QS David Weight has spent 10 years struggling to convince councils that his artificial reefs would make Britain the wave centre of Europe. Now it looks like he's about to get his big break. We paddled out to talk to him …
David Weight is passionate about surfing. The tanned 53-year-old associate at QS Currie & Brown even admits to nipping out of his Poole home-cum-office at lunchtime when there's a good swell. "I'll take about an hour-and-a-half … but I do make up the time in the evening."

Wearing a sea-green T-shirt emblazoned with a giant Kangaroo Poo logo, baggy white cargo shorts, sports sandals and sunglasses, he certainly dresses the part. Weight is no "hodad" (surfer-speak for beginner): his accolades include a runner-up spot at the British Surfing Championships "in his younger days", while his more recent achievements include riding away with the British veteran's title on more than one occasion.

The 6' 4" QS's enthusiasm for surfing has set him on a one-man crusade to establish a series of artificial reefs around the British coastline. His aim is to create some of the best surfing waves anywhere in the world. Weight says the submerged reefs will also "aid coastal protection" by mitigating the power of the waves, "and provide an ideal environment for marine life".

It is a crusade that has pitched him against reluctant local councillors, nimby residents and sceptical coastal engineers. But, after a 10-year struggle, it looks as if Weight's perseverance is finally going to pay off: three artificial reefs are under consideration at Bournemouth in Dorset, Newquay in Cornwall and Borth in north-west Wales.

Weight's involvement with artificial reefs came about by accident. One Sunday morning in 1993, he was watching Countryfile on the television (it was a bad surf day) and the problem of disposing of used car tyres came up. "I wrote to the programme with a proposal for using them to create a submerged reef," he says.

His idea was to use hundreds of the tyres, bound together on the seabed a few hundred metres from the shore. Weight hoped the barrier would have the same effects on the sea as natural reefs, which create surfable waves by forcing them to form away from the shore and roll in as fast, steep "breaks". And, by forcing the waves to release much of their energy as breakers, it would lessen the rate of coastal erosion.

Although he received no response to the letter, Weight was convinced of the merit of his rubber reef idea. So, he took his proposal to his council in Bournemouth.

The Boscombe area of Bournemouth is ideal for a surfing reef because it has a low tidal range, so the depth of water over the reef remains relatively constant. And of course the proposed site of the reef was conveniently on Weight's doorstep. The council gave the idea short shrift; the surfing QS was unable to provide its sceptical coastal engineers with any evidence to substantiate his claims about surfing or sea defence. The council was also concerned about the possible environmental threat posed by the tyres to the area's marine life.

"It was clear that no council was prepared to fund substantial research," he says.

Weight therefore set about gathering the evidence himself. He started talking to specialist coastal engineers. However, nobody at the British engineers Weight spoke to was a keen surfer, so it was a struggle to convince them to research the concept. "People think we have the leading consultants in the world, but all they said was: 'If it was any good as an idea, why aren't people doing it?' In the end I lost patience with them," he says. The rubber reefs were dead in the water.

People think we have the leading consultants in the world, but all they said was: ‘If it was a good idea, why aren’t people doing it?’

David Weight

Then, in 1995, shortly after Weight had joined Currie & Brown, he struck lucky. He heard from the British Surfing Association that the world's first International Surfing Reef Symposium was being held in Sydney. He persuaded his new employers to purchase all the material presented at the symposium and then set about contacting the people who could help further his cause. "The only way to get this [artificial reef project] going was to work with experts," Weight explains.

Among those contacted by Weight was Professor Kerry Black at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. Black was a brother surfer and, as a bonus, happened to be the leading expert on the science of how reefs and waves interact. And he just happened to be studying the seabeds at the world's premier surfing locations in order to find out what form a reef should take to create ideal surfing waves and protect coastlines.

Weight discovered from Black that engineering a "surf break" is an exacting business. The waves must be big and steep enough to be exciting; they must travel fast enough to propel the board and its rider; they must "peel" at the right angle; and they must not break, or "close out", too soon.

Black did more than talk theory – he used his knowledge of surfing to set up an oceanography consultancy, ASR, to design and build artificial reefs. In 1998, the company received its first commission: a reef off Australia's Gold Coast. That project used geotextile bags filled with sand and placed in a V-formation pointing away from the land, about 400 m off the beach. It worked. The reef forced the waves to peel as they rolled over it, and it decreased coastal erosion.

Now that Black had demonstrated the fluid dynamics of artificial reefs, Weight was confident that he could put forward a convincing case for building them in Britain. He started to scout out some UK locations and gained the backing of the British Surfing Association for them. But Weight admits there was "still some scepticism out there".

Once again, Weight submitted a proposal for a reef at Bournemouth, only this time he used ASR as the project's consulting engineers. And to back up his proposal, he carried out a study into the economic benefits that the reef would bring to the area. Surf shops already contribute about £5m to the local economy, but the study showed that with the increased number of surfers attracted by the bigger, better waves, this turnover would rise 20%. Restaurants and bed-and-breakfast accommodation would also benefit. The consortium's proposal was welcomed by the council officers responsible for leisure and tourism, who had no trouble seeing the benefit of attracting more surfers to the town.

The council's coastal engineer, however, still needed convincing that the reef would have a beneficial effect on coastal erosion so he commissioned an independent report into the proposed reef. Fortunately, this backed the proposal, which was to sink the reef at the end of Boscombe pier. The design has the point of the V facing out to sea, and its two 100 m long legs straddling the pier. The end of the pier, which has already been condemned, is due to be demolished, and it is hoped that the reef will help prevent further damage to the remaining structure. Rather than car tyres, enormous bags filled with sand, which will be dredged locally, is the favoured material for the reef's construction.

The go-ahead for the scheme was expected any day. But, just as Weight was about to start waxing his board, a legal action brought by some Bournemouth residents has put the reef's future in doubt. The council was to raise money for the development by selling land to a housebuilder. However, some residents have objected to the developer's scheme, which has thrown the land sale into jeopardy.

Reef hunting

Bournemouth is not the only scheme that Weight is working on; he also has plans for artificial reefs in Newquay, Cornwall and another at Borth on the Welsh coast.

Fistral beach in Newquay is the UK’s surf Mecca. In the summer, hordes of rubber-suited dudes flock to the beach. But in the winter the town is buffeted by strong south-westerly winds, which would blow them off their boards, if there were any of them out there. Weight’s proposal is to improve the town’s year-round income by sinking a reef at the town’s Tolcarne beach. “Tolcarne is sheltered from the south-westerlies and has a regular swell, but the waves are far from ideal,” Weight says. An artificial V-shaped reef with two 200 m long legs would produce surfable waves up to 4 m high and 170 m long. “It is the Wonderbra effect,” he says. “It makes the best of what is there by pushing the surf into a nice shape.”

Weight estimates that the surf economy is worth between £15 and £25m to the town, and that this would increase 20% if the season were extended. Despite this, the scheme’s future is still far from certain: Newquay has a large tidal range, which means the submerged reef would only provide perfect surf for part of the day; on top of this, there is no ready source of local sand to form the reef, which means it will have to be transported from elsewhere on the coast. Currie & Brown, working with ASR, has produced a feasibility study for the project. The Environment Agency and South West Tourism both support the scheme, but it is still awaiting the decision of the key partners in the next couple of months.

The proposal for Borth is less advanced, but so far the design comprises one 45 m leg and one 100 m leg. It’s primary function will be for coastal protection. A feasability study by Currie & Brown has shown that adapting the design to one that would also increase surf would add 20-30% to the scheme’s total bill. With boosted waves in mind, Currie & Brown will be submitting the proposal to Ceredigion council.