Why playing with the ocean is a risky game

Bournemouth has decided that it would like to be a surf resort, according to The Guardian, and to attract all those surfing tourists for who Cornwall is just too inconveniently western. What a distance to travel!

To that end the Dorset town is building an artificial reef out of specially-designed sandbags in Poole Bay in order to take the area’s natural swell and turn it into breaking waves. Here’s what the paper has to say about the scheme:

Artificial reef: Surfers wait to catch Dorset’s £3m wave

It would be pushing it to suggest that the atmosphere in the Dorset resort of Bournemouth was febrile but there was certainly some excitement yesterday as work on installing the reef began in earnest. In the coming months the reef, the size of a football pitch and made of dozens of huge specially-designed bags pumped full of sand, will take shape on the sandy seabed starting at 210 metres off the beach at Boscombe. Surfers are due to start catching the first artificially boosted waves by the end of October.

The reef, which is costing the best part of £3m, is the centrepiece of a regeneration project in Boscombe – compared with central Bournemouth a poorer, less glamorous part of Poole Bay. On the back of the development boutique hotels are being developed, restaurants opened and beachside flats built.

Boscombe is being marketed aggressively to the growing band of south-east surfers for whom day trips to traditional surfing hotspots in Devon and Cornwall are out of the question. Marine biologists are said to be keen, thinking the structure might provide a haven for fish and crustaceans.

Other resorts are looking on with interest. After Bournemouth the reef’s designer, the New Zealand company ASR, is moving on to Kovalam in southern India, and it has carried out a feasibility study for two reefs in Goa. If Boscombe is a success it expects other British seaside towns to be banging on its door. Read full story here…

Now this is a long way from being the first artificial reef project. In fact, there’s one just up the coast, made from a sunken Navy frigate and designed for divers. And, off the east coast of America, they use old New York subway cars.

And the Poole project, with its specially-designed sandbags, is obviously being carried out in a well-researched and scientifically controlled manner.

But also just up the coast from Bournemouth, close to Start Point, is the village of Hallsands – or, at least, what was the village of Hallsands until 1917.

Now it’s just a few broken houses clinging to the base of the cliff after the opposite process, dredging to remove material which was used to improve a harbour at Plymouth, undermined its beach and caused storms to destroy it.

This is not to imply that Poole is being unwise to build its reef. Presumably we now have a much clearer understanding of how ocean forces work and of their effects on coastlines.

But it does make a poignant contrast. And it also illustrates the perils of unintended consequences and of the hubris of thinking we can control what the ocean does.

This was my favourite line from the Guardian story: “The sea is a mysterious thing. We don’t know how it will affect the coast.” Jim Greene, a local surfer, said: “Surfing’s a lot about nature, responding to what is there naturally, so an artificial reef doesn’t appeal to everyone.”