I WAS on the barge when the surf reef first slithered into the water off Boscombe on a sunny day in August 2008.

It was a hopeful moment after years of delay. Planes flew overhead in clear skies – with unfortunate PR timing it was also the opening day of the first air festival.

The crew worked to the sound of ringing metal, as the shipworks banged together in the breeze. Three years on, the reef is closed, £1.6m over budget and it’s easy to think of that sound as a funeral bell.

Boscombe seafront had been marked for development at Honeycombe Chine since 1965.

The artificial reef, first proposed back in 1993 by David Weight from Wessex Surf Club, seemed to offer the answer.

It would be Europe’s first ever and also the leisure element the council had to deliver if it was going to sell off a car park to developers.

A feasibility study co-written in 2000 by staff from New Zealand-based ASR considered two 100-metre-long reefs, forming a V-shape around the end of the pier.

The report made bold claims – a reef would increase wave height 2 to 2.2 times and increase the number of surfable days two to three times over.

Ten years later, the man tasked with analysing the reef’s performance as it was built, Dr Mark Davidson from Plymouth University, said: “I don’t think those figures are realistic.”

The council took up the reef idea enthusiastically.

An undated council brochure from that period says: “This would become a spectator’s paradise with expert surfers, as well as beginners, all year round.”

After years of delays, mainly about housing, the scheme including the reef was given the go-ahead in 2006.

ASR was already earning money. It received £167,496 for designs and reports before the work contract was signed in May 2008.

There were delays for visas and work permits but ASR eventually arrived and started laying the sand bags.

But as the summer came to an end, so did the good news.

The reef was only 60 per cent complete when winter stopped work. High winds were blamed for the delays.

The cost went up from £1.36m to £2.68m. The council had claimed the extra money had secured a guarantee the reef would be finished by the end of 2008.

The guarantee was weather-dependent, so when ASR were not able to complete the reef, the council could not claim back a penny.

In ended up paying £100,000 towards ASR’s bill of £300,000 for moving its equipment to India and back.

Almost £40,000 went on the six-month rent of four flats for ASR staff over the winter, even though the staff were out of the country – it was said to be ‘cost effective’.

And £70,000 went on flattening the pile of sand left over from the work.

Other details emerged to anger taxpayers.

Four council staff had free surfing lessons to help promote the reef.

Three also had an 18-day visit to New Zealand and Australia at a cost of £8,429, where they saw ASR’s two underperforming and overbudget reefs in New Zealand.

Council executive director Tony Williams said afterwards: “If the team had not visited the reefs they would not have gathered such vital and in-depth knowledge.”

It is easy to forget that the reef was only one part of a major redevelopment.

The Overstrand building was rebuilt with shops and surf facilities and the revamped pier was named pier of the year.

There were lots of private spin-offs. The Reef, luxury new apartments on Boscombe Spa Road, opened in 2007, with flats costing up to £925,000 each.

New eateries include Reefside, Reef Encounter, and Urban Reef.

But the council’s own costs kept going up.

The £9.66m received for sales of Barratt’s Honeycombe Chine flats should have paid for the project and left £300,000 over.

But the reef costs rose again to £3.03m and the whole project’s costs rose by a third to £11.07m.

There were a mix of problems with the reef, and the onshore work, partly caused by the council’s “thin” management.

Head of leisure services Roger Brown later admitted “relatively little” was known about ASR and staff were stretched.

And last November, it was found that only 13 of the 43 Wayne Hemmingway-designed “surf pods” that are meant to part fund the work are sold.

When the reef opened in November 2009 some people liked it but its shortcomings were obvious.

“It gives a short, dumpy ride. It’s very good for body boarders,” said surfer Joel Crooks.

He correctly predicted: “Most surfers, if it’s not working brilliantly, will stick to the pier.”

That was exactly what Plymouth University’s surfing expert Mark Davidson found when he assessed the reef.

Some of the technical data was good, even if the targets are greatly reduced compared to the early days. On a good day it could produce a steep wave some experienced surfers liked.

But the ride wasn’t long enough or the waves consistent.

It was not producing more surfable waves than the beach and surfers voted for the beach.

Boscombe hosted a surf festival during spring 2010 but the reef was only suitable for body-boarding, not surfing.

Nick Behunin from ASR insisted it did work but said surfing conditions in Boscombe are “very challenging”.

“It doesn’t get a lot of waves due to its location in the English Channel,” he said, echoing a point some had made all along.

A council report in April 2005 said the construction materials had been “proven elsewhere.”

But some of the geo-textile bags have been torn; the reef is now considered potentially dangerous, and was closed at the end of March for more testing.

That was six months after an independent inspection found it had partly deflated and the risk of entrapment was “high”.

ASR has said it is “fully committed” to the success of the reef and is due to return soon to do remedial work.

The council has repeatedly said the contract is performance-based. It agreed to withhold a tenth of the original price – not the final cost.

And, after negotiations secured ASR some of that withheld money for coming back, ASR would only lose £95,000 of the £3.03m total if its remedial work fails.

The council said in 2010 it created £10m-worth of publicity and visitor numbers rose 32 per cent.

Mark Cribb from seafront restaurant Urban Reef said: “The reef continues to play a major part in the regeneration of what is becoming known as Boscombe’s boardwalk.”

The key to celebrating the reef is ‘turn around, look at the shore, and forget about surfing’.

Ignore the short, erratic wave and the row of closure warning signs.

Look at the bright, modern new buildings and flats and the throngs of people on shore. It’s a classy look that the council now wants to emulate around Bournemouth Pier.

Let the reef stay in mind as a marketing concept – so far, that’s the best way it has truly created waves. Surf pod sales slow – see page 17