Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Surf study tracks top breaks

Government funded research to establish and protect surfing spots of national significance.
Kiwi scientists are using Rip Curl's SearchGPS watches to model seven major NZ surf breaks.
Kiwi scientists are using Rip Curl's SearchGPS watches to model seven major NZ surf breaks.

A gadget only a little more high-tech than your average waterproof watch will play a key role in a study assessing New Zealand's best surf breaks.

In a three-year-long, Government-funded project, researchers from Raglan firm eCoast Marine Consulting and Research have been gathering baseline data on seven top surf breaks in the country.

They include Piha Beach near Auckland, Manu Bay at Raglan, "The Bar" at Whangamata, "Pines" at Gisborne's Wainui Beach, Lyall Bay in Wellington, Aramoana, and Whareakeake, also known as Murdering Bay, near Dunedin.

The study hopes to provide a detailed description of how the surf breaks work and support Government policy backing protection for surf breaks "of national significance".

The firm's managing director, Dr Shaw Mead, said the research team will use a range of technology and methods to collect wind, wave and topographical information, including camera footage and bathymetric (underwater topography) measurements.

These efforts have been boosted by surf company Rip Curl providing 21 of its SearchGPS watches, which are worn by surfers at each of the seven sites.

Top NZ surfer Maz Quinn at Piha. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Top NZ surfer Maz Quinn at Piha. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Dr Mead said the GPS-fitted watches, which transmit the data they collect to the Cloud, will capture much of the information researchers needed for analysis.

"Rip Curl are providing us with actual raw data, so we will know the speed and length of every wave, and a whole lot more information," he said.

The watches, which record surfing time when the wearer travels faster than 10km/h, also measure longest ride times and top speeds.

Because the data could be overlaid on satellite images, showing the speeds and movements of a surfer around a break, the researchers can also gain insights into paddle routes and areas of the beach where the waves are not breaking.

Dr Mead said the study, thought to be the first of its kind in the world, was much more scientific than people might assume.

"We are not just going out there to have a surfing jaunt - it's really about investigating what it is about each break that makes it nationally significant," he said.

"We want to know the specific parameters, including peel angle, bathymetry and what shape it is, breaking intensity and how often the breaks are working."

There are around 20 surf breaks featured in the 2010 New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement, but there is little or no baseline quantitative information on which to base any management decisions.

Yet many of the breaks are regularly rated among the world's best, including Manu Bay, which featured in the 1966 cult surf film The Endless Summer and the Whangamata Bar, home of Kiwi world champion Ella Williams.

Other surf breaks described as being of national significance but not covered in the study include "Peaks" in Northland, "Whale Bay" and "Indicator" at Raglan, "Waiwhakaiho" and "Stent Road" in Taranaki, Makorori Point and "The Island" in Gisborne, "Mangamaunu" and "Meatworks" in Kaikoura, and "The Spit", Karitane and Papatowai in Otago.

Dr Mead said the next big phase of the study will be meetings with board-riding clubs and other stakeholders around the country which begin next month.

- NZ Herald

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