Fight ongoing to restore Kirra’s waves

Ben Smith and staff writersKirra-colourised

The surf break at Kirra Point on the Gold Coast was once home to some of the world’s best waves, causing locals and tourists alike to flock to the area in search of the perfect ride.

These days Kirra’s fabled wave is a part of local folklore, as problems caused by an overload of sand and the shortening of Kirra Groyne have meant the current generation of surfers can only dream of catching the iconic wave.

Regular Coolangatta surfer Will Nielson, 22 said he wished he had been part of the generation that had experienced the surfing magic that the Kirra surf break once offered.

“My dad was a part of the generation who grew up surfing Kirra in all its former glory,” Mr Nielson said.

“He has surfed all over the world and still says it is up there as one of the best waves he has ever surfed,” he said.

“I never got the opportunity to surf it when it was breaking really well.”

The Kirra Groyne, which is a man- made rock wall designed to control sand erosion at Coolangatta beach, was reduced in size by 30 metres in 1996 and has been a factor in the diminishing quality of Kirra’s surf.

But the reduction of the Kirra Groyne is not the only factor that has altered the point break’s previous wave perfection.

Another key factor is the Tweed River Sand Bypass Project (TRESBP), which has been affecting surfing in the area since late 1999.

The TRESBP, which is jointly funded by the New South Wales and Queensland governments, was created to pump sand from south of the Tweed River to the north, to re-establish the natural northward movement of sand on the southern Gold Coast beaches.

The project has benefitted tourism and recreation in the area by reducing the amount of sand that accumulates at the entrance of the Tweed River, improving commercial and recreational boating access to the river.

But the knock-on effect of this project has been the loss of surfing wave quality at Kirra Point, thanks to excessive sand build-up in the area.

Under normal circumstances, natural movement of sand occurs through such things as tides and storm activity.

However, due to the volume of sand being placed in the bay, the natural movement of sand northward has been unable to keep up with the speed at which the sand is placed in the bay.

There are some benefits though – the sand build-up has created a positive effect on the waves just south of the Kirra surf break.

The TRESBP sand pumping has lead to the artificial creation of a great wave known to locals as the “Superbank”, which runs from Snapper Rocks through to Coolangatta Beach.

As a result of this Superbank, it is possible to ride a wave from Snapper Rocks all the way through to Coolangatta Beach when the surfing conditions are ideal.

“Snapper Rocks and what the locals call the Superbank is great to surf, but it would have been better to surf Kirra in its prime,” Mr Nielson said.

Surfer Shane Swadling, 53, was part of the generation that did experience the “old Kirra”.

He now surfs the man-made Superbank and said although he believed the old Kirra was great, he found that the Superbank offered a more consistent wave.

Mr Swadling said he had surfed waves of equal quality at both surf breaks, but the waves created by the Superbank lasted a lot longer.

“I’ve had great waves on both breaks, although I think the best waves I’ve had have been when the Superbank is on, although both breaks have provided amazing waves and I have been out there to experience it,” Mr Swadling said.

Despite the appeals of the Superbank, community support to bring back the iconic Kirra wave continues to be strong, with the support leading to the creation of the Kirra Point Committee and the Bring Back Kirra campaign in 2007.

High-profile professional surfers Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning are also among those who have publicly labelled Kirra as one of the most ‘perfect waves’ in the world in the days before the groyne was reduced and the TRESBP sand pumping began.

Kelly Slater was widely reported to have named Kirra as one of his favourite waves on the planet, while Kirra World Champion Mick Fanning has shown public support for the Bring Back Kirra campaign.

According to Surfing Life magazine, a 2011 Gold Coast City Council report found  the surf industry was worth an estimated $3.3 billion to the local economy, providing more than 21,000 full-time jobs.

With all this in mind, the Kirra Point Committee has been lobbying the Gold Coast City Council to extend the Kirra Groyne and to control the amount of sand being pumped.

Kirra Point Committee chairman Wayne Deane said he believed the return of Kirra was essential for the Gold Coast as the surf break was widely regarded as one of the best tube rides on offer in the surfing world.

“When Kirra was working the waves on offer were amazing, the wave peeled perfectly,” Mr Deane said.

“With the return of the Kirra Groyne and a controlled amount of sand pumped into Coolangatta, we would see these amazing waves return,” he said.

According to the Kirra Point Committee, an increase in the level of sand in the bay by an average of three to four metres has resulted in a significant widening of the beaches, the loss of surf quality, an increase in rips and the loss of Kirra Reef.

Mr Deane said the Bring Back Kirra campaign aimed to restore not only the Kirra Point surf break, but also to create greater exposure of Kirra Reef by deepening the bay.

Mr Deane said a government community consultation process conducted earlier in 2012 had found that 80 per cent of people wanted the groyne restored to enable the great surfing conditions to return.

Despite the financial benefits of the surfing industry to the Gold Coast, experts say returning Kirra to its former glory is not the only priority for the Coolangatta area.

Griffith University Coastal Management Manager Darrell Strauss said while he believed getting Kirra back to its former state would be good for the surfing amenity of the area, there were many variables involved that would make such a task difficult to achieve.

Dr Strauss said the sand pumping in the Coolangatta area was a complex system that was highly variable and therefore difficult to manage.

“A reduction in the supply of sand to Kirra from Coolangatta during high periods of wave energy would lead to a greater transport of sand away from the area than which arrives,” he said.

Dr Strauss said the TRESBP was favoured by local governments because it had provided the area with enough sand build up to protect local infrastructure on the beach as well as to maintain a deeper entrance to the Tweed River for increased recreational and commercial boating.

“The sand bypassing system has been developed for the two goals of restoring the natural northward movement of sand to the southern Gold Coast beaches and maintaining a navigable river entrance,” he said.

Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate promised to restore the Kirra Groyne as part of his April 2012 election campaign, but back-flipped on the issue in September, after Mick Fanning spoke out against the mayor’s plans to build a Gold Coast cruise ship terminal.

During the election campaign Mr Tate had promised to get funding from the state government to rebuild the 30 metres of Kirra’s groyne needed to help restore the famed break, and named the project one of his three pet projects for the Gold Coast region.

The Gold Coast Bulletin reported Cr Tate as saying: “Mick Fanning can do it. Let’s see if he can get that project up. Let him lobby. I will leave it to him. He’s putting his hand up saying things, he can get the groyne going for surfers.”

While the mayor’s comments disappointed campaigners, there have been a number of more positive developments since then.

In early October, Coolangatta councillor Chris Robbins proposed to Council the possibility of seeking private sponsorship as a way to fund the rebuilding of the famous surf break.

“There’s Metricon Stadium, we could have the Billabong Groyne or the Rip Curl Groyne,” Cr Robbins told the Gold Coast Bulletin.

Then, on October 11, the Gold Coast City Council announced in a media statement that they would seek state government funding assistance to carry out the work to reinstate the Kirra Groyne, estimated to cost a total of $777,000.

In the statement, engineering services chair Councillor Daphne McDonald said the council would apply for a grant under the Local Government Grants and Subsidies Program, which could cover up to 40 per cent of the cost of the rebuild.

“With state government support of $311,000, it is proposed that Council’s portion of the funding, $466,000, would be provided in the 2013-2014 Budget from the Major Coastal Works funding,” Cr McDonald told the Tweed Shire’s Daily News in October.

Until the proposal is approved, local surfers continue to wait to see if the Kirra Point break is restored to its former glory or if the perfect Kirra wave remains a pipe dream.

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