It’s a bright Sunday morning in the Bournemouth suburb of Boscombe. Despite a chill easterly wind, the scene reminds me of a quintessential Californian surf town. Couples and families promenade to the end of Boscombe’s pier while skateboarders carve slick lines along what ought to be renamed “the Boardwalk”. With a surf school and shop, chic restaurant and even that rarity on a British beach, public showers, the vibe is relaxed, cool and healthy.
But impressive though the beachside hubbub of activity is, I’m more interested in what’s happening out at sea. There, more than 200m away and marked by 10 coloured buoys, is the long-mooted, much-discussed and recently unveiled Boscombe artificial surf reef, the first to be built in the northern hemisphere. This weekend it plays host to another first – its inaugural surfing festival. Some of Europe’s best surfers and bodyboarders will be in town to test the reef in a series of contests, but unfortunately, as I gaze seawards, the similarity with California ends. Instead of paradisiacal surfing waves, there is merely mushy, unsurfable white water.
This doesn’t surprise me. The way in which the £3m council-owned reef was built means that it will only create decent waves when there is a solid groundswell from the west, rather than, as on the weekend of my visit, an easterly windswell. But this begs another question, one that, since the reef’s official launch in November 2009, plenty of people have been asking: how often will the reef work? And, more to the point, was it worth the money?
“The reef does work,” says Shaun Taylor, owner of the Sorted Surf Shop and organiser of the surfing festival. “With the right conditions there is a fast, punchy wave, but people need to understand that it’s not a machine. You can’t just turn a switch and create surfing perfection. Surfing is always dependent on a number of variables.”
Seasoned surfers would agree. Perhaps more than any other sport, surfing is only possible at the whim of the elements, when tide, swell and wind coalesce. The trouble is that while, for example, it’s a dead cert that you’ll score great waves if you travel to Hawaii in the winter, no one has ever put Bournemouth in a list of world top 10 surf spots. In fact, even its diehard, longstanding local surfing community would hesitate to put it in a top 100. Bournemouth is simply too far up the English Channel to receive the full benefit of the Atlantic depressions that make for such good waves further west, off the coasts of Devon and Cornwall.
So why build a multi-million pound artificial reef there? A clue comes from Guy Penwarden, a former member of the British surfing team and arguably the area’s most respected surfer. Penwarden, a Bournemouth resident since 1971, has nothing but praise for the reef: “I welcome it with open arms. Boscombe was neglected for years – we used to call it Bogtown. No one is lamenting the end of Bogtown. The area needed a boost and hopefully the reef will help it on its way.”
Tony Williams, Bournemouth council’s executive director for the environment and economy, confirms that regeneration underpins the surf reef project. “The idea began 10 years ago when Boscombe was showing significant signs of social and economic deterioration. We had to think of a way to improve the area, at a time when Britain had turned away from the sea.”
The result was a comprehensive scheme whose first step was the sale of an unused seafront car park to Barratt Homes for almost £10m. The council used the incoming funds to renovate Boscombe Pier, provide new toilets, improve roads and implement a seasonal park-and-ride service. It also commissioned one of only four artificial surf reefs across the globe – the others being at Narrowneck, Queensland; Cables, Western Australia; and Mount Maunganui, New Zealand. Into the bargain, the council gave the Overstrand building, originally used by 1960s beach goers, a makeover.
But this wasn’t just any old makeover. It was led by Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway, the creators of the Red or Dead fashion brand, who designed small “beach pods” that can be used as a base during a day’s surfing. The pods sell from £64,000 for a single, or can be rented by the week (£85-£250, depending on season). That sort of money is likely to be out of most surfers’ budgets, but the pods provide a perfect view of the reef, itself a collection of 55 giant sandbags which together take up the size of a football pitch.
According to its builders, ASR Marine Consultants, the reef’s mechanics are simple: it acts as a ramp, pushing existing waves upwards and shaping them into better-quality surfing waves which, given the reef’s south west-facing position, will produce waves which break from left to right for between 50m to 70m. Or, in surf-speak, Boscombe is now capable of serving up the kind of reeling right-handers often seen at Santa Monica.
Waves are nowhere to be seen during my visit, but they are at least visible on a television screen in the bar of the Urban Beach Hotel, just a few minutes’ walk from the water, where a young, hip crowd is enjoying a film featuring American surfer Rob Machado. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, the food is good and the cocktails are mouthwatering. It’s all, says owner Mark Cribb, a world away from the Boscombe of just two years ago: “You can’t imagine what this place was like. There was a very bad drug and alcohol problem. It wasn’t derelict but it was heading that way. It wasn’t safe to walk along the seafront.”
Back at the Sorted Surf Shop, Taylor agrees. “This place was grim,” he says, “but look at it now. Whatever anyone says about the reef, it’s hugely improved the quality of life in Boscombe and is having a knock-on effect for Bournemouth, too.”
I look out to sea. The wind has increased, diminishing the wave quality even further. With rumours that some of the sandbags on the seabed have moved, it might be better to regard the reef as a work in progress rather than the finished article. Williams confirms that a full report on the reef’s operation is in the offing. And yet, if surfing nirvana on the south coast remains an imponderable, there are still 20 to 30 hopeful surfers in the water.
As I look at the reef, I can imagine that, with a solid westerly groundswell and favourable wind, reeling right-handers would arrive and make for excellent rides. Indeed, I could just as easily be standing on a Californian boardwalk, except, on this quintessentially British surfing day, for one thing: the waves – or, rather, the lack of them. All the money and artificial reefs in the world won’t solve the fact that surfing is one of the most enjoyable, and yet fickle, sports you can do.
Alex Wade is author of ‘Surf Nation: In Search of the Fast Lefts and Hollow Rights of Britain and Ireland’ (Simon & Schuster)