Nick Carroll: The Breakwall Dilemma

2 Nov 2019 12 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

A surfer shoots by the rocks at the Swansea Channel during a 2013 cyclone swell. Waves on the other side of the breakwall at Blacksmiths beach are disappearing. Photo: Uploaded by CW User Sprucey

A surfer shoots by the rocks at the Swansea Channel during a 2013 cyclone swell. Waves on the other side of the breakwall at Blacksmiths beach are disappearing. Photo: Uploaded by CW User Sprucey

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

Erosion on central NSW beaches poses the question: Are our happy accidents turning bad on us?

Back in the early 1960s, a NSW public works program helped create some of Australia’s best happy-accident waves.

Training walls on rivermouths from Duranbah to the far south coast, designed to give better access for fishing vessels, quickly re-formed beaches and sandflows in ways nobody had imagined. Where once there was crap, now there were wedges, peaks and walls for days.

Whole mini-surf-cultures sprang up around these spots. Great surfers have fed off them for generations.

But what if some of ‘em are turning on us?

Surfers at Blacksmiths Beach south of Newcastle have watched as in the past 18 months, 50 metres of sand has eroded from the foreshore, exposing the remnant dune to future wave action.

Along with the sand, according to local surfer and surf school proprietor Miles Niddrie, 17 separately named spots colonised by surfers since the late 1960s have disappeared, leaving nothing but a flat-lining shoredump. It’s now on the Surfrider Foundation’s endangered list.

Miles and others suspect the culprit may be altered sandflows from the Swansea Channel, due to dredging and changes in the channel’s training walls. Swansea Channel’s main wall frames the south end of Blacksmiths, which not so long ago hosted super fun surf: peaks and running wedges typical of NSW breakwalls. “My kids learned to surf there,” he says. “I learned there.”

Now there’s just a hole. Even the mildly fabled right sandbar outside the wall has deteriorated.

“What’s happening now is there’s more sand (being held) on the inside of the wall, in the channel,“ says Miles. “So there’ll actually be more waves breaking in there than on the open beach.”

It hasn’t attracted nearly as much attention as the erosion at Stockton Beach north of Newcastle — perhaps because unlike at Stockton, there aren’t any buildings currently threatened. But the effect on the surf is the same. Miles worked at Stockton when he started his surf school 15 years ago, but he had to quit the beach four years ago. Now he wonders if he’ll have to do the same at Blacksmiths.

Like Blacksmiths, Stockton’s erosion is thought to be a result of altered sandflows thanks to training walls, this time on the Newcastle harbour mouth.

Stockton locals have made the politicians sit up and take notice. At Blacksmiths, they’ve been able to work with Swansea’s MP Yasmin Catley, who Miles says has “been really going into bat for us.”  As a result, a trial was done last year with some of the dredged sand from inside the channel, which was dumped near the breakwall. For a while the surf was back and they were stoked. But not for long.

Meanwhile, things are changing along this coast. Sea levels will rise, storms will strike from unusual angles. Will there be more Stocktons and Blacksmiths to come? And if so, can we rely on nature to fix it, or is the future one of constant intervention — less accidental this time, and maybe less happy?

Miles for one suspects the latter. “This (erosion) could be a natural cycle. But the area has been modified (in the past) by human hands,” he says.

He would like to see a bypass, pulling sand out of the Swansea Channel on a semi-permanent basis and dropping it on the beach side of the Blacksmiths wall. Like a small version of the Tweed bypass that created the Superbank.

“The Gold Coast is 15 years ahead of us,” he says. “They’ve done the bypass, they’re making artificial reefs, all of it. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel here.”

The state of the beach at Blacksmiths today.

The state of the beach at Blacksmiths today.


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