on one side and estuaries on the other. With urban sprawl and unregulated agriculture, those estuaries have become polluted. Exhibit A is Tijuca Lagoon that empties its tainted load near the coast at Arpoador and caused the Rio Pro to be moved from Rio.
Saquarema also has pollution problems, mostly fertiliser run off, so in 2014 the breakwall was reshaped to force the entrance away from the beach. The longshore drift at Saquarema is west to east, but by orienting the ocean entrance to the southwest the pollution bypassed Saquarema. Note the polution slick in the image below, which was taken in 2016, and how it flows out to sea before moving parellel to the coast.
Zooming back down to low altitude, you can see the breakwall was extended, the top of the 'T' taken off, and the breakwater itself was widened to resemble a natural headland. The photo below was taken not long after the new construction works began in 2015.
Most importantly, at least for surfers, was that the eastern side of the breakwall was aligned to follow the predominant swell direction at Saquarema. No longer an unsurfable 'T' shape, it mimiced a natural pointbreak with sand stacking up against it in a near identical reflection to what happens at the other end of the beach.
The following photo was taken a year after the new breakwater was completed and shows Saquarema during a small swell. It's hard to ignore the scalloped shoreline along the length of the beach and wonder if this is a byproduct of the breakwater. When sand gathers around a headland it needs an adjacent channel to flow back out to sea, a pattern that can be repeated along the beachfront.
By augmenting a natural feature, Barrinha has become a legitimately good wave and this highlights an important point. That being, surfers should always stay involved in coastal engineering as the work at Saquarema could easily have gone another direction and been of no benefit to surfers.
It's also possible to make the point that enhancements in a natural setting are more captivating than a man made pond, but I'll leave that to others.