Trail of the unexpected: Surfers set for Dorset

Bournemouth's long-awaited artificial reef has opened for surfers. Ben Mondy tests the water

Looking out over the gunmetal waters of the English Channel, it is not hard to work out where the UK, Europe and indeed the northern hemisphere's first artificial surfing reef is located. About a mile east of Boscombe Pier, near Bournemouth, 10 coloured buoys bob up and down in the swells to mark out an area the size of a football field.

This week, after a gestation period that began a decade ago, the Boscombe surf reef officially opened for business. As a previous editor of Australian surfing magazines, and having spent the last 20 years travelling the globe surfing waves in Hawaii, Tahiti, Indonesia and South Africa, I'd thought I'd seen it all. But when a local council invests more than 3m to produce an artificial reef for surfers, I had to don my wetsuit, crank up my Australian accent and see just what the world's newest surf attraction had to offer.

First though as any hardcore surfer would I caught up with Beverley Dunlop, the Cabinet member for Leisure and Tourism at Bournemouth Borough Council. "To be honest, this whole area was pretty run down, disused and really grubby," said Beverley. "Obviously the seafront was an attraction, especially for surfers, but it wasn't a really pleasant place to be."

Looking out at the view, it was pretty hard to imagine. Painters were putting the final coats of colour on the Wayne Hemingway-designed retro-futuristic beach pods. These constitute a new take on the beach huts of old, and are now selling for about 64,000. Above us gleaming new apartments rose out of the cliffs, while a mix of young surfers, elderly tea drinkers and trendy couples paraded past the surf shops and cafs.

Beverley said it was all about shrewd property dealing. The council had sold a part of a seafront car park to Barratt Homes for 9.66m. That went towards completing the artificial reef, renovating Boscombe Pier and providing new toilets, better roads, landscaping, and a seasonal park-and-ride service.

"It's fantastic," said Thomas Campbell, a 67-year old who was watching the bobbing surfers on the reef. "I've been walking this stretch twice a day for 30 years and the difference in the last few years has been amazing."

However, as pleasant as the seafront now is, I was here to experience the reef and see whether this was a wave worth seeking out.

To do that, I first had to undertake a five-minute, 250-yard paddle, which indicates immediately that this wave is not for beginners. Although lifeguards patrol the reef you most certainly wouldn't want to get in any trouble that far from the safety of land.

As I paddled cautiously up to the group of surfers at the tip of the reef, I found that I was in the minority: the crowd consisted almost entirely of bodyboard surfers. My first engagement with one of these types didn't prove to be a positive experience. My friendly "G'day" and question about the conditions was met with a rudeness that bordered on outright hostility. It seemed I was a victim of the peculiar piece of surfing ridiculousness known as localism. Considering the Boscombe reef was officially less than 24 hours old, this had to be some form of world record.

I had more pressing concerns: catching a wave. "It's pretty tricky, isn't it?" said Guy, a friendlier surfer in his mid-forties. "It comes out of deep water and hits this reef and drains really hard."

Guy was right: while the waves were only 4ft high, they had tremendous power and were breaking on a shallow reef.

When I say reef, I should in fact say "series of large geo-textile bags pumped hard with sand".

"The bags are up to 60 metres long and weigh up to 2,500kg," said a spokesman for ASR, the designer and contractor of the Boscombe surf reef. "Try and imagine piecing together a load of different sized sausages on the seabed floor." This might be a simplification of a huge engineering feat that was first mooted in 1999, gained planning approval in 2005 and whose construction started in August last year, but now I was concerned about not hitting any part of my body on those very hard sausages.

I managed to do that and score some waves, although it was a challenge for a surfer of even my experience. This reef produces high-quality waves but at this stage you have to be pretty good to ride them.

"It's early days," said Brad Petrus, a surfer who works at the Sorted Surf Shop opposite the reef. "We haven't had any big winter storms roll over it yet and it will take time to bed down. Plymouth University is monitoring it and will give a report after six months. Using that feedback ASR might be able to tweak the bags to aid in the wave's quality."

As I nursed a cup of tea while watching the sun set over the white cliffs behind the Boscombe Pier, it was hard not to find positives in this project. In the decade of gestation, the project has been criticised for being late and over budget, and fishermen have objected to its potential effects on fish stocks. But from my perspective, a brave council has created a potentially quality wave and the overriding benefits for the community are plain to see. What's not to love?

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