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Do artificial reefs work? Vol 3. Will artificial reefs reduce crowds?

August 03 2009 | Artificial reefs, Jim's Blog,
by Jim

There are so many angles one can look at to answer the question "do artificial reefs work?" With this series I'm seeking to address a few different perspectives and take into consideration different philosophies on the subjet. My first post looked at users perspectives and the second post explored return on investment.

This post will discuss the "crowd formula."

When I say "crowd formula" I'm literally talking about how many people surf a given wave break. How many people are really affected when a new, artificial reef is added to the mix?

I'm addressing this point because I repeatedly hear this reason from people who think artificial reefs are make sense. Without examination, this point DOES makes logical sense... if a recreational area is crowded and you build another recreational area, the crowd is lessened substantially, maybe by 50%. Unfortunately, that math doesn't apply here. Lets look at some numbers.

Let me preface this with the fact that I fully understand that surfers do not evenly distribute themselves across waves and that quality and consistency vary break to break. That said, let's put a quantitative element to the feeling that artificial reefs will reduce crowds.

If you have 8 breaks in your area that serve 1,000 surfers and you add a ninth the crowd doesn't go down 50%, it goes down 11%.

(1,000 surfers)/8 breaks = 125 surfers per break

(1,000 surfers)/9 breaks = 111 surfers per break (14 less surfers or 11% improvement)

Keep in mind this math needs to be applied over some context of time. That is , the 14 less surfers may be per day or per week, depending on the size of surfing population and number of local breaks.

If it's per day and you assume 2 hour sessions over 12 hours of potential surf per day, you're talking about 1 less surfer per hour. If those numbers make more sense per week you're talking a seventh of that impact (a fraction of a single surfer not at the break, not a discernible change in crowd at all).

But the thing is this math is quite flawed and represents an absolute best case scenario, especially once you take the stratification of skill levels into account. How this nets out is that the addition of an artificial reef has virtually no impact on waves that advanced surfers frequent.

If you charted surfers skill levels with the breaks they surf you'll quickly see that the best breaks of the world; Rincon, J-Bay, Trestles, (enter your favorite "secret spot") are quite rare and have a natural self-filtering process to them.

A few points there:
  • Good surfers surf at the more challenging and exclusive breaks (and lesser surfers surf at the easier spots)
  • There is a finite number of world-class waves
  • Beginners can't just paddle out at a wave like Black's (the conditions prohibit this and so might the locals)
  • Artificial reefs have not created iconic waves anywhere in the world (I'll spend more time on this point in later posts to this series)
So if you add an artificial reef to the eight wave mix described above the best case scenario is that the beginners and maybe intermediates will have a small, incremental number of days where they'd have another option of a wave to surf.

Look at Mount Reef from my last post, it cited 36 incremental surf sessions (not surf days) PER YEAR. Out of 360 days that is absolutely abysmal in terms of offering incremental options for surf. You may also want to take into consideration the comment that was left after my post which called the number of incremental days of surfing closer to 4 - 6 over the past 365 days.

Here's the point. Adding a reef to your break mix won't cause half the surfers to leave your break.

Half the surfers from every break
a) can't leave and surf a net new break (if half the surfers from each of the 8 breaks all went to a net new ninth break there would be 500 surfers on the new break).

b) won't leave and surf a new break because it, based on every artificial reef in existence on the globe, won't produce a wave that is anywhere near intermediate or advanced.

A few more points before I close this wind this post up.

"Location, location, location." This age-old truism is true with artificial reefs just as it is with many things. Let me state this another way...

A great reef does not generate swell, existing weather patterns do.

A great reef simply helps a swell break in the form of a ridable wave.

I'm guessing you've heard about the artificial reef being proposed in Bournemouth, England.

Southern England: The idea is to invest in an artificial reef and create a "surfing mecca", increase tourism, etc. There has even been numerous comparisons of this new break and (gasp) Haiwai'i.

The north shore of Oahu has iconic waves like Pipeline for two reasons, one is the shape of the reefs and the second is the fetch window for incoming powerful swells. Based on the lack of successes to date, the former (building an artificial reef that creates a surfable wave that breaks most of the year) seems quite difficult to create. The latter part of this is the swell, it is a key piece of this equation and not to be assumed. The last time I checked Bournemouth, England's southern exposure isn't situated to capture anything that will resemble Pipe. Sure Ireland's west coast is a window for massive swells... but England's southern exposure doesn't isn't Oahu's north shore or Ireland's west coast.

Iconic waves are a rare natural wonder. The reef is part of what makes an iconic wave possible but the existence of swell is another part of the equation.

So, here are a few points on the question "will artificial reefs reduce crowds?"

Do you agree or disagree? Where do my arguments not make sense? What points am I missing? Let's hear your views and thanks for participating in this dialog.
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