Nature makes waves. Man makes surf. And pretty damn good surf, too. Granted, not deliberately. In fact, with almost no exception, any attempt man has made to design and produce rideable surf has met with lamentable failure. And yet the coastlines of the world are littered with breaks that without man’s helping hand–man’s uncaring and often destructive hand–would otherwise not exist. His piers, jetties, channels, groins, break walls and dredge-tailing sandbars have come to define some of surfing’s most traditional landscapes, providing as merely an engineering by-product waves that in many cases rival the best that nature itself has to offer. Actually competing with nature in shaping both the world’s shorelines and the collective dreams of surfers everywhere who, for the most part, rarely stop to think about how much of the surf they ride is really man-made. Don’t believe it? Then think again. If you live and surf anywhere in Southern California–especially south of Point Conception–you probably surf man-made waves most of the time. East Coast surfers? Virtually all the rideable waves south of the Carolinas have been produced by some sort of intrusive coastal development. And paradise? A number of Hawaii’s most popular breaks wouldn’t exist had not the tropical coral reef been altered in ways no kahuna would ever have condoned.
The irony, of course, is that for decades surfers have dreamed of making their own waves, the fantasy manifested in an enduring preoccupation with what has come to be known as “the artificial reef.” As far back as 1968, in a SURFER magazine article penned by big wave ace and oceanographer Rick Grigg, the alluring prospect of being able to create our own waves was being touted as surfing’s last hope.
“Grigg is going full-out to save surfing and surfers from extinction in a bumper-to-bumper, swarming world,” read the feature’s strident intro, in classic, late-60s style. “His plan for artificial reefs is a positive move that stands a good chance of acceptance by the Department of Parks and Recreation, and could reverse the trend of surf spot elimination into surf spot development.”
Meanwhile echelons of men in hard shoes and thin ties led the assault on our coastlines, dreaming not of perfect, peeling waves, but of breakwalls that protect expensive beachfront property, jetties that trap littoral sand flow for commercially viable beaches and of vast harbors in which fleets of the elite might park their yachts. Funny thing is, while in the 36 years since Grigg went “full-on” in his efforts to save surfing, not a single functioning artificial reef has been constructed in the continental United States, while the list of inadvertently created waves reads like a Surf Report guide to the West and East Coasts. If you’re like the rest of us, chances are you’ve probably surfed at one of these man-made breaks: Humboldt Jetties, Fort Point, Sharp Park Pier, Princeton Jetties, Santa Cruz Harbormouth, Moss Landing, Cayucos Pier, Morro Rock, South Jetty, Pismo Pier, Sandspit, Oil Piers, Ventura Dredge, Hollywood-by-the-Sea, POP Pier, Venice Jetties, Hammerland, Manhattan Beach Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Redondo Breakwall, Seal Beach, Huntington Beach Pier, River Jetties, all of Newport Beach, Wedge, San Clemente Pier, Del Mar Jetties, Oceanside Jetties, Oceanside Pier, Warm Water Jetty, , Ponto, Scripps Pier, South Mission Jetty, Ocean Beach Pier, Imperial Beach Pier, Sandy Hook, Sea Girt, Manasquan Inlet, Bay Head, Casino Pier, Seaside Heights, States Avenue, Ventnor Pier, Margate Pier, Ocean City, all of Virginia Beach, all of Cape Hatteras, Jacksonville Beach, Ormand Beach Pier, Ponce Inlet, Cocoa Beach, Canaveral Pier, Sebastian Inlet, Palm Beach Jetties, South Beach, Galveston Jetties, J.B. Luby Pier, Bob Hall Pier, Fish Pass, South Padre Island. As a footnote add Ala Moana and Kaisers in Hawaii and you get a picture of a surfing world that, when it comes to artificial waves, hasn’t had to settle merely for Typhoon Lagoon.
“You’d have to consider these waves happy accidents,” says Chad Nelson, an environmental director at the Surfrider Foundation. “But because the waves that have resulted from this inadvertent development have worked doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s been a good thing. Look at the thousands of coastal development projects that haven’t produced good waves.”