As someone who's been involved in standup paddling since the early years, I've watched the sport grow in ways I'd never imagined. Except in the way that means the most to me. While new breeds of watermen and women are discovering our Blue Planet's almost unlimited possibilities for paddling—open ocean, bays, channels estuaries, rivers, lakes, harbors, canals, lagoons—opportunities for expression in the watery region that gave birth to the sport seem to be shrinking. I'm talking about the surf zone. In some weird form of inverse evolution, as more and more people start standup surfing, there seems to be less and less places to do it.
When contrasted against the wide-open field of the Molokai Channel or the lovely expanse of, say, Lake Tahoe, standup surfers appear all bunched up at the precious few SUP-friendly surf spots where they can still ply their paddles without recrimination from conventional wave riders. Plenty has been written about the rifts between SUP and LDS (lay down surfers). And so far as I'm concerned, it all stems from very basic primate behavior. Watch for violent discord within a troop of chimpanzees and it's invariably triggered by an easily categorized set of behaviors. Apparently your average chimp gets very uptight when another chimp a) stands over them, b) brandishes some sort of weapon, and c) exhibits the use of tools to gain an advantage in resource gathering. Sound familiar? But while mock charges and aggressive genital displays might prove effective for our Congo cousins, the same techniques would hardly be appropriate at C-Street, even if you could pull your wetsuit down far enough. Suffice it to say that we get it: there's not enough surf to go around. It seems obvious that in order for the surfing aspect of the sport to grow, we need more waves. So why don't we make them?
The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Making waves has long been the dream of surfers who've been whining about over-crowded lineups since the big surf boom of the early 1960s. And believe me, it's been tried. Big Surf Arizona, the world's first truly functional wave pool, first pushed its plunger way back in 1968, and there's been plenty of chlorinated wet dream machines constructed since, with most producing perfectly rideable, perfectly average waves at the push of a button. Look at Orlando's Typhoon Lagoon, a 2.75 million gallon wave pool more than an hour's drive from the ocean. It's Florida's most consistent surf spot. But even though surfers like to dream about a plastic Pipeline, the concept of fake waves has never caught on. If it had, the ASP World Surfing Tour would be traveling the world on a Princess Cruise liner, riding endless tubes on the mizzen deck's Flowrider Wave Machine.
No, for standup surfing to really take off, fake waves aren't the answer. We need to make new waves, or, more specifically, make new surf spots. And to do that we may just need to turn to California surfers Chris Jensen and Nick Behunin, co-owners of ASR, a innovative coastal planning and development company whose work in sustainable coastal management and erosion control has produced a remarkable by-product: man-made surf spots.
Technically they're called "multi-purpose reefs" insofar as they were primarily designed to break up destructive onshore wave action while encouraging new habitat development. No easy trick, but ASR claims to have successfully cracked the code.
“It's a ton of research, analyzing everything from swell patterns, sand transportation and tidal flux to the entire eco-system of the surrounding area,” explains Jensen. “Once our scientists and engineers—most of them surfers— have that all figured out, we take tons of sand and fill huge geo-textile containers, strategically aligning and attaching them to the seafloor with anchor blocks. Imagine a row of 140-foot busses filled with sand—they're not going anywhere. Natural sand accumulation occurs, marine algae and plant life begins to grow, the fish move in almost immediately and, before you know it, you have a reef.”
That’s great for the starfish, but to us the most intriguing 'purpose' results from ASR's ability to coax rideable surfing waves out of nondescript beach break. Like Kovalam, India, the site of ASR's most successful MPR to date where, along with saving the resort town's severely eroded beach boardwalk Jensen, Behunin and their team of egghead engineers produced a tubing left that any surfer would love to lay his blade into.
Of course ASR's efforts to save our coastlines through better surf spots is still in its early stages—they're currently in discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers to put a reef in at the now-defunct Oil Piers surf spot in Ventura County. And there have been a few hiccups along the way (ASR built a reef in Boscombe, England that, to the consternation of the resident population of middle-aged longboarders, produced a slabby barrel that has since been taken over by bodyboarders). But the technology is there to build new setups. Maybe not new Pipeline's or Teahupoos, but certainly new San Onofres. And think of what that could mean to the sport: a series of designated SUP-only breaks up and down the West, East and Gulf coasts, where the Way of the Paddle could flourish far from the closed minds at more conventional, crowded breaks.
I think the entire SUP industry should get behind ASR's efforts, lobbying coastal municipal governments to embrace the idea of making waves for a change.
"Multi-purpose reefs are good for the environment, good for the economy and good for surfing," asserts Jensen. " We just need to educate enough people, to build popular support not only for the concept but the entire ecological philosophy, and we could see these reefs up and down our coastlines and around the world. That's ASR's master goal. Plenty of surfers know how to take waves. We want to make waves."
To see video of the Kovalam wave and learn more about ASR's multi-purpose reefs go to www.asrltd.com
This originally ran in our Winter 2011 issue.