Five Man-Made Waves That Changed Surfing

Matt Rode

by on

Updated 359d ago

We surfers spend a lot of time and energy protesting coastal development—at least when it threatens the waves that we love.

When our home break is in danger of being altered or destroyed, we are the most ardent of environmentalists, throwing our support behind ocean- and surf-focused non-profits like Surfrider and Save the Waves.

Sometimes we succeed in protecting spots, and other times we don’t. But one thing is universal: When development destroys a surf spot, we make sure that everyone knows about it. Damn the man who built the dam!

But what about when development actually creates waves? On rare occasion, an engineering project will change the ocean bathymetry for the better, creating a fortuitous break in natural symmetry that allows for the formation of a quality wave.

Man hasn’t yet figured out how to make a good wave on purpose (at least not in the ocean), but there have been a handful of happy accidents—and you can be sure the surfers paddling out at these spots aren’t waving protest signs. Here’s a list of five man-made waves that changed surfing—and that you might not even have realized aren’t natural.

Ala Moana Bowls

© 2019 - Stokered.

Arguably the best south swell wave on Oahu, Bowls is exactly that—a lefthand roll-in to barreling bowl that spits its guts out into the channel running along the south side of Magic Island.

When Bowls turns on, half the population of Oahu is on it. But many are so focused on the sapphire tubes that they fail to notice the wave was created when a pass was dredged in the reef to create safe access to Ala Wai Harbor. (Ironically, another nearby barrel was destroyed by development around the same time.)

So next time you are getting blown out of a beauty at Ala Moana Bowls, wave to the passing boats and give a nod to the City of Honolulu’s team of engineers, who built your playground.

The Superbank

© 2019 - Juan Medina.

Back in the early 1990s, Coolangatta was home to three neighboring, high-quality righthand point breaks: Snapper Rocks, Greenmount, and Kirra. Along with nearby Burleigh Heads, these waves essentially put the Gold Coast city on the map. But in 1995, the local government built the Tweed River sand bypass system, which pumped sand out of the mouth of Tweed River to the northern beaches in order to stabilise coastal erosion and keep the river mouth safe for boat passage.

The relocated sand began to drift with swells and currents, and 10 years later had extended the area beaches nearly 200 meters in some cases. Technically speaking, this destroyed a world-class wave, as what used to be Kirra is now covered in sandy sunbathers.

But many of the locals don’t really mind, because the ultimate sandbar (known as the “Superbank”) now extends from the top of Snapper Rocks, through Rainbow Bay to Greenmount, and past Coolangatta Beach and Kirra, providing potential rides in excess of two kms. While the bank changes with the seasons, when it’s perfect, people are said to have scored two-minute rides from the top of Snapper all the way through Kirra. The most amazing part? Making it that far without getting burned by the hundreds of hungry surfers who crowd the Superbank whenever it breaks.


© 2019 - Eric Elliott Photography.

Most of surfing’s favorite mistakes involve sand, and Sandspit is no exception. In 1929, a breakwater was built to protect the Santa Barbara Harbor, and over time the natural north-to-south flow of sand was interrupted.

That sand had to go somewhere, and that somewhere was the west side of the breakwater. Today, on the rarest of huge west swells, the accidental sandbar known a Sandspit turns into a mutant, below-sea-level freak of a righthander—the prize of Santa Barbara County. Crowded? Frustratingly. Plagued by backwash? Infamously. One of the best waves in California? Definitely.

Your local sand bar
While not every beach break was created by man, many of our favourites are the result of development. Without some sort of external factor influencing the shape of sand, most open beach breaks will end up with straight, closed-out bars—no fun at all for surfing.

It takes an anomaly of some sort to sculpt the sand into a surfable bank. Natural factors like river mouths, points, and large rocks can do the trick, but more often than not it's a manmade element that ends up creating our best waves, such as a jetty, pier, or breakwall. While your local beachie might not be perfect everyday, when it turns on, you likely have a bunch of non-surfing engineers to thank (along with a little help from mother nature).

Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch

The only wave on this list that was created intentionally, Slater’s brainchild broke the Internet when it was revealed in December of 2015, and changed the way we looked at wave pools forever. Built in a modified wakeboarding pool located in Lemoore, California—hundreds of miles from the ocean, surrounded by dairy farms and not much else—the Surf Ranch is one of the most exclusive, sought-after experiences on the planet, serving up seemingly endless barrels to those lucky enough to score an invite.

The wave is continually being tweaked, with recent upgrades including a variety of sections, and a left-breaking wave in addition to the original righthander. The World Surf League bought Slater’s technology last year, and is planning to add a world tour event at the Surf Ranch in 2018. Commercial Surf Ranches are also in the works, so it won’t be long before everyone can sample the best man-made wave on the planet.