The Lure of Grand Isle and Demise of Fourchon
In recent years, things have changed for Louisiana surfers. The area once full of freedom and movement has turned into restriction and lots and lots of rocks. Following Hurricane Katrina, the area surrounding Port Fourchon and Grand Isle, inundated with water with even the slightest of abnormal tidal changes, was one of the many projects handed to the Army Corps of Engineers to “save”. In this post, we’ll dissect and explain many of the things that went wrong when the effort by the Army Corps began, as well as address the question, “What the heck is going on with Port Fourchon?”
During the expansive effort to heighten and strengthen levees in the years following Katrina, Grand Isle wasn’t neglected. The Army Corps moved in, producing large earthen levees as storm surge protection, large rock wave breakers covering over half of the island, and adding rocks where sand once filled in at one of the main surf breaks at the beginning of the island. This all sounded great to locals who also have their houses a story off the ground. If you watch years-old surfing videos of “Grand Isle Surfers”, you’ll see a sandy beach and near hollow breaks that bear no resemblance to something you’d think to be Louisiana surfing. That’s just it – it was too good to be true. This video published in 2012 bears no resemblance to the same “beach” today. The sandy beach is now a rock wall with earthen levee as its ‘hero cape.’ Is it effective in stopping storm surge from taking out the camps and marina? Absolutely. But for some time it destroyed the break as the silty bottom was settling sand bars in new places. The break began shifting further towards the end of the island to escape the wash from the new rocks and ended up at a point where the rocks stop and sand starts again. This sand, however, is a very short stretch of beach curling into a rock jetty. The break is back in working order after a few years of repairing itself.
Moving down the island there was a solution to the wide open beaches and dunes by creating rock wave breakers and adding smaller levees to supplement them. These wave breakers have in turn created new breaks because of sand being sucked out from areas between them. Another issue that locals endured was the fact that the beaches were now cut off from cars driving up and down the beaches, but were welcoming to off road, souped-up golf carts. You’ll see a lot of those if you end up surfing between the rock breaks that start about mid-way down the island at a spot called Artie’s. Artie’s is a sports bar, right past the only chain restaurant on the island, Subway. As you pass Artie’s you see more and more levee, golf cart crossovers, and will eventually get to Grand Isle State Park. The rock breakers end valiantly in front of the scenic pier and it doesn’t seem like much has changed there for years.
All of these breaks change with the conditions. Some are better when bigger swells roll in while others hold smaller swells longer than others. One of the most important differences is between Grand Isle and Fourchon; the bottom contours. When recent studies of the sea bed in both areas reached the surf community, it brought a lot of clarity. You’ll notice when swells roll in that Surfline and other forecasting sites will read Fourchon a full foot or more larger than it is. Why is that? Well, out from that study of the sea bed came answers. Fourchon slopes more drastically towards shore than Grand Isle. Grand Isle is more gradual and therefore holds on to the energy of the swell way longer before it dissipates. Thus the differences in wave heights.
Before we go into Fourchon more, I want to explain something to you. In most places, the local surfers are actually local. In parts of Louisiana this isn’t the case. Most people drive from Houma, New Orleans, the Northshore, and Baton Rouge, and essentially have become the local surfers. How local is local? Does it even matter? We like to think it doesn’t in our case. If you’re there enough and have respect for the place like an actual local would — then you are one. Some of us even live in the same parish (most states call them counties) as Grand Isle even though it’s two hours away. Elsewhere we’d probably be considered kooks for talking this way, but hey, it’s what we’ve got!
Back to Fourchon. We described the nuances of bottom contours but the legend of the spot is what actually shapes it’s reputation. Local lore has it that in years past you’d see over forty people in the water. Granted, this was in the hay-day of surfing along the Gulf Coast which started in the 70s and went on into the early 2000s. Numbers slowly decreased as time went on as people aged out, sold their boards, and moved on with their lives. Katrina was a big contributor to the surf community of Louisiana having a drastic drop off. After Katrina, Fourchon was one of those spots that took one of the biggest hits as far as changes go. At one time, like Grand Isle, Fourchon was a public beach with access by beach to the jetty by car. Yes, you could drive on the beach with your car. The sand, or should we say silt, is very compact and rather easily traversed by an automobile. The Army Corps moved in and started to do the same things they did in Grand Isle with rock breakers and rock walls, but in this case decided to sink older barges with the rocks so it didn’t require much effort. They shut down the public beach — although we hear it was more of a decision by the drilling companies in the area than the Corps. The water had become quite treacherous with the new barges, so we feel the move was more for safety than trying to keep the surfers out. In most of these moves, preservation of land was the top consideration in peoples’ eyes. No one considered the surfers because we are the minority, and that’s okay. Land first, people second.
As we said previously, the land was privatized and therefore cut off the public access to the beach that once garnered decades of beach-goers. This however, did not cut off access by boat. Many locals know Fourchon is a popular place to fish, frequently visited and traversed by sea. Thus entered the surfers, who in order to take advantage of that right of passage, ganged up in boats to meet the swells once again. Anchoring in the pass and paddling around the jetty, never stepping foot onto the beach, was how many escaped the inevitable trespassing accusations. Since the beach had been privatized, it was now illegal to step foot on it and in some cases the police were called to enforce this. One story we heard was from one of the Houma surfers. At one point they had anchored, paddled around, and set their bag on the beach and proceeded with surfing between the sunken barges and rock jetties. The authorities came swiftly and told them that they had trespassed and had to leave immediately. This was something that we had been hearing a lot. Even if you had not stepped foot on land the authorities were still trying to kick you out. After all, you’re a surfer in a community ridden with law abiding fishermen and you stick out like a sore thumb. We get it. So in many ways, Fourchon has met it’s demise in recent years with the constant patrolling and inaccessibility. No matter how grand the legend is or how big the swell is it’s always easier to go to Grand Isle.
In conclusion, we want to leave you with some travel and parking tips that might make your surf trip or weekend getaway a little easier. On the road to Grand Isle you’ll travel through a town called Golden Meadow. Most in Louisiana seem to believe that ten miles per hour over the speed limit is pretty darn acceptable, but it isn’t in this town. The speed limit is 50mph. The road goes from a 65 to 50 almost immediately with officers just waiting to write you up for a ticket upwards of $200. Not to mention that they will be looking all over your vehicle for another reason to tack on some more money to your ticket. Make sure everything is in order with your vehicle and don’t speed through Golden Meadow. For the rest of the trip you’ll be greeted by some of the most unique views you will see anywhere in the US. Still, be mindful of speed limits and be prepared for a toll of $3.75 (as of October 2018) to get on the Gateway to the Gulf. After riding along you’ll finally enter the limits of Grand Isle. When you come over the bridge onto the island you’ll notice an empty sand lot to the right that is the public parking for the levee crossover. It’s important that you park in this lot and not in the neighborhoods as you’ll be run off by one of Grand Isle’s finest. If the surf is looking blown out there, there’s always Artie’s, right? Parking at Artie’s itself is acceptable as long as you get a drink or some food to support their business. If you’re not getting anything, be kind and park in the gravel lot across the street. There’s a levee crossover on the side of their building with a nice little walk to the spot in between the rock breakers. If you’re heading to the State Park, make sure you go to the pier where the better break is and be prepared for a walk. Most importantly, have fun with it all. Like we said, it’s one of the most unique experiences you could have in this part of the country.