Nantasket's Leaky Hull

A conversation with Surfrider’s Liz Fuller.

Just south of Boston, Massachusetts lies the historic little beach of Nantasket in the historic little town of Hull. Situated west of Cape Cod, Nantasket is shadowed from swells that originate from the south to east- southeast, making the ocean here a waveless lake through much of the summer. However, when the winds blow from the north, a hurricane passes up the coast, or a big nor’easter sends a heavy groundswell southward, Nantasket can pump. Even if it doesn’t exactly pump, the shores here can still be hold some nicely shaped sandbar peaks. These peaks, and Nantasket’s proximity to Boston make the place a favorite quick jaunt for Beantown surfers.

While it’s flat a lot, Nantasket’s open swell window to the northeast means that the town’s beaches sometimes get violently hammered by nor’easters. The swells from these monster storms couple with 11 foot high tides and no southward exit for the water, to flood coastal areas here — including the towns. The solution? Seawalls. In fact, Nantasket has had seawalls for a long time — around a hundred years in some stretches.

Today, Nantasket is at a bit of a turning point. Over the last 15 years, the beach here has lost around ten feet of elevation thanks to erosion below a vertical seawall. When Nantasket’s beaches have eroded, the solution has been to build new seawalls farther out into the ocean — exacerbating the problem. In recent reports, the Army Corps of Engineers has determined that the seawall is between 150 and 200 feet too far seaward. In many areas, it is in danger of collapsing. Recently, the Army Corps and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation came up with a long-term plan to stabilize the beaches. The plan unleashed a storm of local controversy. To find out a little more, we had a chat with Liz Fuller, chair of central Massachusetts Surfrider Foundation Chapter. If you’re a nor’eastern noserider, you might want to stay on top of this one.

Chris Dixon: Liz, what’s going on up there? Give us an overview of the area and what you’re facing.

Liz Fuller: Well, you have the town of Hull, which is a peninsula that’s almost completely surrounded by water. You have ocean on one side and bay on the other. It’s part of the Boston Harbor Islands, and it’s a popular surf area and a beach for the metro Boston area. Here, the town has a long-term project to stabilize our seawall and renourish the beach.

A quote from the Army Corp says: ” Shoreline protection consists of a 6800 foot-long sand beach backed by a 5400 foot long concrete seawall for the main reach, a 635 foot long manmade stone revetment immediately to the north of the seawall and a 765 foot long natural reach immediately north of the revetment with no manmade features, all of which work together to provide protection against storm driven waves…”

Now this is the MDC, or public portion of the beach. The whole beach extends much farther north and is considered the private, “town beach”. Storm protection for the beachfront homes along the town-owned portion of the beach consists of a dune grass system, planted over 15 years by volunteers.

Christian Krahforst, a marine scientist in town has been studying the profile of the beach. His results definitely show erosion over the last year and a half. You’ll see from the pictures on the web how tall the wall is and how hard-packed the sand is.

As for surfing at Nantasket Beach, it’s definitely changed over time. In the 1980’s when they used to scrape the bottom at low tide and put the sand over the rocks, supposedly it would flatten the bottom and it would break more consistently. A couple of years ago surf was the best on incoming mid – high tide because of the offshore bar. In the past year, we’ve noticed more sand bars forming, and surf is seen as better at about halfway low – mid tide. Regardless, the surfing quality and the timing are highly dependent on the state of the beach, and we’ve definitely seen it shift.

There’s a northern and southern section of the seawall. The north section has a seawall and a revetment. The revetment is where most folks surf. The other end is where the tourists go and it has most of the parking. The Army Corps and the DCR want to stabilize this seawall that’s like, 100 years old. The town is like; we never wanted this seawall in the first place.

CD: Do you have a regular source of replinishing sand for your beaches — like offshore bars of river flows?

We’ve been losing our sand sources. Point Allerton was armored and then the offshore drumlands have eroded. Then we’ve got this vertical seawall where the sand has not been allowed to deposit as it should. It’s been deposited further down at an area that was called Stony Beach. But it’s not stony anymore. It’s getting all the sand we should have on Nantasket!

CD: So the Army Corps did a study and found that parts of your seawall are unstable.

LF: Right.

CD: Then, they and your resources agency, the MDC, proposed a 2,000 foot project that they called a solution.

LF: Right, 31,000 tons of cobblestones, I understand that’s 60 truckloads a day for around 40 days on the 2000 feet of beach seawall between Le Calypso and the Murray Boathouse. It’s supposed to be 10 feet wide at the top, extend out 15 feet and then go out for 28 feet at the bottom on a 4 to 1 slope. The total footprint would be 43 feet. They also want to put 6000 tons of sand at the base of the cobble.

CD: That’s a huge project.

LF: It is. They want to put cobbles down. That’s sort of good because it will stabilize the wall, but as part of their yearly maintenance program, the MDC will remove the cobbles and replace them. They’re damaging their own portion of the beach.

CD: How so?