Why you should care

Because surfing could be a lot more fun if it didn’t depend on the fickleness of nature. 

It’s the moment surfers dread. You and your surf buds wake up when it’s still dark to pack into the van, boards strapped to the roof, then cover miles and miles to get to that sweet spot on the coast — that spot where the surf breaks just right, and you can ride the waves of your dreams. As you finally reach the water, you all jump out and rush to find … complete and utter flatness, not a wave in sight. Bummer, dude.

Well the heartache may be over soon enough. Why wait for a wave when you can make one? Introducing the era of artificial surf reefs.

This summer, the Rio de Janeiro government approved a massive construction project for an artificial surf reef off the coast of a town called Maricá, just north of the city of Rio de Janeiro. How massive? The town has earmarked $8 million just to design the reef. It promises that perfect wave, every balmy day of the year. Yet the promise of a never-fail surfers’ paradise has proved surprisingly elusive — almost like the weather and the waves themselves.

Around the world, folks have been experimenting with the concept for years, trying to turn a fickle phenomenon of nature into something reliable. Of course, there are many reasons to build an artificial reef that have nothing to with surfing. One is erosion protection, using the reef to dampen the force of the waves clawing at the coastline, much like natural coral reefs do. Another is to help bolster wildlife while boosting diving tourism.

Maricá, just north of the city of Rio de Janeiro

Maricá, just north of the city of Rio de Janeiro

But over the past few years, a new reason has emerged, and artificial reefs are being designed for the sole purpose of creating a constant wave for a surf spot. Australia, the land of a million surfers, has led the charge. There, multiple artificial reefs have gone down in Queensland and Western Australia. Costs of the projects vary tremendously: in the thousands to renovate a natural reef, millions for sandbag installations and much more to re-create a natural reef. Even southern India has its own artificial surf reef, and New Zealand has several in the works as well.

These experiments have not all been totally rad. Europe’s first artificial surf reef, the Boscombe Reef off the southern U.K. coast, carried a price tag of $5.2 million when it was implemented in 2009, with investors anticipating a tourism boom to follow. Bad bet. Two years later, the local government shut it down, claiming that its design of long tubular sandbags placed parallel to one another was unsafe, as surfers could be sucked into the gaps in the structure and drowned. Gnarly.

The same company that designed the Boscombe Reef had created one a year earlier at Mount Maunganui in New Zealand, making it the country’s first artificial surf reef. This spring, that project too was shut down for generating “unforeseen effects” like a rough riptide that could endanger surfers. Sorry, brah.

The spot is so popular that the government installed a streetlamp over the wave so that surfers can keep riding past sunset.

Back stateside, off the coast of Santa Monica, California, Pratte’s Reef was another failed surf reef project. Constructed in 2000, it was going to be the United States’ first surf reef. But it wasn’t creating waves — some think because there was not enough sand due to budget constraints. By 2008, the project was shut down and the sandbags pulled out. Wipeout.

Indeed, some in Brazil are utterly skeptical the Rio government will pull off the financing, let alone the engineering. “The cash for the construction will have to come through the local government,” points out a skeptical Carlos Matias, editor of popular Brazilian surfing website Rico Surf. And even when the costs do work out, sinking objects into the ocean — everything from sandbags to warships to subway cars — to make the reefs can lead to additional environmental costs, such as chemical leaching and water pollution. That’s led some government agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to issue guidelines on creating artificial reefs.

Despite these concerns and failings, if you’re a surfer, well, hope never dies. Anyone who’s visited Rio’s famed Ipanema beach can understand why. It’s defined by a rocky outcropping on one end called Arpoador, where a consistent left wave forms to the timeless delight of bronzed surfers and those who love to watch them. But the same curve of the rocks that creates the wave also cramps the ride, as the waters there are often teeming with surfers vying to catch the next one. The spot is so popular that the government installed a streetlamp over the wave so that surfers can keep riding past sunset. With that much interest, reef developers saw dollar signs.

The underwater structure has been widely criticised by surfers for producing ''the wrong sort of waves’’.

The underwater structure has been widely criticized by surfers for producing “the wrong sort of waves.”

Just up the coast from Arpoador, Maricá is already a known surf spot. A similar project a few years ago, at a site near the city called Macumba, lost steam due to local politics. This time, though, the developers of the Maricá project — which took 10 years to model — successfully gained all the local approval they need. Construction is set to begin in early 2015, and should be completed before the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, although some technical studies still need to be completed.

Maricá will also be different from the failed projects in California, New Zealand and Europe, because the project’s designers, who are in partnership with the engineering department of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, have come up with a way to avoid using sandbags, the stuff that spelled downfall elsewhere. Instead, they intend to install two steel platforms on the ocean floor, shaped like an arrow pointing into the wave, intended to create a tubular wave “characteristic of the North Shore, in Oahu, Hawaii.”

Brazilian surfer Rafael Pereira is thrilled with the idea of artificial surf reefs across the Brazilian coast. They’d solve Brazil’s consistency problems, he says: “We could be a real surfers’ factory, like we are in soccer.” Given the history, no doubt Brazil and the many other places planning surf reefs are taking a big risk. But heck, you know, just imagine … The Endless Summer in a place that actually has an endless summer. Cowabunga.

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