Wave of the Furture

Feb 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

SURFERS HAVE LONG PRAYED to Mother Nature for heavenly waves. Some have even burned boards on sacrificial beach bonfires. But this winter, one SoCal environmental group is placing its hopes in the power of human ingenuity.

Back in September, members of the Surfrider Foundation lowered 120 fourteen-ton sandbags off a barge anchored at Dockweiler State Beach near LAX. Their goal: the nation's first artificial reef designed to jack up surfable waves. Nobody knows how well the fake break will work, but the big test is expected in January and February. If the planet does what it's done for the last few eons, powerful northern Pacific storms will crank out stacks of swells that will speed across the ocean and eventually spill over the seven-foot-deep reef as though it were a natural sandbar, hopefully creating perfect A-frame peaks on top. "I don't have a crystal ball," says Pratte's Reef designer David Skelly, a coastal engineer and owner of Skelly Engineering. "But I know it's going to produce a surfable wave."

Whether the waves show up or not, a government ruling that helped finance the reef has already made environmental history. In the mid-1980s, the California Coastal Commission, a state regulatory agency, allowed Chevron to build an oil-pipeline jetty off the town of El Segundo, but told the company it would have to make amends if the project diminished local waves. In 1994, the commission decided it had, and the oil company paid Surfrider $300,000. Pratte's Reef is the result. "This means that waves deserve the same protection as redwood trees," says Surfrider executive director Christopher Evans.

The group has opted to study Pratte's cultural and environmental impacts before pursuing any additional reef projects. Skelly, however, sees a day when fake breaks dot the globe. Two others, installed last year at Narrowneck on Australia's Gold Coast and in 1999 at Cables Station on Australia's West Coast, are performing with mixed results. But Skelly, an avid surfer, is still stoked. "This takes surfing into the 21st century," he says. "It allows us to consider making surf spots that mimic classic breaks like Pipeline and Malibu. It opens a whole new field of opportunity for the sport."

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