Breakwaters reduce the intensity of wave action in inshore waters and thereby reduce coastal erosion or provide safe harbourage. Breakwaters may also be small structures designed to protect a gently sloping beach and placed one to three hundred feet offshore in relatively shallow water.
An anchorage is only safe if ships anchored there are protected from the force of high winds and powerful waves by some large underwater barrier which they can shelter behind. Natural harbours are formed by such barriers as headlands or reefs. Artificial harbours can be created with the help of breakwaters. Mobile harbours, such as the D-Day Mulberry harbours, were floated into position and acted as breakwaters. Some natural harbours, such as those in Plymouth Sound, Portland Harbour and Cherbourg, have been enhanced or extended by breakwaters made of rock.
The dissipation of energy and relative calm water created in the lee of the breakwaters often encourage accretion of sediment (as per the design of the breakwater scheme). However, this can lead to excessive salient build up, resulting in tombolo formation, which reduces longshore drift shoreward of the breakwaters. This trapping of sediment can cause adverse effects down-drift of the breakwaters, leading to beach sediment starvation and increased erosion. This may then lead to further engineering protection being needed down-drift of the breakwater development.
Breakwaters are subject to damage, and overtopping in severe storms events.
Breakwaters can be constructed with one end linked to the shore, otherwise they are positioned offshore from as little as 100 m up to 300–600 m from the original shoreline. There are two main types of offshore breakwater, single and multiple; single as the name suggests means the breakwater consists of one unbroken barrier, which multiple breakwaters (in numbers anywhere from 2-20) are positioned with gaps in between (50–300 m). Length of gap is largely governed by the interacting wavelengths. Breakwaters may be either fixed or floating, and impermeable or permeable to allow sediment transfer shoreward of the structures, the choice depending on tidal range and water depth. They usually consist of large pieces of rock (granite) weighing up to 16 tonnes each, or rubble-mound. Their design is influenced by the angle of wave approach and other environmental parameters. Breakwater construction can be either parallel or perpendicular to the coast, depending on the shoreline requirements.
Salient formations as a result of breakwaters are a function of the distance the breakwaters are built from the coast, the direction at which the wave hits the breakwater, and the angle at the which breakwater is built (relative to the coast). Of these three, the angle at which the breakwater is built is most important in the engineered formation of salients. The angle at which the breakwater is built determines the new direction of the waves (after they’ve hit the breakwaters), and in turn the direction that sediment will flow and accumulate over time.
A breakwater structure is designed to absorb the energy of the waves that hit it, either by using mass (e.g., with caissons), or by using a revetment slope (e.g., with rock or concrete armour units).
In coastal engineering, a revetment is a land backed structure whilst a breakwater is a sea backed structure (i.e., water on both sides).
Caisson breakwaters typically have vertical sides and are usually erected where it is desirable to berth one or more vessels on the inner face of the breakwater. They use the mass of the caisson and the fill within it to resist the overturning forces applied by waves hitting them. They are relatively expensive to construct in shallow water, but in deeper sites they can offer a significant saving over revetment breakwaters.
Rubble mound breakwaters use structural voids to dissipate the wave energy. Rock or concrete armour units on the outside of the structure absorb most of the energy, while gravels or sands prevent the wave energy's continuing through the breakwater core. The slopes of the revetment are typically between 1:1 and 1:2, depending upon the materials used. In shallow water, revetment breakwaters are usually relatively inexpensive. As water depth increases, the material requirements, and hence costs, increase significantly.
As design wave heights get larger, rubble mound breakwaters require larger armour units to resist the wave forces. These armour units can be formed of concrete or natural rock. The largest standard grading for rock armour units given in CIRIA 683 'The Rock Manual' is 10-15 tonnes. Larger gradings may be available, but the ultimate size is limited in practice by the natural fracture properties of locally available rock. Shaped concrete armour units (such as Dolos, Xbloc, Tetrapod, etc.) can be provided in up to approximately 40 tonnes (e.g. Jorf Lasfar, Morocco), before they become vulnerable to damage under self weight, wave impact and thermal cracking of the complex shapes during casting/curing. Where the very largest armour units are required for the most exposed locations in very deep water, armour units are most often formed of concrete cubes, which have been used up to ~195 tonnes for the tip of the breakwater at Punta Langosteira near La Coruña, Spain.
Preliminary design of armour unit size is often undertaken using the Hudson Equation, Van der Meer and more recently Van Gent et al.; these methods are all described in CIRIA 683 'The Rock Manual', the United States Army Corps of Engineers Shore Protection Manual (available for free online) and elsewhere. For detailed design the use of scaled physical hydraulic models remains the most reliable method for predicting real-life behavior of these complex structures.UK - Sea Palling, Norfolk; Elmer, West Sussex
United States - Santa Monica, California; Winthrop Beach, Massachusetts; Colonial Beach, Virginia
Japan - Central Breakwater in Tokyo; Ishizaki (檜山石崎郵便局), Hokkaido Prefecture; Kaike, Tottori Prefecture