Page last updated at 21:36 GMT, Tuesday, 19 August 2008 22:36 UK

Bournemouth makes waves with surf plan

By Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News, Bournemouth

Surfers and swimmers on Boscombe beach
Bournemouth does not see itself competing directly with Cornwall

A balloon promoting the local Wave FM radio station hangs languidly over the centre of Bournemouth.

Soon the town will be hoping to make a few waves of its own as it looks forward to finally welcoming Europe's first artificial surf reef.

The plan to build the reef off Boscombe beach, just over a mile east of the town's main seafront, was first mooted nearly a decade ago.

Weather permitting, the structure should finally be installed by the end of October, although Mother Nature is currently refusing to co-operate.

"The weather has not been kind to us," says Jon Weaver, marketing and events manager at Bournemouth Tourism, reflecting on the recent windy conditions which have held up progress on the venture.

Praying for calm

All concerned with the 2.6m project are hoping for a calm spell to allow the main phase of the complex engineering process - in which layers of matting half the size of a football pitch, with sandbags attached, will be laid on to the sea bed and then secured - to begin.

"For laying each section of the reef, we need it perfectly flat," explains construction manager David Neilson.

He heads a team of divers, boat crew and pump operators who have come over from his native New Zealand to do the work.

Pile of sand on Boscombe beach waiting to be pumped
The sand pile is an eyesore but it is all being pumped out to sea soon

Having installed two artificial reefs back home, he knows the pitfalls involved and says he is having to contend with "lots of variables".

But he is confident it will be completed on schedule - the work will take up to eight weeks and his firm's contract with the town council stipulates that it must be finished by the end of 2008 - and will prove a success.

"If we get a break in the weather, I don't see a problem at all," he says, adding that the reef "should be the best so far" in the world.

Breaking the waves

Some of the more fevered speculation about the reef has claimed it will double the size of waves crashing onto the beach and bring a touch of Hawaii-style glamour to this rather genteel corner of the South Coast.

This is nonsense, David Neilson points out, stressing that - unlike a dry ski slope - the quality of surfing will still depend on the weather.

"The reef doesn't make waves. If there is no swell, it isn't going to do anything. It really breaks them where and how we want them."

Michael Walcroft, manager of the Sorted Surf Shop
It is a novelty thing. People will want to see what all the hype is about
Michael Walcroft, Sorted Surf Shop

Tidal and weather conditions mean that the best surfing will still be in the late autumn and early spring.

Experienced surfers guard against hype when talking about the reef and the quality of sport it will deliver.

But Andy Joyce, who runs the Bournemouth Surf School, says the experience should be quite "intense", with waves more than twice their current level of speed and power.

"It will basically focus the wave's energy, amplify it and ensure no loss of power," he says.

"You should get a more powerful, consistent wave and it will definitely improve the surfing we have got."

Not for beginners

Nearly 250m out from shore and not in shallow water, the new reef will not be suitable for beginners.

Likewise, professional surfers who go to Cornwall in peak summer and travel abroad during the winter in search of the best waves are unlikely to be lured to Bournemouth.

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An artist's impression shows how the surf reef will be made up of 55 sand-filled bags

But officials believe publicity about the reef and the town's proximity to London will attract families as well as experienced surfers of all ages.

"The real hard-core surfers will always go where the best waves are," admits Jon Weaver.

"But they are not the main market. It is the short, mid-week break where we will do well. We will offer that as an alternative to Cornwall."

With an extra 200,000 people expected to come to the town every year and 3m in added annual income, he is relishing the opportunity to sell Bournemouth to a different type of visitor.

Reinventing the town

More than 9m is being spent on Boscombe's seafront, with new restaurants and luxury beach huts designed by Wayne Hemingway.

Although the cost of the project has risen sharply from initial estimates, the outlay is being entirely covered by the sale of land nearby for flats.

More so than any other South coast resort, Bournemouth has succeeded in shaking off an image of blue-rinse, staid comfort in recent years.

The view down Boscombe Pier
The refurbished pier is a magnet for fishermen and photographers

But there remains a risk that by going after a younger breed of customer, Bournemouth could be alienating other visitors attracted more by its tranquillity and sea air than pounding waves.

Jon Weaver believes the two markets can co-exist side by side.

"We still have a very strong traditional guest-house market as well. I think the surfing market does have a wide appeal and there is little conflict between the two."

It seems the reef cannot arrive a minute too soon, given the explosion of interest in surfing in recent years.

More than 3,000 people have taken surfing lessons with Andy Joyce this year. His firm now employs 11 full and part-time staff, compared with just one other three years ago.

This boom is partly commercial, with large board and clothing manufacturers such as Billabong having to promote surfing to a wider market than before to drive their businesses forward.

But Andy Joyce believes it also reflects lifestyle changes.

"People are more interested in doing something good with their leisure time, rather than lying around on the beach drinking beer," he says.

"I think there has been a cultural shift in the past 10 years."

Golden and green?

While most agree the reef can only help the local economy and the town's image, the environmental implications are less clear-cut.

The council insists the project is "eco-friendly", will not use up energy and - if the experience of other artificial reefs is repeated - will actually enhance marine life in the area by creating a new habitat.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) accepts the plan could be "quite good" for marine diversity, but is worried about pollution from congestion.

"How will the extra people be catered for in terms of transport and getting them to the seafront?" says FoE's Mike Birkin.

New houses overlooking Boscombe beach
The reef and the wider regeneration is funded by the sale of land for houses

"There have been concerns about that, and that remains the case."

Worried about the reef's impact on coastal erosion, the Marine and Fisheries Agency conducted an extensive consultation on the scheme, holding it up for several years.

Opinion is currently divided on its merits, but supporters argue that man-made reefs could ultimately turn out to be a cost-effective form of protecting beaches and replenishing their sand.

"It is pretty well documented that groynes don't work as well as it is perceived," argues David Neilson of current measures.

"They have to replaced every so often and they are not that nice either."

Although it has been a long time in coming, there seems to be a genuine buzz of anticipation about the reef.

"People are going to travel from across the country to come here," says Michael Walcroft, manager of the Sorted Surf Shop, whose customer numbers have doubled in the past year.

"It is a novelty thing. They will want to see what all the hype is about."

First part of reef put on barge
06 Aug 08 |  Dorset
Cost of surf reef doubles
04 Jul 08 |  England

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