The Man Who Would Build Our First Artificial Reef

Link to original article on Swellnet

Two years ago I wrote an article titled The Dangers of Artificial Reefs that warned against the self-interests of surfers altering the coastline. My argument was based on sound environmental and philosophical grounds. Or at least I thought it was…

The hate mail arrived immediately after publication and I realised how at odds my beliefs were with many in the surfing community. Among the venom I received a pleasant email from a fellow, Steve Barrett, who was an affirmed artificial reef advocate. Steve had his own company, Offshore Surf Reefs, and hoped to build artificial reefs in the future. He wished to clarify a few points I’d made, and considering I was attacking his position Steve’s congeniality was surprising.

I then met Steve in person at the 7th Artificial Reef Symposium at Bondi. The Symposium was attended by a roomful of likeminded believers and I felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But, yet again, Steve was very civil with me.

In the intervening years, Steve, who is a landscape designer, has continued his quest to build Australia’s first quality artificial reef. He believes he’s sitting on a winning design and it’s only funding, and perhaps rigid community attitudes, holding him back. Last week we sat down at his Stanwell Park home to discuss artificial reefs:

Swellnet: We first met at the Artificial Reef Symposium which was organised by Andrew Pitt. Andrew is a landscape architect while you are a landscape consultant: Is it just a coincidence that you landscape guys are so keen on building artificial reefs? Steve Barrett: Landscape design is modifying the environment to suit man’s needs and an artificial reef is simply a piece of artificial landform. We’re dealing with contours and landforms and, as we’re both surfers, I guess we put two and two together. We’re trained to think about landforms so we just extended the vision out to the surf zone.

Since surfers first started searching for perfect waves, what they’ve really been looking for – whether they realise it or not – is perfect bottom shape. When I look at a wave, I think about what the bottom shape is that is creating that wave.

Is any special knowledge needed once you work below the high tide zone? I’ve been both a surfer and landscape designer for nearly forty years, and have been researching natural and artificial reefs and developing the Offshore Surf Reefs concept since the early ’80’s, so I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge in that time, but… yeah, it’ll be a team effort to build the reef, with input from many consultants… surveyors, geotechnical, civil and coastal engineers, and specialist contractors for the actual construction.

From an environmental point of view, the ocean is always in flux – you have sand drift for instance – are the variable elements taken into account? In the ocean there are coastal processes in operation, things are moving all the time: currents, sand, waves from different directions. The trick is to design with these processes so that you can incorporate a reef structure into the environment without creating any negative impacts. This is what I will look at with the engineers to come up with a workable solution.

Do you factor the precautionary principle into your designs? Well, if you don’t innovate you’re not going to get anywhere. Anyway, the engineer’s modelling, whether it be computer modelling or physical modelling, is very accurate. It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to get any negative effects.

As for the design concept, what I’ve done is identify all the problems that we could come up against, and every reason possible for failure, and then design against it. Find a solution for every problem. And I feel that I’ve overcome every single problem.

The beauty of my concept, however, is that if, in the unlikely case of a problem, you can refloat the reef, lift it out and take it away. It’s completely removable. If you’re building a reef by dropping rocks, sandbags, or whatever, then you can’t easily retrieve those materials.

Why aren’t there more artificial reefs in the world at the moment? Here’s the sceptic coming out in you.

Oh, it’s a valid question…you may think that it’s a lack of funding. I think that when someone comes up with a reef that does work, you’ll see a lot more of them. I think it is difficult getting the funding to do it because it is an expensive exercise. You’ve got to spend big bucks. You can’t tinker with it in the backyard and suddenly come up with a solution.

Where would funding come from? That’s the problem. It’s a lot of money for a private investor to outlay without any guarantee on return and it’s a risk for a public authority, a federal or state government, to fund purely for a recreational facility.

The other side of the coin is that in certain locations reefs can be used for coastal protection. Government authorities are coming to the realisation that it could be worthwhile spending some money to do some trials for artificial reefs to be used for coastal protection. We’re starting to see glimmers of that now. The reality is that people don’t want stuff built on their beaches, they don’t want seawalls and they don’t want groynes. The beauty of an artificial reef is you can protect a beach from erosion yet see nothing.

Do you think multi purpose reefs that combine coastal protection and recreation are more likely to be built? Just because they serve public amenity. I think it’s really hard to get anything up and running, whether it be for coastal protection or recreation, publicly funded, or privately funded. It really is a difficult task. I’ve been at it for seven years now! I have self-funded my work so far, but to progress any further will need either investor or government funding.

How though? The coastline is public and open to all, how would a private investor find a bit of coastline to create an artificial reef? Maybe plan a reef in conjunction with a state or the federal government. The most likely scenario is that a government authority or a council would co-fund some sort of trial reef project with outcomes that would benefit them and their coastline. Also, if they’re investing in a trial reef for coastal protection and it proves to be a successful recreational reef then they’ve got equity in that product and it could be repeated in other places and create income at the same time.

So, in your mind it would be a user pays scenario? No, not necessarily, it would just be a public recreational facility like a skate park or a football field.

Let’s drop the hypotheticals and get into the practical elements. Steel is your preferred construction material: Why steel? I think for an artificial reef to be successful you have to have complete control over its form and structural stability. If you just have an accumulation of rocks or sandbags you don’t have enough control over the shape. It’s got to be an engineered structure and the cheapest and most easily engineered material is steel. Steel is also benign in the marine environment.

Being a hard material, might councils be less willing to fund a steel reef? Well, because a steel reef is a smooth curved continuous surface with no sharp edges, and no gaps that could be entrapments, I think steel reefs would be safer than rock or sandbag reefs.

But the steel was put there by man, the rocks weren’t. With all manmade structures you’re creating some sort of liability. What you need to do is minimise the risk by good design. That’s the same whether it’s a skate park or a footy field. All public recreational facilities have public liability insurance in case someone is injured. It would be no different for a reef.

So how do you convince a council? Well, the risk in a skate park is high. It would be higher than falling onto a reef covered by water yet councils accept that risk and they insure against it.

Have you tested any of the shapes you’ve come up with? Yes, I’ve made scale models of a couple of reef shapes and tested them in a wave tank. You can have any number of reef shapes that can create any type of wave. The ones that I tested are two generic shapes that just give you a basic A-frame wave. Because I’m working in steel you can create any shape you want, and you can pre-test and refine those shapes with computer modelling. Every site is going to be different. Not every site is going to be suitable for the same shape reef.

Here on the east coast we get swells from many different directions, that would make a reef designer’s job hard, wouldn’t it? It doesn’t make it hard, it just makes it more complex.

Do you think you could design a reef that received swells from various angles? For a static reef, you’d have to design a reef that was optimised to one particular direction, which would be the main direction the swell comes from for that location, and for the other swell directions you’d have to take second best.

I just wrote an article on the failures of Boscombe Reef in England, what do you think went wrong at Boscombe? (long pause) I only know what I’ve read in the media, it doesn’t appear to be creating the wave that the modelling showed. The wave hasn’t come to fruition.

Is that a fault of the design? Well, for whatever reason…the modelling shows a peeling wave but it doesn’t seem to produce that in reality. I can only assume that something has gone amiss in between those two processes. I don’t believe it is possible to produce a reef shape accurate enough using sandbags.

Do you think that you could’ve created a design that produced a wave at Boscombe? Oh…you’re really going to put me on the spot now.

You can say pass on the answer. After all, not many surfers would go to the English Channel looking for waves so not many designers would consider putting a reef there. Well, OK, it’s not a place that I’d select for a reef because it doesn’t get much swell. But then again you can surf anywhere there’s swell even if it’s just one foot. Certainly where you’ve got a very small wave climate the shape of the reef becomes ever more important. Big swells can ride over imperfections and irregularities on a reef, and still give you a good wave shape, while small swells react to imperfections and wave shape is compromised. So you need a very accurate bottom shape for small swells. My concept would give you a very accurate bottom shape.

Where is the ideal stretch of coast to build your first reef? I think it’s going to be where there is a coastal protection element to the design. The Gold Coast already has an artificial reef at Narrowneck that was designed as a coastal protection structure so the Gold Coast would be a good place to do some trials on artificial reefs.

Why? Because the sand flow is predictable? I think the Gold Coast Council is a bit more progressive in terms of innovation in coastal protection. There are also a lot of surfers in the community. I guess those two things coming together make that area a possible choice for trials if they were to happen. But it could be anywhere…

Do you foresee the day when artificial reefs are as popular as skateparks? I think there’s a lot of overcrowding the in the surf. There are lots of surfers trying to find a decent wave so as soon as the first reef that produces a decent wave is built there will be a lot of people that want them. And it’s my aim to build the first one.

Website for Offshore Surf Reefs