We teamed up with Surfline’s Matt Pruett for an intimate interview and a look behind the scenes of the First Peak Project. Thank you Surfline for the great coverage, and Matt for the thoughtful and inspirational words.
One engineer’s crusade for restoring Sebastian Inlet’s First Peak wedge to its former glory
By Matt Pruett
Fact: The most important break on the East Coast doesn’t even break. Not anymore. Not like it used to.
First Peak, Sebastian Inlet, Florida, is the only surf spot on the Eastern Seaboard, if not all of Mainland America, that holds the distinction of nurturing two homegrown World Champions, eight World Tour competitors and dozens of Hall of Fame members, freesurfing savants, action models and industry titans.
For almost 40 years the First Peak wedge was, quite simply, a surfing performance enhancer. However, immediately following the 2003 north jetty rebuild, the wave became, as longtime local photographer and ESM co-founder Dick Meseroll famously said, “a mere shadow of its former self.” And it’s remained that way ever since.
But it doesn’t have to.
Longtime local surfer Justin Enjo had been studying coastal engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) when the cranes came in. Heartbroken from the loss of his favorite spot, Enjo focused his degree on understanding the wave mechanics behind the wedge. Later, he would lend his knowledge and credentials to the realm of artificial surfing wave technology — and even after relocating to Southern California, Enjo wore his First Peak memories on his sleeve… then drafted ‘em on a website. He started the First Peak Foundation in 2009 to underscore the gravity of the loss, most of it falling on deaf ears. But we’re living in a new age now. Wave pool mania has made connecting with the greatest minds in coastal ecology, coastal engineering, surf science, surfonomics and the surf industry a much easier sell. And in terms of generating a realistic solution, alas, it appears one has arisen — an inexpensive, bio-mechanical, eco-sensitive, adaptable one at that.
Surfline caught up with Enjo while he was between meetings with local ecologists, Sebastian engineers and First Peak royalty Bill Hartley and Matt Kechele.
Surfline: Did your foray into artificial wave systems begin as soon as the wedge ended?
Justin Enjo: A little after, but I’ve always been keen on making waves. From 2005 to 2007, I got my start working as a drafter and engineer on a surf pool in Orlando. After that project’s demise, I went back to graduate school at FIT, where some of the professors and students were working on an artificial surfing reef for Cocoa Beach. But I never really warmed up to the idea of sandbag reefs, and the whole time I was lobbying, “Why are we trying to build this $6 million reef; why not just fix First Peak?” So I started spending my time studying Sebastian Inlet and understanding what exactly happened.
So what did happen?
First and foremost, when it comes to anything inlet-related you have to understand sand. The idea of most inlets in Florida is you want to get sand from the north side to the south side without it going into the navigation channel. This is why many are either annually dredged, or have pump houses. Just to be clear, Sebastian Inlet is managed by a separate entity called the Sebastian Inlet Tax District, and they along with their consultants make all the decisions. Even though the Army Corps of Engineers [ACOE] doesn’t have any direct involvement in the management of Sebastian Inlet, they do have a vested interest in improving the sustainability of maintenance dredging. One theory that came about from my research is that by growing more worm reef and restoring the wedge, you could enhance what the ACOE calls “Natural Sand Bypassing,” so they expressed interest in furthering this research at Sebastian.
“Worm reef” seems to be a recurring theme in relation to the wedge phenomenon. What is that exactly?
A tube worm that likes to be in agitated conditions. It pulls all its sediment out of the water, but needs mobility, so it loves wave energy and sand activation. When it comes to restoring the First Peak wedge, some people talk about dredging, but that’s a temporary solution that costs tons of money. Then other people say the shape of the jetty changed, but it actually stayed right in place. Before 2001, there used to be this rock core, and with the old pilings and worm reef, the combination of the three made a decent wall to reflect wave energy. During the “renovation,” a new jetty was built on top of the existing. Now there’s an outer row of pilings that chews up all the wave energy and destroys the reflection. If you walk out on the jetty when there’s waves, it’s really easy to see. The most practical solution would be to restore this reflective wall. The worm reef has been trying to do it for years, but it needs a little bit of help to close the gaps between the outer pilings.
So the architecture of the jetty will remain the same?
We wouldn’t be doing anything to mess up the sand or change the jetty in any way. There’s one very important point I need to make: the concept of making a living wall at the base of the pilings for the worm reef to grow on is very subtle. The living wall only needs to be three or four-feet high. It would be a foot or so underwater at high tide, and it wouldn’t go down to the bottom. After it’s built and the worm reef and the barnacles grow on it, you wouldn’t even be able to see it. It’s an extremely subtle solution.
So if the engineers are all about it, and the ecologists aren’t tripping, why hasn’t anything happened?
I blame all the man-made wave failures. After all the artificial reef disasters, no one wanted to hear about surfing for a long time. Surfers were over it. Even I was over it. I spent five years dredging and working on inlet maintenance management, now I’m one of the lead project engineers for Surf Loch, the latest brainchild of pioneer Tom Lochtefeld. So yes, I’m back in the surf pool industry again. But times are different. With Slater launching his pool, and engineers making perfect barrels, the wave technology code has been cracked. But I still think restoring the Sebastian Inlet wedge is the most important thing we can do in regards to making manmade waves in the ocean. And the solution is totally eco-friendly. We have the evidence behind it. We just need the public support.
Is that where FirstPeak.org comes in?
The First Peak Foundation is a federally recognized (c)(3) non-profit. The website was built on professional experience and personal stories. But to take that next step and replicate the jetty in a wave pool basin costs money. If we were to bring back First Peak, then we’d have to monitor it year-round to make sure there’s biological growth restoring the surfing wave and improving sand bypassing. So I will propose to the State of Florida “lifetime monitoring,” and any money that we raise through the First Peak Foundation becomes a rollover fund to help maintain First Peak. And it’s all relatively low-budget. I’ve been talking to different companies in the restoration industry, and there’s all this technology now to restore the 18-inch pilings. I visited a composite company in West Palm Beach that builds carbon-fiber wraps to fix pilings, which actually improves biological recruitment — the barnacles and worm reef like attaching to it better than concrete. These guys looked at my plan and said it was so cheap, they would actually donate all the materials.
I may know a surfer or two who can swing a hammer.
Well, while the construction cost is insignificant, it’s never going to go anywhere unless the surfing community supports it. I started filming a small GoFundMe documentary, but I can no longer fund this by myself. I need people to rally behind me. There’s almost 10 million surfers in America and if only 1% of them donated a dollar each, we would have enough money to do a documentary, do the dedicated models, and provide a real solution to bring back the wedge. Restoring First Peak is all about public demand. What we really need is overwhelming public will.
After covering all those major expenses — studies, models, permits, etc. — how confident are you surfers will see results?
People will see progress. I know that many wave-building ideas have failed, but the restoration of First Peak is a completely different animal. It’s so much more tangible, practical, low-impact and inexpensive than building an artificial reef out of giant plastic bags. All around the world you hear about reefs dying, and all these great initiatives to protect the coast, but there’s often this man/nature symbiosis that’s missing. At the end of the day, Sebastian Inlet is man-made, and when you go there, there’s this amazing, healthy ecological response. It’s just begging for us to study it.
Especially since novelty waves and mutant wedges have never been more chic.
Yes. That little wave bouncing off the jetty to consistently create that throwing, throttling barrel — it’s a technical marvel, a true natural freak of wave mechanics! With the evolution of surf pools, everyone is keen to better understand the importance of wave quality. I’m excited to keep charging in the realm of making the best man-made wave ever [in a surf pool], but I don’t want to forget about the ocean waves that inspired us to get to this point, like First Peak.