The Happenstance of Man-Made Waves
With all the discussion taking place recently on Swellnet and other sites regarding artificial waves, I think the most perplexing question is this:
With all the high-quality, heavily-surfed waves that have been created accidentally by coastal engineering projects with no input from surfers, and in fact nothing to do with surfing at all, how is it that the projects that have been initiated to create waves with surfing in mind have all been unsuccessful, despite considerable funding and the efforts of well-educated and intended professionals?
After all, we live in an age of science. Science has triumphed over tribalism, ignorance, tradition, religion, and politics to the point where there is supposedly more computational power in your mobile phone than in all the computers used to design the rockets and components for the Apollo space programme put together. Pretty much every location on Earth is available for viewing in high resolution satellite imagery on Google Earth via a decent internet connection and a pandemic situation has been mitigated by a safe and effective vaccine for a previously unknown coronavirus, saving million of lives - a vaccine developed, manufactured and distributed worldwide in a matter of months.
Science has mastered the fiendishly complicated practical and mathematical task of placing a nuclear or conventional warhead atop a ballistic missile and launching it on a calibrated arc of thousands of kilometres, to explode precisely over the intended target within a one metre radius. One would think the science would be there to make a functional surfing wave to leverage the available swell and wind at hundreds, if not thousands, of waveless locations worldwide, opening a plethora of new surfing waves to a multitude of hungry surfers, currently squeezed uncomfortably into a small number of natural and man-made locations.
When I say “man-made waves” I am referring to the waves created by coastal engineering works that had no input from surfers and no intention of creating surfable waves at all.
There are many of these locations, in fact I would speculate a significant minority of us surf at man-made surfing locations every day of our surfing lives, many without even being aware the waves they are riding are man-made.
Some of the most popular waves worldwide are artificial, from the ultra-consistent sandbar peaks of the Huntington Beach Pier in southern California, where the pier pilings interrupt the sand movement of the littoral drift on the north and south sides, the long and hollow lefts of Ala Moana on the south shore of O’ahu, created by the dredging of the deep-water channel for the Ala Wai yacht harbour, to the heavily surfed peaks of Duranbah on the QLD/NSW border, where the breakwalls constructed to keep the Tweed River open to the sea for the fishing fleet refract swell and produce consistent, wedging peaks much appreciated by the Gold Coast surfing community.
I even heard a story from an old fellow in Katiet Village who spoke very good English, that Lance's Right is in fact an artificial wave. The straight-sided channel to the keyhole anchorage was supposedly dynamited by the Japanese Imperial Army in WWII, to bring their troop carriers up to the sand beach with men and supplies for their base at Katiet.
None of the projects that produced waves at these famous and heavily-surfed locations (and many others) had any input from or consideration for surfers. The fact they produced high-quality surfing waves is a fluke and a coincidence.
So, what has been achieved in the deliberate attempt to modify and engineer coastlines to produce surfable waves?
Not much at all.
A few attempts in California, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, and India have produced surfable waves, initially, but the materials and techniques used have proven to be completely inadequate to the task of simulating an artificial reef and have broken up and dispersed relatively quickly with the overall impression almost nothing has been accomplished.
Few surfers worldwide currently ride ocean waves deliberately engineered for surfing purposes. A notable exception being the recently constructed Palm Beach Reef on the Gold Coast.
Considering the number of surfers worldwide in 2021 is estimated as high as 40 million and the number of high-quality waves being heavily utilised by surfers that were created by coastal engineer projects implemented without any input from surfers or consideration for surfing whatsoever, that is an astonishing fact.
“What about wave pools?” you ask. “Aren‘t those considered to be artificial waves?” Yes they are, but they are not coastal engineering projects, they are completely separate from the ocean, a controlled environment where everything is manufactured. While wind can have an effect on the waves in a pool if the location is uncovered, swell and tide definitely do not, so they are a separate category of surfing waves from anything happening in the oceans and seas of the world.
In my opinion, wave pools are something of a false dawn, a kind of amusing diversion from the real business of coastal engineering to produce surfable waves and in most cases; doomed to fail over the long term for several reasons.
One is their enormous cost, both to secure the property near a population centre and to construct the facility, ensuring almost every wave pool facility worldwide is operating under a burden of debt that needs to be serviced with a constant inflow of cash. The second is their enormous demand for energy to make artificial waves, which is a variable and expense the operators cannot control and is in direct contrast to ocean waves, which are naturally occurring and cost nothing. In a pool, you don’t surf if you can’t pay the electricity bill. Not a factor in the ocean.
Here is an image of the now demolished SeaGaia OceanDome wave pool in Miyazaki, Japan, a facility that for many years was considered to be the best artificial surfing pool in the world. Yes, now demolished as it proved in the long run to be too expensive to operate and maintain to make any significant profit and continue as a going concern.
Such will be the fate of many of the wave pools currently in use or under construction worldwide. Wave pools are expensive, both to construct and to maintain, with a constant inflow of cash very much a necessity for their economic viability.
There won’t be many, probably less than 10% of the current number, but the wave pools that will be successful in the long term will be the facilities that can upgrade and modify their output of waves with either software or hardware, to present a variety of experiences to the paying customer, representing greater value for money spent and an incentive for return visits.
Waves produced by coastal engineering on the other hand, have enormous potential, a potential currently being explored by a new project at Qamea Island in North Fiji, the World Wave Project.
This project has been discussed at length on Swellnet previously, with the overwhelming majority of comments being negative. “Stupid” is one frequently repeated comment, along with “leave the reefs alone” and “the locals don’t want it”. Everyone is entitled to have an opinion, and while many people view any modification of a coral reef as a blasphemous action analogous to burning a Christian bible or Muslim koran, others look at the current situation of swell, wind and tide in this area of Fiji and other (many other) areas and ask, “Why not?”
Certainly, if many of the world’s best waves are a complete fluke, the result of coastal engineering projects that had nothing whatsoever to do with surfing - no input from surfers and no intention of producing surfable waves - and if a world surfing population of as many as 40 million surfers are now squeezed into a small number of quality waves worldwide, ocean engineered surfing waves that advantage the abundant free resources of swell, wind, and tides are only a matter of time?
No-one has done it with any degree of lasting success, yet. But someone will. It is inevitable that with the right application of funding and science, the contouring of existing coral reefs or other bathymetric features to produce high-quality surfing waves can be done successfully.
Then surfers worldwide will ask planitively: “These are the best waves I have ever seen - why the fuck didn’t someone do this before? Yeeewwwwww!"
// JOHN SEATON CALLAHAN
An incomplete list of man-made waves around the world:
Huntington Beach, California - Pier pilings disrupt longshore drift, creating sandbars on the north and south side of the pier.
Duranbah, Queensland - Breakwalls and tidal delta causes refraction, producing consistent, hollow peaks.
Ala Moana, Hawaii - Long, deep channel in the coral reef, created for the Ala Wai yacht harbour produces hollow lefts..
Newport Beach, California - Rock groynes installed in the '70s to protect beachfront property created sandbars on each side.
Newport Beach, California - In a south swell the north side of the rock wall to Newport Harbour amplifies swell lines to form The Wedge.
Sebastian Inlet, Florida - Wave refraction from a rock jetty produces some of the best sandbar peaks on the US East Coast.
Sandspit, Santa Barbara, California - Hollow sandbar wave, formed by sand flow around the yacht harbour.
New Pier, Durban South Africa - Closely-spaced pier pilings disrupt the sand flow, producing hollow, high quality waves.
Kaifu, Shikoku, Japan - A long jetty constructed at the mouth of the Kaifu River produces a right sandbar wave, one of the best waves in Japan.
Sendai Shinko, Sendai Japan - A harbour groyne blocks the flow of sand, producing a hollow sandbar wave, one of the best beach breaks in Japan.
South Stradbroke Island, Queensland - The construction of the Gold Coast Seaway produced one of the best beach breaks in Australia.
Kirra, Queensland - The Tweed River training walls interupted northerly sand flow creating one of the world's great barrels - esp. 1974-2000
The Superbank, Queensland - In 2000 a system was built so sand could bypass the Tweed River, very quickly linking the Coolangatta Bay waves.
Iluka, NSW - I've said enough already
North and South Wall Ballina, NSW - The Richmond River breakwalls created stable banks, tidal delta refraction, and wind protection too.
Port Macquarie, NSW - As above.
Tuncurry, NSW - As above.
Moruya, NSW - As above