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Do artificial surfing reefs work?  [Summary]

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

The subject of artificial surfing reefs has two interesting characteristics. First, it's a subject that keeps coming up. That is, there is an almost mythical interest by many about "creating" a wave where there isn't one. Second, the more I researched the subject the more I found that reality was very different than perception. Thus, I created this series that sought to answer the straightforward question "do artificial surfing reefs work?"

The world of artificial surfing reefs seemed murky to me. Why wasn't there more information and more data online? Where was the transparency?

With my series I attempted to point to as many resources and perspectives as I could find. I also welcomed people to agree or disagree with my views in the comments.

The first thing I did with this series was to seek out the users. I wanted to hear more from people that have actually used artificial surfing reefs.

It may be as simple as this. I have not heard of any surfer, anywhere on the planet, that has gone out of their way to seek out a wave created by an artificial surfing reef.

One of the better blog posts out there was the one titled "the truth about Mount Reef." Rather than share his personal beliefs (and immediately have his larger point discounted), this blogger asked the best surfers he could find what they thought of the local artificial surfing reef. I summarized those in my first post which is here.

This was a difficult blog post to write as there is little-to-no real, quantitative data regarding the existing artificial surfing reefs. We have no scientific data on wave heights, surfer usage (or if any standup surfers use a reef at all), and there are no peer-reviewed scientific documents. The truth is that those that have been building and selling artificial surfing reefs have offered what I'd call a "black box" approach--virtually zero sharing. There has been almost no collaborative efforts between users/technologists/financiers/researchers/etc. In my opinion, this lack of data and lack of sharing, when combined with over-optimistic marketing claims, have severely damaged the larger value proposition of artificial surfing reefs.

There is no artificial surfing reef anywhere in the world that has notable surfing.

When I asked publishers of major surfing magazines about artificial reefs they essentially laughed. I shared a few of those quotes in my fourth post which focused on the track record of the existing reefs.

SUMMARY. Surfers believe in the dream of a man-made wave but have not seen anything, anywhere that resembles those dreams.

Due to the almost complete lack of quantitative information regarding existing reefs, I found myself seeking out anything that WAS quantitative regarding this subject. I quickly found myself pouring over the bottom-line, business perspective regarding the return on investment (ROI) for artificial surfing reefs.

That post is here.

This post offers three, relatively straightforward points.

1. Artificial surfing reefs are expensive to put in. We're talking millions of dollars.

2. Artificial surfing reefs are expensive to take out. We will spend virtually the same amount of dollars to take one out that we did to put it in.

3. Before you commit to spend a lot of money, do your homework. Do as much homework as needed to yield a cost/benefit ratio that you believe is good enough.

SUMMARY. The bottom line here is that artificial surfing reefs have all but failed in providing anything close to a notable, quantifiable "surfing resource" (more on this later). This said, surfing may not be the reason to put an artificial surfing reef in; erosion control might be the reason.

Short answer: No.

Longer answer is here.

SUMMARY. Reducing crowds is probably the most baseless argument that exists regarding artificial surfing reefs. If you truly think that an extra reef will reduce crowds, you are fantasizing. Read this post.

There are seven artificial surfing reefs on the planet. They are all reviewed in this post. The net is that the existing reefs are...well, bad. If they were graded it's my opinion that they'd be assigned a D, C-, C-, F, D and an Incomplete.

But please don't take my word for it, read this post and read the comments of prominent people associated with each of these reefs.

SUMMARY. No artificial surfing reef offers a notable surfing resource. Period.

After reviewing the above angles into artificial surfing reefs I was drawn to the subject of erosion control. For me this brings out a couple points.

Conservation of mass matters. This means that if you build any structure to trap sand you are also, by definition, stealing it from somewhere else. Another way to think about this is that "artificial surfing reefs" are just coastal infrastructure...just as a jetty or a seawall is. A seawall may slow down erosion for one home but it's accelerating it for another home, same thing with an artificial surfing reef.

Artificial surfing reefs cannot solve a region-wide erosion problem. They can't. They are, by definition, attempting to make a wave break in a specific location. They are pinpoint solutions. They may be able to offer a solution to a pinpoint erosion problem. I'm not saying they will. I'm saying they may be able to (see the Conservation of mass point above).

I think the largest point with this subject is that you can't serve two masters. If you sell the value of an artificial surfing reef as primarily focused on erosion control, then don't expect a "Hawaii-esque" wave to ever be seen peeling off it.

The erosion control post is here.

SUMMARY. Erosion control may be a legitimate value proposition for an artificial surfing reef. If this is the main objective of the reef then it should be treated the same as any coastal infrastructure would be (see Surfrider's policy below).

There are a few more subjects worthy of exploring related to artificial surfing reefs.

Location. This subject is anything but logical. The most recent artificial surfing reef is half way up the English Channel. Another reef (by the builders own words) was built in a region "not known for consistent-quality waves." The best reef in the world won't create a wave without swell. Thus the value proposition for building a reef in an area without swell is lost on me.

But the flip side is also curious. Opunake in New Zealand was built in a swell-rich area... promting this comment from a reader "One has to ask why the 'local community' in Opunake are nuts enough to have gone for it, there's more reefs down that way than you can shake a stick at including one of the Nakis finest right handers 5 mins away. The justification seems to be tourist bucks, once again who's going to drive past some of the finest real (and reeling) reefs in NZ to get to a sandbag one...its just bizarre."

Technology. I'm somewhat of a geek. I was in technology for the twenty years prior to taking this position... and I've never seen something like the artificial surfing reef ecosystem. Point to a successful technology and I'll point to a healthy ecosystem of users, developers, technologists, financiers, researchers, universities, etc. It's not just that most technologies came from educational or corporate research institutions. It's that there are also multiple levels of other groups and institutions involved in enabling that technology to grow and/or be capitalized, which could be through conferences with objective participation, research grants, etc. I don't see any of this with artificial surfing reefs. It's my belief that if artificial surfing reefs are to become anything beyond a small, boutique technology...these things must change.

Surfrider Foundation's stance. This one is simple, we have a board-approved policy on artificial surfing reefs. It's here. I'll paraphrase it as "value existing waves highest, work to protect those. If an artificial surfing reef is built there must be an environmental impact analysis, ongoing monitoring and associated research."

From my perspective our policy dovetails perfectly with this series. It says that waves are a wonder of nature, appreciate them... protect them. If you feel the need to build an artificial surfing reef, proceed with caution and with the intelligence of all those that have gone before you.
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