SURFERMAG.COM Interview: Prof. Kerry Black
Headquartered in Raglan, New Zealand, ASR/SPL stands for Artificial Surf Reefs/Surf Pools Limited. Headed by Dr. Kerry Black and Dr. Shaw Mead, these two oceanographers/engineers have a lot of letters after their names, and are leading their two companies to the cutting edge of artificial reef and artificial wave technology.
Here is some verbiage from their website: “Led by the world’s best and most experienced surfing reef designers, Prof. Kerry Black and Dr. Shaw Mead, the twin companies ASR and SPL have cracked the code of wave physics in pools for surfing. With worldwide patents issued and pending, SPL’s Wedge pool design and their fully adjustable, computer-controlled Versareef can deliver a full range of breaking waves from heavy barrels to soft beginner’s waves.” “We are building these for versatility in the pools,” says Black, “but our reef technology can be used in the ocean as well.” All of ASR/SPL’s technology is fully tested in their wave tank laboratory at Raglan, one of New Zealand’s most famous surfing towns. Learn more about ASR/SPL at www.asrltd.co.nz.
In July, as the first semi-boomer Southern Hemisphere swell of the season was flowing in from New Zealand, Dr. Kerry Black was flying the other way, from the boardrooms of the U-S-of-A back to his lab in New Zealand.
SURFERMAG.COM: Malibu has been 5 feet for the last couple of days, which just underscores the thought that what California and the world needs is not more reef, but more swell.
KERRY BLACK: Well, swell generation is a long way off, if ever. We’re focusing on focused reefs right now.
SURFERMAG.COM: Well if you guys ever build a machine down there in New Zealand that would generate non-stop, 6- to 8-foot Southern Hemisphere swell, I would like to buy some stock.
KERRY BLACK: Maybe off in the future.
SURFERMAG.COM: But for now you have been busy enough?
KERRY BLACK: I just got back to Raglan from New York. I was meeting with Surfparks at ADG about the final development of the pool. Financial and engineering meetings.
SURFERMAG.COM: What is ADG?
KERRY BLACK: Aquatic Development Group. They make all the wave generation equipment and we do all the surfing reef aspects. We’ve got a partnership with ADG to develop the pools together.
SURFERMAG.COM: Are they American?
KERRY BLACK: They are in Albany, in upstate New York.
SURFERMAG.COM: Is that Jamie Meiselman and those guys?
KERRY BLACK: No, Jamie represents an investment group called Surfparks who are developing the pools as a business. The technology comes from us. The reef system and the shape of the pool comes from Surf Pools Limited, which is another arm of our company. And the wave-generation machinery comes from ADG.
SURFERMAG.COM: The first of these pools is planned for Orlando, Florida, is that right?
KERRY BLACK: Yeah, the first one is looking like Florida, although there’s a lot of activity in Australia and in Britain as well.
SURFERMAG.COM: How is this different from other wave pools?
KERRY BLACK: In really simple terms the basic difference is it has a really good reef in it. Every surfer knows if you have bad sandbanks and a bad reef, you’re not going to get a good wave. The shape of the reef has been taken from our studies of surfing reefs and a lot of numerical modeling and a lot of laboratory work. There are seven or eight years of hardcore research into what constitutes a great surfing reef.
SURFERMAG.COM: What is your connection with that project?
KERRY BLACK: We are the “brains” on the pool and Versareef technology. We also own some of the investment company Surfparks LLC.
SURFERMAG.COM: What is the status of the surf park in Florida?
KERRY BLACK: Really good. We should have the first pool running by Christmas.
SURFERMAG.COM: If you could model the reef at Stockton Avenue and make a bunch of those waves around the world, you’d make a lot of money and a lot of people happy.
KERRY BLACK: Stockton Avenue is kind of the perfect size; it’s feasible for construction. You can make any reef — you could make another Malibu or Raglan — but the cost would be really high. We did a lot of surveying of reefs, Shaw Mead went around the Pacific taking the shape of the world’s best surfing reefs. I went along on some of those and we didn’t get all of them of course but a lot of them, in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Hawaii, California and Brazil. And we know what the seabed looks like under those waves.
SURFERMAG.COM: Do you think the world is jumpy about investing time and money into artificial reefs because of the failure of Pratte’s Reef?
KERRY BLACK: Pratte’s Reef didn’t really make the grade as a reef and yet there’s been so much talk about it that everyone would think that artificial reefs don’t work. In reality it was just a few sandbags dropped on the sand. The reality is you can’t build a reef for $300,000 or $500,000. I really don’t know why it went forward at all. It’s just too small. The cost of a reef in round figures is a million dollars. And the other problem with Pratte’s Reef is it was just too small. The Gold Coast Reef is 130,000 cubic meters and I think Pratte’s Reef was 1,000 or 1,500 cubic meters — so it was a hundredth the size.
SURFERMAG.COM: The reef in Queensland, is that your first operating, functioning reef that has created a breaking wave?
KERRY BLACK: Yeah, that is the first one that was multi-purpose. The Queensland Reef was built for coastal protection and for surfing.
SURFERMAG.COM: Coastal protection how?
KERRY BLACK: We started all this not so much from a surfing perspective — well, surfing was a key element, eh? — but from coastal protection. When you drop a reef down on the seabed it knocks the wave energy down and that protects the coast from erosion. About half of our projects are primarily for coastal protection, and then surfing is added as a bonus. The other half of our projects are primarily for surfing, and coastal protection is a bonus. The coastal protection side of the Gold Coast reef was the dominant driver of that project and then we put surfing on that reef so it was the first-ever multi-purpose artificial reef structure.
SURFERMAG.COM: How much area is it supposed to protect along the coast?
KERRY BLACK: The reef acts like an offshore groin so it protects quite a lot of the beach and holds the sand right along the Surfer’s Paradise foreshore. It’s been independently monitored — nothing to do with us — by a university in Australia with video cameras looking down on it all the time. They analyze the beach changes with video cameras and I regularly get back reports on that reef. It’s been a complete success with beach protection.
SURFERMAG.COM: How much did that one cost?
KERRY BLACK: About two and a half million Australian.
SURFERMAG.COM: And it’s made of bags?
KERRY BLACK: Yeah, it’s made of geotextile sandbags.
SURFERMAG.COM: And they stay put?
KERRY BLACK: Yeah, no problem, they stay put.
SURFERMAG.COM: How many square meters?
KERRY BLACK: We designed the reef but we didn’t construct it. In my design I put the reef spanning from 10.4 meters of water depth up to 3 meters depth. It’s a very big structure. A world first. Most artificial reefs being put down now by us are 15,000 to 20,000 cubic meters, but Narrowneck was closer to 130,000. It was designed to be laid down at a 10-meter depth with a big front to focus the wave energy up into a peak. That focus is working really well, although the reef is still deeper than the design called for.
We rank our reefs from one to 10. Ten being unbelievably heavy to surf. Places like Pipeline are in the 7 to 8 range. Narrowneck was designed to be a 6 or 7 and it’s currently breaking around 4 or 5 on a good swell.
Still, the locals were raving about it and I saw some really good rides. But it’s deeper than it was designed and they’re still putting bags on the top. It’s a really good wave but it’s not as reliable as it would be if it was built all the way up to the top. So the construction has been very, very slow and it’s been split over several years and it was all meant to be done in one hit, but budget reasons have caused them to spread it over several years.
SURFERMAG.COM: This Mount Maunganui reef, is it the first being built specifically for surfing?
KERRY BLACK: Yeah, it’s the first one we’ve done specifically for surfing, yeah. There is another reef in West Australia that was designed for surfing as well, that I didn’t do.
SURFERMAG.COM: Two questions: Of all the reefs you have surveyed and/or surfed, which is your favorite? And if you had unlimited money and unlimited clout and you could build any reef anywhere you wanted in the world, where would it be and what would it be like?
KERRY BLACK: I reckon my favorite reef in the world is Impossibles in Bali, just a big down-the-line left that just grinds off. There’s a couple of reefs in West Australia, like Red Bluff is one of my favorites.
As for the second question: If I had unlimited money I wouldn’t build one reef but 10 reefs doing 10 different things, eh? One for heavy barrels, one heavy takeoff, one easier wave and one with a lot of cutbacks. That’s what I would do, if it was me.
SURFERMAG.COM: Where would you do it?
KERRY BLACK: Obviously you’d build it on a coastline that gets a lot of swell, so the West Coast of New Zealand or Northern California. I’d build it around behind a headland that filters out all the chop and cleans up the swell. Somewhere like Raglan — it’s a world-class wave that’s right near our office. It’s on the inside of a headland and it can be messy out at sea but by the time the waves wrap into the headland it’s nice and clean.
SURFERMAG.COM: Man is good at creating waves accidentally but not so good at creating them on purpose. Around the world and other places you’ve been: Good waves that have been created by accident?
KERRY BLACK: Yeah, for sure, Ala Moana was created by accident, that boat channel they dredged had an impact on the wave there. What about the Superbank in Queensland? It wasn’t exactly created by accident but it’s a result of man’s dredging program. There are breaks where human interference doesn’t work and breaks where it does.
SURFERMAG.COM: Narrowneck Reef is your first artificial reef. What is coming up next?
KERRY BLACK: We are finalizing technology decisions for the pools over the next three months with a full-scale model of the entire system here in Raglan. Beyond that, six reefs are being constructed in the ocean in the next 15 months by ASR. Mount Reef is first on the construction list. You can read about it on www.mountreef.co.nz.
SURFERMAG.COM: Mount Maunganui.
KERRY BLACK: We have been working on that location for a long time — more than nine years — but we have finally received the clearances and raised the money to build the reef. We are ordering the bags and pulling in the construction teams now, and should be starting the construction in October. And this time we’ll be managing the construction.
SURFERMAG.COM: How big is that reef going to be?
KERRY BLACK: 6,500 cubic meters, so it’s in the small range, but not tiny. Big enough to be a really good break.
SURFERMAG.COM: What is after that?
KERRY BLACK: After that we’ve got one in southern India, hopefully in December, but it may be early next year.
KERRY BLACK: Yeah, southwest India in Kerala. We’re just about to sign the final agreement. The plan is to build it in December, but you never know for sure due to construction delays and weather.
SURFERMAG.COM: Is that a coastal protection reef?
KERRY BLACK: It’s a surfing reef with the coastal protection combined. This part of India is just across the water from Sri Lanka and all surfers know about Sri Lanka and Maldives. Well this part of India gets the same swell. We know a lot about the wave climate. I’ve spent a lot of time there myself, it’s clean offshore winds for about eight months out of the year, just like Sri Lanka and the Maldives. It gets the same swells
SURFERMAG.COM: Who is financing that?
KERRY BLACK: The state government, inspired by a combination of coastal protection and tourism.
SURFERMAG.COM: Trying to attract surfers?
KERRY BLACK: Yeah, they’ve seen what Sri Lanka is doing and Maldives is doing.
SURFERMAG.COM: Nick Carroll wrote an article about the Superbank that said it was worth millions to the local economy.
KERRY BLACK: I think that’s what this part of India is hoping for.
SURFERMAG.COM: How much is that one going to cost?
KERRY BLACK: About $800,000.
So that’s December. Two days ago we got the final go-ahead for a reef at Opunake on the west coast of New Zealand. We’ve been working on that project for seven years. We got the environmental approval a few days ago and it’s to be built in February, in New Zealand.
SURFERMAG.COM: Where is that?
KERRY BLACK: It’s on the North Island on the big bump that sticks out in New Zealand. It’s a really good surfing area. Taranaki, south of Raglan.
SURFERMAG.COM: So New Zealand, India …
KERRY BLACK: And there’s another one at Wellington in New Zealand but it’s looking a bit rocky on the financing at the moment. We’ve got a meeting going in April but we’ll wait and see. Then in July we’ve got Oil Piers in Ventura County.
SURFERMAG.COM: The Oil Piers location is nice. There’s an access road, there is parking. There isn’t a lot going on around there so it will be good for surfers.
KERRY BLACK: I haven’t had as much to do with that one. Shaw Mead has done most of the work.
SURFERMAG.COM: That’s on for sure?
KERRY BLACK: Yeah, I believe so. There’s still a few loose ends outstanding but we have the intention of building that next year.
SURFERMAG.COM: Who is paying for that one?
KERRY BLACK: The Army Corps of Engineers. They asked for innovative ideas for improved ways to protect the coast. It was a worldwide competition asking for proposals. We got short-listed to three and then were given the go-ahead.
SURFERMAG.COM: Oil Piers is more coastal protection than recreation?
KERRY BLACK: Yeah, it’s primarily coastal protection but its surfing is a major bonus.
SURFERMAG.COM: You’re just trying to take the energy out of waves coming through, right? The ACE don’t care what shape they are in.
KERRY BLACK: Yes, our reefs are preferable to breakwalls or rip rap. No one wants rock and construction along their beaches, so our idea is to build an offshore reef that is hidden from sight, that takes the energy out of swell before it can reach shore. So if you have a reef there you might as well get some really good surfing on it because you’re adding a lot of value for the money you are spending.
You know, I started this whole thing when I was a professor at the University of Waikato, to find better solutions to dropping concrete on our beaches. There’s no need to do that, then it shouldn’t be done. The reef at Oil Piers is designed to do two things. It knocks down the wave height but also rotates the waves and this then slows the littoral drift of sand — which moves along the coast from west to east. What drives the movement of sand is the waves arriving at an angle to the beach. By rotating the waves out on the reef we align the waves to hit the beach straighter.
SURFERMAG.COM: Any idea where Oil Piers rates on your 1-to-10 reef scale?
KERRY BLACK: It’s in the 5 to 6 range.
SURFERMAG.COM: The construction of Oil Piers is set for July of 2006?
KERRY BLACK: We are shooting for the summer of 2006, and then the last reef on the list is Bournemouth in England in September of next year.
SURFERMAG.COM: Possibly a dumb question, but when you think of waves like Sandspit, Wedge, the Santa Cruz Harbor, the Newport Jetties and Mission Beach, it seems like jetties and harbor entrances work pretty well for creating artificial waves. Why not build those?
KERRY BLACK: Because they can have a negative effect on the coast. When you get a big storm you get a lot of buildup of sand on one side of the jetty and a lot of current on the other side. Jetties are unsophisticated structures, but we can do it a lot better. We’re into really sophisticated science backing us up now. We have really good computer models and sophisticated construction techniques and we can’t ignore all that knowledge. No one uses a canoe to get to into space and we don’t use random structures to make surfing waves when custom design is possible.
SURFERMAG.COM: The present sounds busy and good. What about the future? Maybe New Zealand should start exporting swell and they wouldn’t have to rely on wool.
KERRY BLACK: In the surfing pools, we have both reef and constant swell using the wave generators. Maybe one day we can funnel natural wave energy onto particular reefs and increase the size a lot. Shaw Mead’s work has shown that the big-wave locations on the South Island of NZ are there because of long reefs running way out to sea that focus the swell. Even at my place at Ekas (in Lombok, Indonesia, www.heavenontheplanet.co.nz), we surveyed the shape of the reef and found good waves are there because the offshore reef focuses swell over about a kilometer onto the break with a clean peak.
ASR and SPL are planning to never stop developing so we are really looking forward to the future. But first, we want to get some of the planned reefs built now that the science investigation, engineering development and preparation is done. Next year should be really exciting for surfers and we are definitely planning to party.