If he's not surfing, Dave Skelly is making waves. Literally. A coastal engineer by trade, Skelly is the designer of the experimental Pratte's Reef, an artificial reef at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo. Created to increase surfable waves and prevent erosion, the reef is named after the late Tom Pratte, a coastal preservationist and a founder of the Surfrider Foundation. Chevron paid $300,000 to finance the project under a 1994 agreement with Surfrider and the California Coastal Commission to offset reduction of the surf break by oil-processing construction at the company's El Segundo facility. Skelly and his crew stacked two layers of 3-foot-high sandbags on the ocean floor about 150 feet from the shoreline. Each of the 120 bags weighs roughly 12 tons. Skelly, a dedicated surfer from Encinitas, recently dropped his board long enough to wax poetic about the reef.
Why use sandbags rather than pistachio shells or something expendable?
The environmentally friendly nature of sandbags, [and] we needed a weighty material.
Is there a shortage of surfing waves in Southern California?
All surfers know there's not enough surf breaks here. When I was young, I'd say, "Let's go to Trestles" [a surfing beach near Camp Pendleton], and sometimes there'd be waves. Now you can check for waves with the Webcam. It's crowded.
Does the reef really improve the surfing?
You can't make the Banzai Pipeline in El Segundo, [but] it's definitely an improvement. We've taken a shoreline that is regular and created a wrinkle. It's that irregularity on the bottom that changes the way the wave breaks. After we monitor for a few years, we'll have a better idea of the impact.
So you have more reef work ahead?
We're getting a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy. We have a monitoring program with bathometric surveys, and we'll see how it changes the bottom. People will take pictures or videos of guys surfing and determine how the waves are breaking. It's only going to get better.
Does the future hold a lot of promise for fake reefs?
In the future, using genetic engineering, maybe we could plant a natural coral reef and watch it grow in 10 years or in our lifetime. Who knows?
You really love surfing, don't you?
I've been surfing since fifth grade. Surfing is my church and psychiatrist. But when it's crowded, it's your archenemy and your ex-wife. Life's always been a beach.
Dave Skelly's Favorite Uncrowded, Glamorous Surf Places
Bali * Java * Fiji * Cabo San Lucas
Colas in the Maldives * Jailbreaks in the Maldives