posted by / Magazine / June 7, 2004

In the cosmos of surfing there is God, there is Mother Nature, and there is Dr. Kerry Black. At 53 years old, this Australian surfer turned New Zealand researcher is the world leader in artificial reefs. Not only is Black responsible for the Narrowneck project on Australia’s Gold Coast, the most successful manmade surfing break to date, he’s mapped more than 40 world-class reefs, amassing the knowledge with two purposes in mind: creating surfable waves in coastal areas where there are none; and to stop erosion, offering a more environmentally friendly option to dated methods like jetties and dredging. His efforts have become so successful that two dozen artificial reef projects are underway across the globe. But as if those new waves weren’t enough, Black’s also a partner with Surf Parks, Inc, the company behind Orlando’s Ron Surf Park, creating a pool bottom called the {{{Versa}}} Reef. Using that technology, Black hopes to create an infinite number of surf spots in a single area, a technology that can then be used to introduce world-class surfing to the most unlikely of places — places where there are no oceans at all.

Your company, Artificial Surf Reefs, Limited is responsible for designing the artificial reef at Narrowneck in Australia. How’s that coming?
It still not up to the design level, so it’s not breaking at it’s absolute best yet. They’re still putting bags on, but it’s better than the rest of the beach by a long way. And it’s got fantastic biology on it too. There’s turtles and sharks and complete ecosystems, schools of fish, seaweed waving in the waves on the bags, there’s lobster.

I started this as an environmentalist, really. When I was at university I was very concerned about the trend to concrete beaches. I don’t think people realize that sand is a limited resource. Transporting of new sand up on the beach has basically stopped worldwide. And a lot of people have built very forward so a lot of the sand dunes are knocked down. So the beach systems are out of balance. And the reaction was of course to put what I call land protection, putting a bunch of concrete or rocks up to keep the houses of falling into the sea, which protects the land but does nothing for the beach. So this whole program was started both for surfing and to try to get more environmentally safe methods of beach protection. And its not rocket science: if you got to Bali and look, you’ll find that behind the big reefs you’ll find the beach building out, because the reef has blocked the wave energy. So this method is meant to do that. And if you can get recreation of it, get fishing, get a nice beach, then you’ve obviously got a winner.

It sounds like the ideas taking off. Last we spoke you said there were a bunch planned across the world, including the one at Oil Piers in Ventura.
Yes, that’s our project. We’re still hoping that it might get built this year. And, we’ve got 24 projects world-wide at the moment. There’s three that are likely to pop up in New Zealand fairly soon. And there’s a huge amount of interest for obvious reasons; they’re good for the environment; and on top of that they give a lot of surfing benefits. This one in New Zealand is purely for surfing it’s got no coastal protection considerations at all. It’s just a fantastic surfing district and they want a big howling barrel to bring tourism and people into the town.

And you’re going to give them a big howling barrel.
Yeah. Because the area it’s in has maybe 50 or 60 very high quality surf breaks but the ledges are not as steep as they could be. So we’re just building a straight barrel: you’ll just take-off, barrel and then a big section in the middle and then another barrel. The argument is there’s not much point in building an average reef, there’s plenty of them around already. If you’re gonna build something you might as well build something that stands out.

How much of what you do is based on what nature gives you? I mean , you can’t just put a big howling barrel anywhere.
No, you need the wave climate for sure. This is on the west coast of New Zealand, which gets a lot of swell. And we have chosen a location in a bay where the waves are really primed to break already; they’ve already started to shoal. So we modify the seabed contours so the wave will peel and then we make the reef face very steep so the wave, when it hits that, it’ll break pretty heavily. But you just can’t do that anywhere; you need the wave to be primed.

Do you model the bottom off of an already existing reef?
Yeah, we do a huge amount of modeling. We also did a lot of video work, air photography work, all the things to look at what’s happening in the bay in the first place. Then we use our database of world-class reefs — we have some 42 now — including places like Pipeline and so on. We look at the components in those reefs that makes them so good. The really good reefs always have distinguishing characteristics in the seabed. And we pulled out those characteristics from those really good reefs so we know what makes them so good. Nature has the problem of combining these sort of features randomly; it’s just luck if they all fall into place. But with computer design you can model the existing reefs based on years of empirical research and data.

So it’s not like you can take one wave and put it in another place, you just apply the knowledge . . .
Yeah. You won’t ever exactly duplicate a location. But we have one client who wants six surfing reefs in front of a hotel that he’s developing. And he’s flying over in a couple weeks and I’m going to take him shopping in Indonesia. We’re going to go around the breaks, and I’m going to explain to him the difference between a reef ranked 3, a reef ranked 5, and a reef ranked 7 out of 10. He can look at that and say, I really want a reef that’s a 6 or some number that he chooses. So if he says, I really like this reef can I have one? We can go and survey that reef and take the components out of that. You wouldn’t put everything in because even a perfect reef has to be blended with the environment, but we can take the components and essentially reproduce that reef.

Now describe this scale of yours. What’s a 1? What’s a 10?
All surfers have an intuitive feeling about a reef. Any good surfer will know deep in his heart he’s riding a 5 out of 10 or a 7 out of 10. You know that. But what was necessary was to put that into engineering and scientific terms. Things like: if it’s a 7, what speed does it break at? What peel angle — the rate at which the whitewater travels sideways and how fast you have to travel to stay ahead of the breaking section? That peel angle is one of the really important factors that determines how a surfer perceives a wave. Like a slow sloppy wave may only be ranked a 2 or 3. If it’s Pipeline, you have to go through the barrel to get to the other end. You’re gonna rank that up around a 7. So we actually converted all those intuitive things into numbers that relate to how steep the seabed is, how fast the peel angle is and what quality of surfer you have to be to ride those waves. So we have a scale of 1 to 10 you can shop through. And most people, of course, go for 7s because they want to see a good wave.

If Pipeline’s a 7, what’s an 8, a 9 or a10?
Well Teahupo’o has got to be up there in the 8 to 9 range, especially when it’s big — the ranking scale shifts with the size. But we’ve reserved 10 as “as yet unsurfed or unsurfable.” Just in case surfers do even more crazy things in the future. And Pipe’s maybe an 8 when it’s really big, but your typical day it’s a 7. As long as you get a good take off and don’t get hassled by the crowd, a good surfer with the guts to take off is going to get across that wave.

On the opposite side of this mission to creating artificial reefs in the world’s oceans is the project with Surfparks and the Versa Reef. Describe that for us.
It’s like a great big water-filled bladder under pressure. And the height of the bladder over the floor of the pool is controlled by cables that are set to particular lengths. So the bladder can only inflate up to a certain height. Okay, and then the cables are all computer-controlled to give it a reef shape, so you just have a screen that says Bureligh or Beachbreak or Pipeline. You press a button on the screen and all the computer files are built in, it moves the cables to the right length with these big winches. And then the pressure is taken off the floor and it’s all moved and the pressure’s put back on the floor again. So you can get an infinite number of shapes. And the how many waves can you mimic?
We can mimic a huge range. The only limitation is money. If someone came to me and wanted a 500-meter ride and they had the money to build it, we could do it. But what we’re doing presently is approximately two Olympic-sized pools. Quite a lot of space. And the maximum ride length is approximately 70 to {{{90}}} meters, depending on the exact shape of the floor. And so we can go from a heavy breaking Pipeline wave — which you’ve probably seen the photos on the web — back to a nice soft {{{Malibu}}} or a beginner’s wave, which will run down the length of the pool. So you can change the wave weekly so they don’t get bored.

How long does it take to change from one wave to the next?
A complete change from a left to righthand wave would take about an hour, but it’s still pretty quick. There’s some physical work there, as well. There’s damping system that must be moved for one side to the other. But the normal movement from hardbreaking to softbreaking we’d do from 15 minutes to a half hour.

So you could from Pipeline to Ragland . . .
Yeah, that you could do pretty quick. And you can imagine what that would be in a surf contest, eh? Ten of the worlds best each given five identical waves, you could just display al your skills from tuberiding to heavy cutbacks.

And besides mimicking waves, you could develop a dream wave. You could have someone say, “I want this wave,” and give it to them.
Yeah, and the pool itself will become something of a research tool. Because we have so much control and it’s so big, it’ll lend itself to testing shapes and be fed back into the actual reefs on beaches as well.

So if you can make Pipe, can you make Pipe a right?
We can up to the height limitation of the pool. We’ve done it all ready in the scale model. And the scale model is a big scale, it’s 1 in 8. The science labs use 1 in 15 and then use those results for natural cases. So 1 in 8 is quite a big scale.

Can you run down some of the breaks you’ve got mapped. Do you have Teahupoo?
Not Teahupo’o. But we’re going to go do that in the next six months. We’ve got Pipe and Backdoor. We’ve got Bingin, Sanur . . .and what else? Padang, that really good heavy last section . . . Rincon, Malibu . . .

Yeah, we got Kirra. Kirra and Bureligh. A lot of the Gold Coast ones. D-bah.

What about J-Bay?
Nope. No South Africa at all. I’ve surfed it of course, great wave. One of the classics in Australia is Shark Island. We’ve done that one because we were looking for something extreme. The whole concept sounds extreme. Do you see a day when the world’s best waves come to us?
I reckon yeah. In fact, the day has already arrived; it’s really just a matter of people realizing it’s possible and having the budget to actually do it.

You realize purists may see this as blasphemy. Do you worry this could this kill surf travel as we know it?
I don’t know. The reason a lot of people travel, including myself, is you get to beautiful places, you meet interesting people, you’re seeing different environments. You’ve got the sea all around you. And I don’t’ think that will ever disappear. When you’re desperate or just want reliable waves you’ll go to the pool for sure. But I still think people will surf in remote locations and keep the search going; keep imagining those palm-filled beaches on some remote island. So I don’t see it as a replacement. Just an addition I think — a major, beneficial addition. Matt Walker

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