The Wave That Never Was
Pratte’s Reef off the El Segundo coast promised the South Bay the perfect wave, only to wash up plenty of disappointment. We reminisce on a swell idea that just couldn’t catch a break.
- Written byStefan Slater
The allure of the artificial reef is undeniable.
Some deem it plausible, a workable goal that can be achieved with the right financing, design and location. But others view the idea of creating an artificial reef, a man-made underwater structure that can turn a beach devoid of decent surf into a prime wave-riding break, as nothing but a pipe dream.
What surfer hasn’t dreamed about transforming some close out-ridden stretch of sand into the next Malibu? The concept behind building an artificial reef sounds simple enough: Take a section of coastline that’s relatively poor for surfing and, as long as the spot has access to some swell, build a sizeable structure that can “trick” those wasted waves into breaking efficiently enough for a decent ride.
With a few Volkswagen Bus-sized rocks or sandbags and a keen insight concerning local swells, tides and underwater geography, it sounds entirely believable that one could create a surf break out of almost nothing at any beach of their choosing—complete, of course, with the flawless waves that float through any surfer’s typical daydreams.
“It’s the kind of stuff you draw on your Pee-Chee folder when you’re kid,” says Keith Whitmer, the coach of the surf team at Palos Verdes High School, who adds that he and his athletes once laid out tentative plans to build their own break using discarded bricks dropped at low tide at an undisclosed spot. “It’s the little kid in you that has this romantic notion of perfect, uncrowded waves all to yourself with just you, your buddies and your mom paddling out with pancakes on a surfboard.”
Homemade pancakes aside, the appeal of wave enhancement—and the economic and environmental benefits that go along with it—spurred a number of artificial reef projects of varying sizes throughout the world during the last decade. These include Narrowneck Reef along the Gold Coast of Australia, Mount Reef in New Zealand and Bournemouth Reef in Boscombe, U.K. But the first artificial surfing reef in North America was built here in the South Bay back in 2000, and as a direct result of its construction and eventual failure, regulatory agencies now view natural surf breaks as finite recreational resources worthy of protection.
Throughout the last century in California, a number of notable surf breaks have been lost due to coastal development. Stanley’s Diner, Killer Dana and Corona Del Mar State Beach were all significant breaks that served as pivotal facets of surfing culture and history—their loss as surf spots is still something that’s mourned by the California surf community. The destruction of these breaks, along with other environmental issues involving ocean pollution and extensive coastal developments, motivated a group of surfers in Malibu to ban together and form Surfrider Foundation in 1984.
At around the same time, Chevron approached the California Coastal Commission for permission to build a 900-foot groin in front of its El Segundo refinery in order to protect the refinery’s marine terminal and underwater pipelines from powerful El Niño winter storms. The recently formed Surfrider Foundation argued that the groin would ruin the surf in the area, particularly at a spot near a jetty north of the refinery called Grand Avenue.
Though the groin was eventually approved and the surf at Grand was ruined, Surfrider was able to pursue a policy of mitigation: The Coastal Commission mandated that Chevron had to pay $300,000 for the construction of an artificial surfing reef to replace what was lost.
“It was kind of a moral victory, in a sense,” says Chad Nelsen, environmental director of Surfrider, “because it was really the first time that the Coastal Commission really recognized a surfing area as a recreational resource worth protecting.”
Surfrider was able to acquire a temporary 10-year permit to construct a manmade surf-ing reef that would eventually be located north of the groin. It was designed to be temporary so it could be easily removed in case there were unforeseen problems, such as issues involving swimming hazards, erosion or any possible environmental concerns.
David Skelly, the coastal engineer who designed the reef, considered it a victory that they were able to successfully navigate “through the maze of permitting.” The construction process required numerous permits on both the local, state and federal levels, including permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, LA County Department of Beaches and Harbors and others.
Construction on the reef—which was named in honor of Surfrider Foundation’s first executive director, Tom Pratte—began in 2000. More than 100 geotextile sandbags made from woven polypropylene were dropped off Dockweiler Beach into approximately 15 feet of water to form a V-shaped reef.
The spot was monitored constantly in the beginning, and it was determined almost immediately that the reef wasn’t effective in generating anything above a minor ripple. In 2001, Surfrider was able to secure $250,000 from the California Coastal Conservancy to drop an additional 90 bags.
But it still wasn’t enough. Chad adds that during winter storms, naturally-made sandbars dwarfed the reef and often buried it entirely. Compared to these sandbars, Pratte’s was “a molehill amongst mountains.”
In 2008, after years of minimal wave activity, Surfrider began working on removing the reef. The majority of the bags were finally removed in 2010, and it was ultimately determined that the reef neither positively nor negatively affected the surf in the area. Critics of the reef believed that its design was flawed—it was far too small and would have needed to be increased dramatically in size for anything to actually break.
David believed Pratte’s was always meant to be a work in progress, something that was experimental in nature and needed to be tweaked accordingly over time by adding more bags or making the structure permanent in order to improve results. “I always thought we were going to add to it,” he says.
He went on to say that breaks like Trestles are acres in length, and in order for Pratte’s to succeed, it would have needed much more material. “It was just too small for the waves to see,” says David. “The volume of material that we put out there was roughly the volume of a brick beach restroom.”
“You don’t go to the moon with your first rocket,” says Craig B. Leidersdorf, principal and co-founder of Coastal Frontiers Corporation. His company was in charge of removing the reef, which ended up being tricky. Many of the bags were buried underneath the sea bottom, and some had been torn apart by repeated wave action.
The removal process of Pratte’s ended up costing the same amount as it took to construct the reef in the first place. Craig believed that the total budget for the construction was “woefully inadequate for the task. It’d be like saying, ‘I have a million dollars; can you send me to the moon?’ It’s a great idea and sounds like a lot of money, but when you look at the total cost of the project, it’s not near enough to do it properly.”
In comparison, the Bournemouth Reef in Boscombe, U.K.—Europe’s first artificial surfing reef—cost around £3.2 million (more than $5 million) to build.
“Would bigger be better? I’m not sure if that would’ve solved the problem,” says Chad. He notes that many of the other artificial reefs throughout the world, from Mount Reef to Bournemouth Reef, were far larger than Pratte’s but still, as of yet, have not delivered waves that are suitable for surfing. Most of the time, the waves are much too steep, making them much more ideal for boogieboarding.
Chad points out that the science behind manmade reefs is still relatively new and that engineers are still trying to fully comprehend what is needed for positioning and design in order to create desirable surfing waves. “If you don’t have the right preconditioning, you won’t have the right set-up,” he says.
However, a number of locals were opposed to the idea of the reef right from the start. Tom Seth, a local surfer and waterman, saw the project as being invasive. “My feeling at the time was: Why not put it in Torrance? Why not do it where you surf?”
Individuals involved with the reef were not from the immediate area, which led some locals to view the project as a means to draw unwelcome crowds to take advantage of dwindling surf resources in an already heavily populated beach community. Tom notes that the surf spots near Pratte’s, which oftentimes can be fickle as compared to nearby breaks like El Porto, are rewarding and offer excellent waves—especially if one expends the necessary time and energy to fully comprehend what they require to break.
In an interesting twist, the 900-foot groin built by Chevron accidentally created a surf spot over time. The north side of the groin offers a challenging left known as Hammerland, which despite being tide- and swell-sensitive, can deliver an excellent wave. “The spots that don’t break often, you really have to be on top of it to know about it,” says Tom. “They’re like gold.”
But Pratte’s, if it succeeded, threatened to introduce a potential flood of people to these breaks—people who might not have put in the necessary work to understand what it takes to surf these spots. Much of this concern stemmed from the perception many locals had about the kind of waves Pratte’s was going to produce. Many thought they were getting some sort ideal wave machine right in their own backyard.
“We thought we were getting our own little Swami’s Reef put in the South Bay,” says Dennis Jarvis, owner and founder of Spyder Surfboards. But when Pratte’s failed to produce anything worth riding, there was a general feeling that the project had been a waste of time and funds. Dennis points out that even though the groin accidentally created some surf, Hammerland is more of a break for experienced surfers, so the average surfer gained nothing from the whole affair.
Things might have occurred a little differently had the local surfing community had a larger stake in providing more input concerning the placement of the reef. “In my opinion only, everyone was looking at the Surfrider Foundation as big brother taking care of his little South Bay guys who got robbed,” says Dennis. “No one was having pyramid parties to raise money for it; we were just waiting for this gift.”
Though Pratte’s is considered a failure, it proved to be a valuable learning experience for Surfrider Foundation and for engineers who specialize in building artificial surfing reefs. “The thing with Pratte’s Reef was a lesson here,” says Chad. “Now we can really say, ‘Hey, mitigation is not the answer for surfing, and we’re going to fight long and hard to not let these waves get destroyed.’”
Another important lesson was in defining success—chiefly, focusing on ensuring that the waves that could be potentially produced were realistically portrayed in advance. “The expectations due to press were blown up , and we could never really reel it all back in,” says David.
The science behind building artificial reefs is still in an early stage, but there’s a great deal of hope that with new technological innovations and proper funding, one day organizations like Surfrider can create artificial reefs that produce excellent surfing waves. Despite Pratte’s and other unsuccessful projects, the allure of creating a manmade reef hasn’t faded at all.
“It’s the siren’s song,” says Craig.
As LAX and local residents dispute proposed runway expansions, another neighborhood on the fringe of the airport comes to mind—one that, sadly, no longer exists. Beginning in the 1960s, LAX growth slowly eclipsed an enclave of beautiful homes overlooking Dockweiler Beach in El Segundo, leaving behind the ghostly remains of a forgotten community. We revisit the Surfridge neighborhood more than 30 years after its demise with this cautionary tale of progress, heartbreak and
a faint a glimmer of hope.