The waves were big and so were the boulders as lifeguards ordered surfers away from St Clair Beach's access steps during day one of the national surfing championships yesterday.

Surfers were told to paddle as far as the sand beyond the boat ramp at the Esplanade to get out of the water as the tide came in during the afternoon session in Dunedin.

Surf pounded the beach's boulder bank and Esplanade sea wall, the result being choppy swirling water surfers found difficult to negotiate.

One surfer who tried but failed to get out of the water by using the Esplanade steps said the water felt "wobbly" and "dangerous". He eventually gave up and paddled to the boat ramp.

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Championship director Ben Kennings, of Surfing New Zealand, said the issue was being closely watched and managed by event organisers.

The steps from the middle of the Esplanade, where the waves were strongest, were closed as the tide rose.

Sand loss during winter storms made access to the water difficult this summer, with fresh sand loss last week exacerbating the problem.

A $7 million sea wall was built in 2004 but had suffered frequent damage since.