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Surf zone currents and influence on surfability

Surfing headlands are shallow and exposed coastal features that provide a specific form of breaking wave allowing a board-rider to ride on the unbroken wave face. The seabed shape and refraction of the waves in relation to depth contours provide the greatest influence on the quality of the surf break. The large scale and orientation of the Raglan headland allows only the low frequency swells to refract around the headland to create seven different surfing breaks. Each represents a compartmentalization of the shoreline along the headland. This creates variability in wave and current characteristics depending on the orientation and bathymetry at different locations. This provides not only potential access points through the surf-zone (ie: smaller currents), but greater surfability in a range of conditions that is not possible on small scale headlands. Headlands with surfing waves can be classified as mis-aligned sections of the coast, where the higher oblique angle of the breaking surf generates strong wave-driven currents. These currents are far greater than that found on coastlines in equilibrium with the dominant swell direction, where comparatively insignificant longshore drift is found. The strength and direction of wave-driven currents in the surf zone can influence the surfability of a break. At a surfing headland strong currents flowing downdrift along the shoreline make it difficult for a paddling surfer to get to the "take-off" location of the break, or maintain position in the line-up. In comparison currents flowing updrift along headlands makes getting "out the back" relatively easy, although surfers can be taken out to sea past the "take-off" point by a fast flowing current. Field experiments at Raglan, on the west coast of New Zealand have been conducted to measure current speed and direction during a large swell event. Observations of surfers attempting to paddle through the breaking-wave zone, confirms the strength of the wave-driven currents with surfers being swept rapidly down the headland. Results from the experiments at Raglan, have shown strong currents in the inshore breaking wave zone with burst-averaged velocities attaining 0.8 ms-1, and maximum bed orbital velocities of up to 2.0 ms-1. Interestingly, further offshore the currents have been found to flow in a re-circulating gyre back up the headland. Comparisons are made from observations of waves and currents found at other surfing headlands around the world. The effect that strong currents may have on the surfability of artificial surfing reefs needs to be considered in the design process, if the surfing amenity is to be maximised for large surf conditions.
Conference Contribution
Type of thesis
Philips, D., Mead, S., Black, K. & Healy, T. (2003). Surf Zone Currents and Influence on Surfability. In Proceedings of the 3rd International Surfing Reef Symposium, Raglan, New Zealand, June 22-25, 2003 (pp.60-82). Raglan, New Zealand: ASR Ltd.
(c) ASR Ltd 2003. Used with permssion.