The Surfrider Series Part 1: Surf Break Cancer

New Jersey. Photo: Stafford/SPL

Surf Break Cancer

Northeast surf breaks face a catastrophic fate post Sandy.

By Jon Coen

Superstorm Sandy did her damndest to erase the Mid-Atlantic from the map. The common refrain from surfers is that no matter how high the water, how big the pile of debris, or how hard your insurance company is shafting you, you still have surfing.

Until you don’t.

New York and New Jersey surfers might face an even greater challenge now. As the aftermath unfolds in the coming years, the most valuable thing Sandy takes may prove to be our surf breaks in the face of beach replenishment.

In the mid-90s, the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a New Jersey beachfill project where they pump sand from the ocean floor and then push it around the beach to counter erosion and protect against storm damage. But it buried the sandbars from Manasquan to Sea Bright, killing most every wave in a 21-mile stretch that had been a thriving surf scene since the 60s. Three surf shops in Long Branch alone went out of business. More recent projects in Harvey Cedars and Surf City diminished epic breaks for years.

“It almost killed my business,” recalls Derf McTighe, owner of Island Style Surf Shop. “Sea Bright didn’t come back for 15 years and that included dozens of surf spots. It was really hard.” Then came Sandy, which destroyed his shop. The building’s owner threw in the towel, and so McTighe will not be reopening the shop he ran for 36 years.

That may have only been a matter of time anyway. In the wake of Sandy’s destruction there’s been a political push for the most ambitious beach replenishment projects ever. Some towns have already been through this, but others that haven’t, like Atlantic Beach, Bay Head, Loch Arbor, Ship Bottom, Beach Haven, Lavallette, and others, could start seeing sand in the next few years. Add in the beaches scheduled for current ‘repair’ projects and we could see the government wipe out every break in one of the most vibrant US surf cultures outside Southern California. Now some of these past projects saved entire towns, so the other alternative might be for humans to surrender cherished barrier islands and coastal towns to Davey Jones. The options make a toll road sound pretty palatable, don’t they?

For some reason, Southern New Jersey breaks are largely unaffected from fill projects. Is it possible for the Army Corps to protect our coastal towns and not bury sacred sandbars? “When they did these projects in the 90s, they said the wave would come back better than ever. And 13 years later, it still wasn’t breaking,” says Richie Lee, the tireless Executive Director for Surfers Environmental Alliance, who’s worked with countless officials to minimize impacts to Monmouth County breaks. “We battled them for 15 years. But in the last five, it’s been a collaborative effort.

Andrew Gesler. Photo: Trevor Moran

“In 2008, Long Branch was the first project to create a feeder beach to help produce offshore sand bars. In Monmouth Beach, the 2011 project was designed to save a surf break with successful results that were documented on Transworld Surfs’ pages. These results were duplicated in 2012 and 2013.”

The key has been working at a hyper-local level, talking with mayors and councils to explain the need for the offshore sandbar that makes waves break, not only for surfing but swimming, fishing and tourism.

Aside from a few tireless SEA and Surfrider folks, most surfers have opted for the bitch-and-moan role rather than engaged activist for nearly two decades. But sand is coming.

“It’s important for surfers and other beach users to understand that if they’d like to see changes to future projects, they must engage their local politicians,” says Donald Cresitello. He’s in the unique position of being a lifelong surfer, but also a coastal engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers. Even if the mayor of a town is scared shitless of the next storm, he or she has the final say as to what the project is.

“I don’t know if they are going to go back to the original design,” ponders McTighe, “For the kids, that would take away a generation of wave riding. I don’t want to see them repeat the same mistakes. It would be nice if they can find the plan that will benefit everyone.”