Bypassing The Pass
“Sand? Yeah, there’s a lot of sand there now, but when I was a kid in the mid-70s, the old boys used to tell us about the times they could drive the mullet tractor down the ramp and around the back of the point.”
“There was so much sand the tractor’s wheels were dry the whole time.”
I’m talking to Mark ‘Mono’ Stewart about the sand situation at The Pass in Byron Bay. The Pass, as most surfers would be aware, is one of the premier waves on the NSW North Coast. As a sand-bottomed point break, the Pass is a classic of the oeuvre: it sits on the lee side of a protruding rocky outcrop and breaks into a wide sweeping bay that trails off to the north.
The pattern repeats itself at nearby Lennox Head, Broken Head, and Cabarita. All of them are sheltered from southerly wind, can accept swell from a range of directions, though wave quality is largely determined by what’s happening below the water; what the sandbanks are like.
The northern NSW point breaks lie on one of the world’s greatest sand transport systems. Each year, approximately 400,000 cubic metres of sand passes the points on its way to a terminus at Fraser Island. Running south to north, the conveyor belt of sand lays the foundations for the waves above.
However, the conveyor belt doesn’t spread its load of sand equally. The sand moves in fits and starts. Stretches of coast can be denuded for many months before the sand fills in, and keeps filling in until you can’t remember what the place looked like without sand.
That’s the situation at The Pass right now, and it’s why I’m talking to Mono, the 58-year old longtime local and two-time World Adaptive Surfing Champion.
Most surfers recognise The Pass as being dependent on sand gathering tight around the rocks at the northern end of the wave, which then extends in a sandbank running south to south-west all the way to Clarkes Beach. Under a groomed swell, breaking waves follow the same angle into the bay.
At the moment, however, a Saharan-size load of sand has gathered at The Pass, pushing the takeoff spot well north of Spectator Rock. The excess sand extends east through Wategos to the tip of the cape itself, and back south into the bay, but, and this aspect is important, it stops short of Clarkes, where a deep-ish lagoon has formed. The lagoon extends all the way back to the Pass itself, sitting inside of the bank, meaning the sandbank is detached from the beach.
Mono is a bit coy about the quality of the wave under this scenario. He jams up when I probe him on it. “What I can tell you,” he says when he finally answers, “is that the bank is best when the sand blocks the wash through between the mainland and Spectators Rock. When water flows through there it washes the sand away and prevents it building out from the beach.”
This is more than just observation as it turns out. “About thirty years ago, a guy called Michael Bienke sandbagged that gap to prove a point,” says Mono. “And Bienke was right! The water stopped, the sand built up, and we got great waves off the rocks.”
“Of course he got in tonnes of trouble with the Headland Trust and all sorts of people,” says Mono laughing, “but he made his point about blocking that gap.”
And there’s a moral to the story: “If everyone could throw one rock in there each time they paddled out we’d have good banks all the time!”
If the old boys can be believed, The Pass has had periods of excessive sand before - Mono’s anecdote about the dry tyres on the mullet tractor being just one such occasion. When pressed about the regularity, Mono thinks hard before answering.
“Eight months ago we also had lots of sand but it was on the beach, not sitting as it is now off the rocks.”
“I’d say it’s been twenty years since we’ve seen a set-up like this one.”
The two decade time-frame marries up with the answer I got from another longtime Byron Bay local. Rusty Miller has been here for fifty years and seen the many moods of The Pass. When I asked Rusty the same question he answered 1999, and he knew this because in ‘99 he was staying at a cottage right near Thompsons Rock - between Clarkes and The Pass - mooring his Hobie Cat in a lagoon out the front.
“There was extensive build up of sand coming down from The Pass,” says Rusty.
“There was even a large lagoon in front of the cottage where we could keep our Hobie catamaran...there was also a channel which we could go through to sail around the Bay.”
Though it’s happened before, the current situation isn’t the classic Pass set up with the sandbank sitting tight to the rocks, yet it’s fascinating in its own way. While Googling the topic I came across an 1828 map of Byron Bay, made by Captain Henry John Rous. It was the first survey of Byron and showed the shoreline north of the Cape in detail. It also shows the depth of water around the Cape and it’s here that eyebrows get raised.
Rather than a sandbank following the coast southwards from the rocks into the bay, or even an extended bank such as is there now, the Rous map shows a shoal that runs northwest from Spectator Rock. Even at a distance approximately 800m northwest from land the water is less than 5.4m deep.
The map also shows deeper water south of where the current day Pass is, with an inscription ‘Best Landing Place’. The spot aligns with Thompson Rock and where Rusty Miller launched his Hobie Cat.
If Captain Rous’ map is to be believed, even assuming a degree of error, The Pass was a very different wave in 1828. The sand configuration at odds with both the classic set up and also with what we’re seeing now.
These different sand patterns were, I assumed, a reflection of the changing wave patterns, and this led me to Associate Professor Ian Goodwin. Ian is the Principal Scientist at ClimaLab and Adjunct A/Professor at the Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW.
An avid surfer himself, Ian has a penchant for oversized gliders - his current steed being a 12 footer shaped by Chris Christenson - and though he lives on Sydney’s Northern Beaches he’s spent a lot of time on the NSW North Coast.
“I began university in the early-70s,” says Ian, “which meant I spent a lot of time in the early-70s chasing waves on the north coast, particularly around Byron.”
“In hindsight that was a great time to be surfing The Pass because it was a period of sustained south and south-east swell, and that results in the classic sand set up at The Pass.”
One of the topics Ian has focussed on during his long career is how weather patterns have changed off Australia’s East Coast and the effect that has on coastal processes. It’s a topic that finds particular salience at The Pass.
“Most of the coast faces roughly east, but The Pass faces north,” explains Ian, “so there are a host of complexities regarding sand movement, things that only become apparent when it’s intently studied.” And study it intently is what he’s done. Though his work focuses on changing climate patterns, Ian’s approach is to look backwards to project forwards. Some scientists in his field use polar ice cores to determine what the atmosphere was like in the past, and hence the weather. Ian uses sand to determine the same thing.
Oftentimes he’ll study sediment deposition, but Ian’s historical study of the Byron coastline was helped along by different means. A little-known fact is that in the late 18th century, the NSW government proposed building a breakwall from Cape Byron to Julien Rocks to make Byron a major trading port. In preparation, the government commissioned a survey of the Byron Bay coastline. In 1883, Captain Frederick Howard took 7090 lead line soundings around the bay. So meticulous was Howard that he even installed a tide gauge near The Pass to cross-check with his depth calculations.
The breakwall, of course, was never built, and for over a century Captain Howard’s hydrographic survey gathered dust in the Mitchell Library archives in Sydney. Until, that is, Ian and his team found it, and in turn discovered what Byron Bay was like 140 years ago.
Not unlike when Captain Rous made his map, in 1883 a shallow shoal of sand extended northwest from The Pass, and it also had a deeper area behind it near Thompsons Rock. In fact, Ian has found a few maps where that area is inscribed as ‘The Boat Harbour’. He's heard of and seen for himself old bits of anchors and moorings uncovered over the years.
However, unlike the Rous map, Captain Howard’s was more detailed and so showed the shallow water northwest of The Pass was actually part of a much larger shoal that extended from the tip of the cape then widened as it headed in a westerly direction towards Belongil. Ian calls it the Cape Spit and recent studies of his show its size grows and recedes depending upon the swell patterns.
“When Howard took his readings the wind and wave climate would have been dominated by south-easterly swell,” explains Ian. “They wouldn’t have had the seasonal spread of swell from south to northeast.”
According to Ian’s research, under consistent southeast swells the sand transport bypasses The Pass, travelling from the cape towards Belongil leaving deep water behind it around Thompsons Rock up to The Pass, which simply wouldn't have been a wave. Ian surmises the nearest wave would’ve been a righthander breaking in a northwest direction from Little Wategos. Punters atop Spectator Rock would’ve needed binoculars to watch the surfing.
It isn’t only a lack of sand flow that creates deep water at The Pass, according to Ian, as under swells from the east to northeast, a counter-clockwise eddy forms in the southern crook of the bay that scours the shoreline along Clarkes to Thompsons Rock, depositing it out on the Cape Spit.
This aspect is curious, as last year Clarkes Beach suffered such bad erosion that bottles date-stamped from the 1950s were being pulled out of the sand. There are mitigating issues with stormwater drains emptying on Clarkes Beach, however the fundamental erosion synchs up with the wave climate.
“It was the lack of storms with a southeast wave direction,” explains Ian. He and his PhD student Tom Mortlock modelled changes in the Byron seafloor under east-northeast swells and found the coastline erodes from the tip of the cape all the way to Clarkes Beach, yet sand builds up offshore. The eddy scours sand in the southern corner of the bay and deposits it on the Cape Spit, offshore from Wategos and The Pass.
The past erosion and current sand set up are cause and effect claims Ian. "The eddy took the sand off the Clarkes Beach area, and then transported it out onto the Cape Spit, offshore from The Pass and Wategos." This process happened for almost a year-and-a-half, creating a deficit of sand at Clarkes and a surplus offshore, slightly reminiscent of the bathymetry Captains Rous and Howard observed.
Hypothetically, if the pattern were to continue the situation would increasingly resemble the Rous and Howard maps, reaching a point where sand accumulation on the Cape Spit would cause waves to break out there. Were that to happen, The Pass would once again not be a surfable wave.
Fortunately for surfers, the pattern broke down during autumn and the offshore sand began to mobilise under renewed swells from the south to southeast. Around February it began surrounding the Spectator Rock area, and then with each swell from the southern quadrant it built up.
So what does all this mean for surfers in the short-term?
"The sand is slowly creeping down from Wategos, through The Pass, and towards Clarkes," says Ian. "It's getting longer all the time."
"If it's not hit by a really big swell, the stretch from Clarkes through to The Wreck will soon have a lot of sand. That's a good thing."
Mono agrees: "The last time we had sand build up like this, there were great banks at Main Beach afterwards."
"I'm watching that sand very closely."
// STU NETTLE